Dispatches

Stakeout

Sheila Heti

In the fall of 2005, Sheila Heti spent a day in a diner in Toronto observing the enormous EUCAN electrified garbage can at the corner of College and Bathurst. The EUCAN cans, known to detractors as Monster Bins, carry advertising and have been condemned by citizens’ groups as environmentally unsound. Three hundred and eight cans have been installed on Toronto sidewalks as part of a pilot project scheduled to end in 2007.

0835 HRS

Six people on bikes wait at the corner, seven, eight, nine. Traffic moves.

A man standing near the garbage can hails a taxi and gets inside. People are lined up on the concrete island in the middle of College Street, waiting for a streetcar.

A woman with a coffee cup passes the can but does not throw her coffee away. Her scarf is bright orange because it is October.

Three people walk past the can.

When the light turns green, the traffic moves. A man throws something into the can. The can is as wide as three people standing shoulder to shoulder. It is as tall as a man and a half. It is as fat as the man who threw something in, swerving toward the can, glancing, tossing in his trash. It looked less disgusting than with the older cans, where you have to touch the flaps.

A group of teenagers moves north across the street. A man in a motorized wheelchair drives along the bike lane. A man in a yellow sweater veers toward the can but does not throw anything in.

Is that Matthias?

A man wearing an orange jacket sweeps the street. He sweeps around the people waiting at the corner to cross. A man checking his change crosses ahead of the light and enters the diner. “How are you?” he says to the woman behind the counter. “Good,” she says, and pours him a coffee to go.

A woman with a stroller passes by the can. A girl in a green coat passes by the can. Three people wait on their bikes to cross. A girl crosses ahead of the light.

If I am here, and across the street is there, then across that street is the can.

A man gets off his bike as it glides along the sidewalk. A boy wears a hoodie that reads “Yankee 9.” The garbage can reads “New.” There are four Beck cabs in my view. A big woman dressed in white doesn’t throw anything into the can.

A man in a black coat throws nothing into the can. A man with a red bag passes by the can and glances at the can. No one else looks at the can.

There is a place for cigarette butts in the garbage can, but this woman smoking probably won’t cross the street to put her cigarette in the can.

Where are all the clients of the garbage can? It is less a can than two upright billboards sandwiched against a can.

It is easier to watch a can all day than to watch TV. Only now do I notice that the TV is on. It makes me feel less alone. People always interpret this as a good thing, but it’s not.

Where are all the patrons of the can?

A small Contracted Vehicle operated for the City of Toronto blows by on the sidewalk, sucking up a few leaves in its hose, like an elephant’s trunk or a nozzle.

The motorized vehicle is now on the other side of the street. It doesn’t appear to have picked up any trash. On the perimeter of the empty patio, outside the window of the diner, lie a plastic wrapper, a party flyer and a flattened pack of cigarettes, right where the motorized vehicle drove by. Perhaps the vehicle was depositing trash.

In the first busy hour of a Monday morning, one person has used the can. The hot-dog man opens up his black-and-yellow tent on the southwest corner of College and Bathurst, three metres from the can. He unfolds a folding table and pulls a bungee cord down.

No one approaches the can.

0930 HRS

A police car waits in the middle of the intersection. The hot-dog man is sweeping out his tent. No one touches the can.

A man throws something into the can! Now he is standing on the corner, looking into his hands. Like the first man who threw something into the can, this man carries a white plastic bag. It was easy for him to use the can.

A bird eats crumbs off the green picnic table outside the window. Its feet slide on the wood. It has a hair caught in its mouth. It shakes its head violently, like any of us would.

The contracted vehicle moves by here again. I think it must be blowing leaves; it has nothing to do with the trash. On the other side of the street, people swerve slightly to avoid the massive can, which juts out onto the sidewalk.

A woman in a yellow jacket throws nothing into the can. Another woman with hair from a hair commercial, all auburn and bouncing down her back, is on the wrong side of the street to throw anything into the can.

A woman with something in her hand walks past the can. A man strides confidently past the can.

A man with a dog move slowly past the can. He has a guitar on his back and his sunglasses are red.

