On Becoming Karen ... 

I live on a one-block, one-way street in Midtown. There are nine houses, populated by a friendly, diverse little group of folks: Black, white, Asian, gay, straight, an 85-year-old woman who lives alone, and two families with young children. Two things really bring us all together: people who drive the wrong way on our street, and the fact that our recycling pickup gets missed on the regular.

It became sort of a joke a couple years back. We used to all file 311 complaints with the city at "See, Click, Fix." Usually, we got emails right away telling us our complaints had been "acknowledged." Then, a couple days later, we'd get emails telling us the complaint had been "closed." And by closed, the city apparently meant, "We'll get you next week if we feel like it."

click to enlarge JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks

A year or so ago, I went off about it on Twitter, citing the recurring problems we were having with recycling pickup on my block and tagging our city councilman and a friend who works for Mayor Strickland. That tactic actually worked. Thereafter, when our recycling was missed and I tweeted about it, crews came out late in the day or the next day and emptied our bins. I have several thousand Twitter followers, and I'm a cranky, noisy tweeter, so that may have had something to do with it.

At any rate, my neighbors were impressed at my vast powers, which I thought I was using for a good purpose. Call it tweet privilege. And things were fine for several months — until three weeks ago, which was the last time we had recycling pickup. I whined on Twitter, per usual, but then I learned the reason for the lack of service: One-fourth of Memphis' solid waste personnel had COVID-19 or were under quarantine due to exposure to the disease. The city announced that until further notice, recycling services would be suspended.

I felt like an asshole. (Right now, many of you are nodding your head, saying, "Well, duh!") I'd become Karen, demanding to see the manager, seeing only my problem, not the larger picture: Namely, the people we so often take for granted, those we depend on to pick up the detritus of our over-consumption, are suffering, getting hit by this raging disease, just like so many others.

I was being short-sighted. I had failed to recognize just how much more recycling needed to be done because of the pandemic, how so many more people are getting so much more stuff delivered, mostly in cardboard boxes. I had failed to appreciate the manpower needed to pick up and empty the hundreds of thousands of trash and recycling bins lining every street in Memphis, and what effect losing 25 percent of that workforce would mean. I'd failed to consider what it takes out of a person to stand at a conveyor belt for eight hours a day, picking out cardboard and glass and metal and separating it by hand.

I was mostly thinking about the hassle of pushing my full recycling bin back up the driveway, and stacking next week's recycling on the garage floor. There's a bigger picture and I missed it: We're all in this together, and there will be sacrifices and hardships. Missing recycling for a few weeks isn't a sacrifice or a hardship. It's an inconvenience.

There are still three recycling drop-off sites. (Check the city website for details.) But it's safe to say most of us probably won't recycle for a while. Like so much in 2020, everything is garbage now.

And it appears the next few weeks will be tough, especially for those working in our over-extended healthcare "system." But we shouldn't overlook the drug store clerks, the mail carriers, the restaurant workers, the delivery drivers, and yes, our solid waste crews. Slip the grocery clerk a fiver. Tell the girl at the drive-thru window to keep the change. Tip big. Tip often. Order takeout. Wear a damn mask. Be nice to your fellow humans. If we can all learn how to do that, we'll have at least gotten something out of this bizarre 12 months.

I saw a meme this week that's stuck with me. It was so on target, so perfect for these times:

"We're not all in the same boat. We're all in the same storm. Some of us have yachts. Some of us have canoes. And some of us are drowning. Just be kind and help whoever you can."

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