Jars of grain, coins, farming implements, cooking utensils. Archeologists say much can be learned about a people group from what it leaves behind.

We learned early on that part of living in an inner city neighborhood meant dealing with the trash that would blow around when the winds were strong enough to tear into weak bags or overflowing garbage cans. The winter snows covered a multitude of sins, but when they melted away, we spent a chunk of time picking up in our yard. Eyeing the refuse, I’d wonder: Who likes Flamin’ Hot Cheetos? If they ate them right before bed, how well did they sleep? And who eats Zotz or Atomic Fireballs anymore? Stories lurked behind these people who had knowingly or unknowingly let their remnants go on our street, and I wanted to know more.

Although we had our curious moments, we were mostly annoyed by the litter. But those of us with eyes closer to the ground were the most perturbed. The girls noticed the garbage first and expressed their irritation when they were required to pick it up. Lala barked at wayward wrappers, and Veronica’s dog, Frog—of sweet temperament toward all living creatures—came undone when floating plastic bags assaulted her on her walks.

A north Minneapolis Facebook page sometimes devoted whole threads to trash. And people asked: Why all the discarded mattresses? Someone posted a photo of a stack of them—Princess and the Pea style—somewhere in some alley.

“Sure glad we don’t see all those old mattresses over here on our block,” I told Husband. And then a few popped up the same day to keep me humble.

One day, an abandoned pair of men’s boxer shorts appeared in the alley. And not far from them was a positive pregnancy test, snapped in two.

“There’s a story behind that one,” Glenda said.

And I wished I knew it.


One morning in 2014, we awoke to a graffiti artist having left gifts for us in our alley while we slept. The garage across from us got some profanity. But while we missed out on the curse words, Glenda’s tree and our stacks of landscaping blocks and garbage container got their own special treatment.

“Should we report this?” I asked Glenda.

“I think so.”

The City promptly sent someone out to capture photos of the art and issued us stern letters, requiring us to remove it in thirty days or we’d each be fined $260.

“Makes me wish we hadn’t said anything,” I said.

“I know.”

Glenda called the City to ask how to get the markings off her tree.

“You’ll have to paint over them, I guess,” said the woman on the other end of the line.

So Glenda found some brown paint in her basement and did her best to brush over the random numbers on her tree’s trunk.

The artist had painted two hearts on our garbage can. I had mixed feelings. Was it a good or bad sign to be marked by hearts? For a few minutes, it seemed kind of nice. Until I had to scrub them off.

People weren’t the only ones leaving their signs behind. Veronica and Sergio noticed half-eaten baked goods suddenly appear on their garage windowsill one day. Remains of the baked treats were also balanced on the fence posts. The two were mystified—until they spied a squirrel in the act. Before bolting, the rodent tucked a bagel for later into one of their folded camp chairs.

In some cultures, oral tradition is how people bond, explain the world around them, and impart wisdom to their children. On our block, we not only pick up trash—sometimes scrutinizing it with the eyes of an archeologist—but we also practice oral tradition, sharing riveting garbage stories with our neighbors.

Carol Kramer, a writer on ethnoarcheology, declares, “Pots are not people.” But we already knew that.

There’s always more to a story than the trash left behind.



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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.