An old woman walks past the can, like a penguin in a penguin movie. A girl cycles past the can. A streetcar turns east onto Bathurst.

I sit on the north side of the street, in the window of a diner. My teapot has been refilled with hot water. A tiny girl with a doughnut hops by on the end of her mother’s hand. She is nowhere near the can.

The diner is empty except for me, the woman at the counter and the people on the TV. The woman looks into the mirror behind the counter, undoes her hair, shakes it out and clips it back up again.

This man smoking a cigarette in front of the window probably won’t cross both streets to deposit his butt in the can.

The sky is clearing.

A man in a blue sweater picks up newspapers lying in the gutter. He holds a cigarette in his hand. Perhaps he is the operator of the now stationary, city-contracted vehicle. No, the operator is the man in the yellow vest with an X across the back. He climbs into the machine, a Madvac.

The bird has returned. It’s on the ground with a french fry. Now it’s on the table, now it’s on the bench seat, now it’s on the next table. It hops onto the bar separating the patio from the street and then hops off. It eats a leaf.

Of three people who pass the can, not one throws anything in.

The sky is mostly clear. Now there are shadows where there weren’t before. A bum appears, holding two shoes in one hand and a pair of bananas in the other.

A new street sweeper walks past the window. The people in the street have sunlight on their faces. The street sweeper sweeps up the leaves. His collection bag is very full. He does not avoid the garbage around the patio or inside the patio.

Now he drops his broom and sack, shakes open a billowy, transparent blue garbage bag, transfers the waste, ties the bag and throws it in front of a tree. He continues sweeping up.

A man I hoped would throw something into the can does not. The man with bananas picks up a butt. Lucky for him it wasn’t in the can.

A homeless man bends over and looks into the can, then moves around to the other side. I stand up, but a black minivan blocks him from sight, then I see him walk away. The most attention the can has received all morning, and I missed it.

1030 HRS

An old lady walks past the can. It is less a can than a billboard, bigger than a man, with receptacles for trash on either end. I hear a homeless man shout.

The 506 High Park car stops and people get on. People get on the second 506, which has just rolled up behind it, and the 511 Exhibition, which pulls up behind the first two. “Detour on Route” reads a black-and-yellow sign in its front window. The first car bears an ad for Spongebob Squarepants, which was the favourite show of the boy at the wedding last night.

A sign on the side of the garbage can explains how it works. Recyclables on top, cigarettes beneath that, waste beneath that. Twin girls in matching green outfits pass the window on the ends of their father’s arms.

A tall man walks past the can.

Garbage collects in the street. There’s more yelling from the homeless man, who sits outside the diner. The TV and the radio, on at the same time, are causing something beautiful to happen. The clouds move steadily across the sky.

Five cabs move through the intersection, six. A man strides by the can. A woman waits by the garbage can. Because of the subtlety of her gestures, I can’t tell whether she’s throwing something into the can.

The garbage on the patio includes a plastic cup, four wads of paper, the foil from a cigarette case, cigarette butts and a banana peel. I can count eight cigarettes from where I sit. If I lean my head into the window, I can see a styrofoam cup and one cigarette butt more. The city workers lean out of the way and let the streetcar pass. They are brushing leaves from the streetcar tracks. Dust billows brown in the road.

The leaves are being dug from the tracks like dirt from under a fingernail. The city workers get in their trucks and drive away.

I feel like I was a little irritating last night.

No one throws anything into the can.

1130 HRS

At Sneaky Dee’s across the street, a man starts setting up patio tables. The woman behind the counter sways to a song on the radio. A TV ad asks, “Satisfied?” A man strides purposefully past the can.

The sound of a whistle. The telephone rings. “Piccadilly,” the woman says. Two cabs wait by the light.

A young man in a Maple Leafs sweater walks by. I miss the city workers, the street sweeper, the operator of the Madvac, all gone. A small, wispy feather rests on the edge of a plastic cup, abandoned on the patio, stuck to it by stickiness or perhaps a light wind. The cup wavers, then rolls over completely. The grey-and-white feather is still there.

