of cardboard and connectedness


    The loading dock area behind the West Union at Duke, in which my restaurant is located, is also where we go to throw away our trash. The singular term no longer applies because of the way we are expected to separate and organize our refuse for disposal. There is a giant dumpster where the garbage goes, but first we keep any food-related trash for the compost area, recyclables (plastics, glass, aluminum) in recycling bins, and all cardboard boxes have to be flattened and put into a baler.

    I am sharing all this scintillating information to get to this detail: every restaurant in our building has to take a turn being responsible for keeping the trash area clean and emptying the baler everyday for a week, and that week comes round for us every other month. Our latest week began today. Billy, the daytime chef is a Duke institution, knows everyone, and takes great pride in the area being cleanest when it’s our week. That also means when someone just dumps their cardboard, he figures out who it is, goes and gets them, and makes them clean up. Up until tonight, he has been the one to do the baling, and I have helped enough to know how to do it. It’s just never been full at the end of my shift.

    Tonight it was. More than full. So full Abel and I had to take out almost a third of what was in there to get the baler to work. For those of you who remember when David Letterman used to crush things with a pneumatic press, that’s what this baler does. The cardboard gets loaded in the front, a giant press keeps squeezing it down, and that process continues until you have a full bundle. Then you manually keep the press in the down position, open the front of the machine, thread two twenty foot metal ties through the machine so they wrap around the bale and bind them, release the press so the bale is free, set a wooden palette in front of the open machine, raise the floor so the bale rolls out on the palette (we’re talking a ton of cardboard here), roll the palette down to the loading dock, put some fresh pieces of flat cardboard down so the threading will work the next time, and close the front door so people can start stacking stuff in there again. Tonight, we got to add the steps of cleaning up after two restaurants who, when they saw the baler was full, decided it was cool to jus throw their boxes next to the machine without even breaking them down.

    If you are still reading at this point, here’s my question: when you know what it is like to have to deal with the baler because you have to take a turn, why would you make life more difficult for those who are baling when it’s not your turn?

    Seems like an obvious question (and answer), yet I notice most every time I take out the trash, whether assigned to bale or not, that cardboard is strewn about without much thought for who does have to do the cleanup. And, I’m afraid, that kind of insensitivity is not confined to recycling at Duke. We, as human beings, often fall short in the “do unto others” category. We may not want it done to us, but we don’t necessarily choose for that to also mean we won’t do it unto others.

    In restaurants that serve more than one meal, as the ones I work in both do, all of depend on the kindness of coworkers to leave the station in shape for us who follow. And we are expected to leave things ready for the next shift to come in. That means everything from cleaning well to leaving notes about what might have been used up or will need to be prepped, to taking time to refill squeeze bottles or consolidate the produce in the walk-in refrigerator. And, though I realize this has to rank right up there with a shaggy dog story when it comes to lengthy set ups, I am struck that life is the same way. Whatever the action or the situation, we are, for the most part, following someone into that situation and will be followed by another. It’s as true about grocery lines as it is about churches.

    Somewhere in my blog reading when I got home from work (and I lost the reference by the time I got out of the shower and came back to write), I came across a wonderful post challenging churches to think beyond the present tense and be mindful of those who will follow. Their point was looking at a grand theological idea; I’m looking at the same idea on a more hands-on level. Think about who will be walking into the room next, pulling into the parking place next, using that shopping cart next, stepping into your spot once you have moved on. I’m not advocating Random Acts of Kindness (though I like those) as much as making a case for Intentional Acts of I Knew You Were Coming After Me.

    We are all being followed, even as we follow someone into most every situation. We may not be able to control much of any of the situations we walk into, yet we can determine how we will leave things for those who come after us. Though I wish more folks would remember this week, while I am baling the cardboard, I’m writing mostly so I will remember next week and next month when I’m not.



    1. Milton –
      such an interesting question.
      We are so interlaced with the immediate and the recent past.
      We are so forgetful of the other.
      How do we remember that ours is not the only view of the world and our particular movie isn’t playing in any others head?
      How do we remember that when we’re not there the world goes right on?
      Being other-centric isn’t easy.

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