When I wake up in the middle of the night, my subconscious exposed and naked, I have the same uncontrollable, terrifying fantasy:
Trash, blowing wildly down city streets.
Plastic bag tumbleweeds, rolling paper coffee cups, styrofoam! Styrofoam is the worst: all those little pearls, breaking loose and skittering away like petrolic rats.
In the dead of night, vulnerable, I think of all the places where trash cans are heaped high downtown with garbage, unweighted, waiting for a stiff breeze to come along and loosen their tenuous moors.
And it does!
Wild, uncontrollable winds blow and garbage is unfettered all over Chinatowns from San Francisco to NYC, slipping down gutters and into rivers, bags flattening themselves against chain links fences like escaped lunatics, napkins — the countless zillions of these infernal things I see flying off of outdoor café tables — in a snowy swirl above the ground.
I shake Nat awake, breathlessly rasping, “Trash everywhere, there’s trash everywhere.” This is code for: Hold me and tell me about the future, where there are incinerators on every corner.
The usual things people say when I tell them about my phobia
- Q: Is it just because of the mess factor? A: Yes, but no. It’s more the fact of the mess being made; the chaos of the trash’s potential energy the moment it meets the kinetic wind. Yikes! Jesus, just saying that freaks me out … I’m taking my laptop in the bathroom and shutting the door.
- Q: How are you going to survive moving to a place like New York City with a phobia like this? A: It’s true! I will have to cope somehow. Even Austin has a HUGE problem with LITTER BLOWING UNCHECKED down the streets BECAUSE CAP METRO AND CITY OF AUSTIN ARE PARALYZED MORONS who don’t understand that a festival like ACL or SXSW brings TENS OF THOUSANDS OF EXTRA PEOPLE AND THEIR GARBAGE to the city and that, hmmm, let me see, MAYBE MORE TRASH CANS AND MORE FREQUENT EMPTYING IS, gee, what’s that word? OBVIOUS??*
*I actually had this exact breakdown while walking around downtown Austin during SXSW this year. And the year before it.
What causes phobias?
Neuroscientists are finding that biological factors (such as greater blood flow and metabolism in the right brain hemisphere) may be the culprit. Well, a-ha: I am left-handed/right-brained. But then, phobias may also be influenced by cultural factors. Agoraphobia (leaving the house and going out into public) is huge in the United States and Europe, where in Japan, it’s taijin kyofusho (fear of offending others because of one’s own awkward social behavior or an imagined physical defect). Taijin kyofusho is, basically, the usual brand of Japanese modesty and regard for others, but on PCP.
Ha! You’ll never find that problem in the good ole U.S.A… Yee-haw and fuck you!
So is my flying trash phobia a result of engorged right hemisphere plus a cultural tendency towards letting our garbage tour the planet on its own accord? Probably. More likely, it’s because my childhood was chaotic and no one seemed to be in charge, and so a garbage can overturning and blowing its contents unchecked all over the world is the most direct and extreme symbol of the upsetting drama of my young life.
For my little brother, it’s roaches. Like, a chest-tightening, panicky reaction to roaches. Roaches were a huge daily part of our lives as kids, so it makes sense. To him, they symbolize perhaps his helplessness in the way that garbage symbolizes mine. Also, I make sure to point one out to him every time I see one.
True Things I Did In Service Of My Phobia
- Called a 311 operator and screamed at her about an overturned garbage can on a busy street. I was running late to work and couldn’t stop to put it all back in, myself. She said she’d put in a work order to have it collected, but that it could take 24 hours. “24 HOURS?!” I yelled, “Do you know WHERE this garbage will be in 24 hours? Forming a thick skin on top of Town Lake, that’s where! It’s thunderstorm weather, for godssake! Do you think this garbage will just sit tight and wait for you to red-tape your way through getting it picked up? CHRIST!”
- Offered a homeless dude $20 to clean it up
- Woke Nat up several nights leading up to the wedding to make him swear we wouldn’t let anyone bring paper napkins or plastic cups on the boat where we were having our river cruise party. “And NO cocktail napkins at the reception.” (There ended up being plastic cups on the boat and napkins at the reception: surprisingly few people died as a result.)
How I Cured One Phobia
Until 5 years ago, I had a second phobia: bouncing balls. Anyone bouncing a ball anywhere near a street would send me into a full-on freakout. Even the sight of an unused basketball hoop in someone’s driveway would make my palms itch. “Oh, SURE!” I’d rave to the empty street, “Just put that there! Go ahead and let balls just BOUNCE ALL OVER THE STREET as if no one drives there or anything.”
The phobia seemed to dissipate when I moved to Austin and found a little house across a busy street from a tennis court. I watched as a ball did the worst thing it possibly could: it went over the fence, hit a passing car on the windshield, and both car and ball continued on their ways, unfazed. I did not have a meltdown. I felt oddly calm in the face of it — like, hey, I knew this would happen all along, and I feared it, but now that it’s happened, I’m still here, and nothing has changed. The phobia is still in there, I can feel it, but it’s an inert residue that flares up only slightly when I have anxiety about something else.
But flying garbage? That will never be okay.
I’m not saying I’m going to start saving my pee in jars or anything — I’m going to be brave and follow my heart to NYC. Life is too short to spend it victimized.
On blustery days, maybe I’ll just be in the Met.