A girl with a red balloon walks past the can. The 506 streetcar picks up three passengers. I hallucinate a person putting something in the can. I have not slept much in the past two days.

A man with a styrofoam coffee cup seems to be looking for a can. He crosses the street to the streetcar island. Will he finish crossing the street, then cross Bathurst to use the can? He stands on the streetcar island and places the empty cup in his elegant shoulder bag.

Two people pass by the can. A baby hangs off the front of her mother. The mother pulls a cellphone from her purse. The 511 Exhibition car stops, and picks up the mother and the child and another woman.

A man, then a second man, then a woman in a yellow coat all walk past the can. Three birds fly off the patio.

A woman approaches the counter and complains that “Homemade Pie” is written on the window. The chef says he ­didn’t write it.

The chef complains about the people from the bank: all they do is come over and complain. No one walks past the can. A man in black, bundled up to the nose, runs past the can. Someone bikes by the can.

I am going to the washroom now. Two people walk past the can. I can’t leave my post. Who will watch the can?

One’s face is no more interesting than a garbage can.

A lady puts nothing into the can.

No one puts anything into the can.

The cup rolls slightly in the light wind. The feather quivers as it’s rocked back and forth. More people pass by the can.

A youngish man with a walker pauses and smiles up at the writing on the window above my head. Cars go through the intersection. Two bikes wait for the light. No one puts anything into the can.

Two people pass by the can, three, six. Two more people pass by the can. A man blows his nose, looks at the can, but does not deposit his tissue into the can.

These cans are being tested for their effectiveness. For several months they will sit on street corners and sidewalks. On the can near my home at Dundas and Dufferin, over the poster that explains the can, the Toronto Public Space Committee has put up a notice that reads, “This will be an ad.” The cans will be illuminated at night.

A man hands off his cigarette to another man, who smokes it. My old friend Juno just walked by, looking happy, with a tall man who was single-handedly walking a bike.

A woman in a white jacket walks past the can. The chef is working the grill.

I am not growing sympathetic to the can, nor have I detected a single emotion in me about the can. The cup rolls around and around in the sun like a lazy, happy cartwheeler.

There are ten customers in the diner, including me and a baby in a carriage.

No one approaches the can. A woman my age, walking by the window, watches me, as I am watching the can. Two people walk past the can.

I got frightened. My heart rate is up. But the feather that flew past the window was not the feather from the cup. The feather from the cup is still there.

Two people walk past the can.

Is it the fault of the cans that no one wants to put anything into them? I do not know if people are avoiding the can, do not understand the can or simply have no garbage for the can.

The middle of the day wants things from you. By the middle of the day you ought to have something to offer the day.

A child laughs to see his teacher in the diner. “Mister!” he cries out. “I was here yesterday,” the man replies. The boy pushes him against the wall. “Give me your money,” he laughs.

It is only a guess that the man is his teacher. Sometimes I cannot see the can, as when a minivan waits at the lights. I do not mention every person who walks by the can. “I like bugging teachers outside school,” the boy says to his teacher.

A boy pedals his scooter across the road. The teacher thanks the chef, calling him Jeff, and leaves.

“Keep your eyes on the road. We’re all pedestrians,” reads the ad on the streetcar. The sun shines onto these pages. I can feel the sun on my eyelashes now.

The Bathurst car glides elegantly along the rails, curving around the bend onto College Street. Of the five people who have passed the new garbage can, not one has put anything in.

The leaf blower is back.

The hot-dog man sells a hot dog from his tent.

No one puts anything into the can. A kid passes by, eating perhaps peanuts from his hand, like a hooligan. “Stand By Me” plays on the radio.

The trunk of a cab pops open.

1230 HRS

Someone passing the bin looks back, perhaps at the can, perhaps not. Pedestrians pass; no one deposits anything into the can.

Midday forces you outside yourself. There is no real introspection at noon.

The cup with the feather remains. Four youngish people look around. For a can? Nobody recognizes this thing as a garbage can, or nobody has any garbage.

Somebody throws something in. How much I would like to write that.

“What are you looking at?” the TV asks. Sensing danger, I glance at it.

A woman stops her bike by the can and buttons up her coat. She looks at the can, but does she understand it? A young man leans against the can. Two men approach. Will they have something to give the can? They do not.

Some men gather near the can, though it is not really a can. They smoke by it. One points. A taxi partially blocks my view. The cars go. The young men are still gathered there. Will something happen?

The men depart. The can stands alone.

Two people pass by the can. Neither throws anything in. The light is green and the cars cross Bathurst and continue along the street. A fruit fly in the window casts a diverting shadow on my gloves.

Either the feather has gone from the cup, or it’s on the underside of the cup.

Can a woman help wanting to attract men? Does a garbage can feel like a garbage can if it does not attract garbage? Someone stands, stops and looks at the garbage can head-on. I wait. He deposits nothing and moves away.

Here comes a man in a green winter hat. A woman exits a blue truck; he enters. “Some say love, it is a river,” plays on the radio.

“Life’s too short,” I hear someone say behind me, or else I hallucinate it.

1330 HRS

“I have been watching that bin all day, and only three people have put any garbage in it,” I fantasize saying to the woman behind the counter. “Why do you think that is?” My tea is sweet and I drink it.

Finally I take off my coat. The sun continues to shine all over me. At the start of something there is beauty and clarity, but as it goes on, it grows muddied. Or is this the difference between eight-thirty in the morning and half past one?

I check for the feather but cannot see it. A white van blocks my view of the can. A school bus enters the intersection, then a second one, like the bus we took from the wedding last night, with Cary hanging over the seat.

A man walks past the bin. Watching the can is making me sad. Three people pass it by.

The feather remains stuck to the cup.

As I talk to the chef about the garbage can, a woman in a short coat steps gingerly up to the can and drops something in. “I think it is because they don’t know what it is,” Jeff says. “It looks like a phone booth.”

Three people pass on this side of the street. The light facing me is red. I am getting very sleepy, in the window, in the sun.

No one works well at this hour. How long can a person pay attention to a garbage can? “It’s a good story,” says Jeff, the chef, but I don’t know if he means it.

It is a mistake to think that one can work after noon. The brain gets caught up in the activity of the world around twelve, then grows tired. From the stimulation or from the sameness? I know that boy riding by on that bicycle. No one stops by the can.

People in the diner have started to drink beer.

Interrupted by a long conversation I ­didn’t want to have with a man who’s killing half an hour. By mid-afternoon there is no hope of recapturing the stillness of the morning, the promise. Three people pass by the can.

Nobody puts anything into the can. The radio is tense with static. The sound of a speaker phone on autodial. The beat of the song is up, up. There is no keeping anything as it was. The street is a static surface now; whatever moves is part of that static. Picture: the streetcar, people waiting for the streetcar, the trucks turning past each other in the intersection, as beautiful as ballerinas, the cyclist riding through the green light, the feather wavering in the wind on the cup and the new garbage can proclaiming itself as new. The fact of movement does not mean no static.

1430 HRS

Would it be noble to stay forever in this diner, watching that bin, for the sake of experiencing its gradual change over time, as people deposit more of their garbage into it?

A TiVo ad on the set: We will never have to sit through the boring parts again.

No one approaches the can. A man walking down the sidewalk swerves to avoid it. A fly flies by my eye.

I am nostalgic for the morning, before I knew what I now know about the can, when I was still optimistic, and felt the stillness of the world, and every detail interested me.

“Is that the best you can do? Is fear the only weapon you have?” she asks. “No, but it’s the best one,” says the soap opera actor. “I don’t want you to fear me,” he says. No one approaches the can.

There is no reason to doubt what I want, or to feel I should want what I don’t want, for the sake of flexibility, or to broaden my nature. I should do what I want and get on with it.

Two people walk past the bin, three, four, five. A fly flies by my nose. Everyone was in love with the bridesmaid last night, but everyone loved the bride.

At three o’clock one’s focus returns. The day begins drawing to an end. How much time have I wasted? Between one and three, we forget we are going to die. Nobody approaches the bin. A girl in a black coat runs by it. A lady with a child at the end of her hand strides by. A man walks past the window with an iPod on. Two cabs wait by the light.

“Half and half,” Cary said last night. “I’ll take responsibility for my half, if she’ll take responsibility for hers.”

The bird has returned; now it’s in the shade. I can see the feathers on its neck, then it hops to the ground. It moves toward the french fry, past the folding sidewalk sign, away from the billboard, I mean can, which that man ignores, and that woman ignores, and no one empties their refuse into.

The woman who complained about “Homemade Pie” has returned to the diner.

A big dust goes up as the streetcar stops.

Someone runs past the bin.

“They are crooks, they shit me,” says the man at the counter. No one passes the bin. A man in rollerblades with headphones on takes a digital picture, though not of the can, spins in a circle and rolls off.

It’s possible that someone put something in the can while I was downstairs peeing.

A streetcar turns left onto Bathurst Street. Someone is visiting the can! A woman with frizzy brown hair has deposited her trash in the can, in the receptacle that faces the street, not the one facing the parking lot. When it happens, it doesn’t live up to the anticipation of seeing someone put something in the can.

A Honda turning right blocks my view of the can. I eat my BLT.

A crowd of people pass by the bin, but no one uses it. A woman in sunglasses, passing by the window, is pressing her nose with her finger.

“I just called to say I love you,” sings the radio. Two children rush by, one with a yoga mat in her knapsack. A man glances at the can.

Did someone just put something into the can, or am I hallucinating?

No one approaches the can.

The girls wait with their backpacks on, on the streetcar island in the middle of College Street. “I’m gonna getcha if it takes all night,” sings the radio.

A girl with red hair, who gives off a tremendous impression of well-being, pedals by the window. I am composing an email in my head, but I intend not to send it for several weeks.

The sun shines out over the bin, lowering in the sky. The shadows on the table now fall in my direction.

Two young people throw something into the can. I cannot see the plastic cup. It and its feather are gone.

A woman in green regards the bin. A second woman hurries up to the 511 Exhibition car. Two boys run for the streetcar behind it.

A person ruins things with exaggera­tion.

A passing man regards the bin.

A fat little boy in an orange ski jacket pedals his scooter up to a group of grade-school girls. They ignore him at first, then one accepts the flyer that he is offering, then they all do. I am standing, trying to see if the man who seemed to be finishing something on a paper plate will throw his plate into the bin. A maroon minivan is blocking my view. Inconclusive.

How to wind down?

No one approaches.

Still no sign of the cup. A Ford truck blocks my view of the bin. Aretha Franklin sings on the radio. I am looking forward to the immediate future.

A cloud of brown dust goes up in the middle of the road. The street is for a single moment remarkably free of cars.

A teenage boy in a red windbreaker passes by the window, trying not to smile to himself.

How many people could have put garbage in the bin while my head was down writing?

My stomach hurts. The day of finishing something long now comes to a short end.

I feel like I have wasted so many years thinking, but maybe that’s unfair. The traffic report plays on the radio. Star Trek plays on the tv. Men sit at the tables drinking beer or orange juice or coffee, but most are drinking beer.

More people pass by the bin. A pigeon hops off the sidewalk and into the road.

In the waning minutes, all this feels routine, rehearsed. No one approaches the bin.

For the first time today I feel tired, but I was tired before, but in a different way, but not in a less authentic way. The weather report comes on: “Downtown Toronto is beautiful. Fourteen degrees.”

The music on the radio swells. The street goes by. It’s like the end of a movie, and only I can see the credits.

A man in dark sunglasses walks past the bin, then walks back. I check for the cup.

A man walking slowly past the bin puts nothing into the bin. Nor does she. Nor does he. It is 4:31. It’s time to stop. But who’s going to watch the bin when I am gone? And as for me, I feel a disinclination to start something new.

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Sheila Heti

Sheila Heti is the author of The Middle Stories, Ticknor and How Should a Person Be? Her latest book project is Women in Clothes. She is the creator of the Trampoline Hall lecture series and she frequently conducts interviews for The Believer. She lives in Toronto and at sheilaheti.net.

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