The Decay of Western Civilization

IF YOU WERE GOING to steal something—and I’m not casting aspersions on your character here—what might it be?

If you were going to risk arrest, incarceration, and the possibility of trying to fun faster than the police while carrying this object, what would you drag off down the alley behind you?

You’re probably stealing for one of two reasons. Perhaps you have spied an object that inspires such obsessive longing that you are overcome with material lust and snatch it up. Or you’re collecting goodies in a pillowcase that you hope to sell later on in the day for a modest profit. Either way, you’d pick an object that is at least somewhat desirable if you wanted to be a successful thief.

So what’s with stealing the dumb stuff?

On the Minneapolis Issues list, a wide-ranging online discussion of city life and politics, one recent entry struck me as bizarre. A citizen posted the baffling news bulletin that someone had stolen his compost barrel.

Some wandering professional acquirer, apparently possessed by a sudden urge to recycle organic matter, made off with a big plastic barrel full of grass clippings and leaves and gunk. It’s true that gardeners call compost “black gold” and prize the smelly goo for all the good it does the soil and the gladiolas. But there is something of an unspoken creed among gardeners: we don’t pick each other’s prize dahlia blossoms, we leave each other’s tasteless lawn ornaments undisturbed, and we pretty much trust that our rotting kitchen scraps are safe from others like us. It seems unlikely that a granola-eating, Earth-Shoe-wearing, Felco-snippers-wielding composter made off with the barrel. But if it wasn’t someone who knew how to use the giant bucket and what it held, then who the heck would want the goofy thing?

Think of what you’d have to do to steal it, a sort of garbage can on steroids. Borrow your brother-in-law’s truck, for starters. Drive around block after block casing backyards for peonies that look unusually healthy. Enlist a friend who won’t squeal to the cops (because you can’t lift the barrel up and over the side of the truck all by yourself). Execute your clever plan under cloak of darkness or, for a bold daytime operation that might be spotted, rehearse a script that disguises your true agenda: “Boy, Bob, when we get this defective composter back to Sears, I’m really gonna raise me a ruckus.”

And there’s no living with this ill-gotten booty. Hide it in your basement until the Fuzz loses interest in the great compost caper and you’ll live to regret that move—The laundry room will never smell the same again. Flaunt it proudly next to your vegetable patch and neighbors jealous of your sudden zucchini growth spurts may dial 911 with their suspicions. And just try to talk your local fence into giving you top dollar for garbage and the plastic thing it’s decomposing in.

Somewhere tonight on a Minneapolis pillow rests an uneasy head. The Compost Barrel Thief roams free. So batten down the hatches, fellow gardeners. And for Pete’s sake, put that rake in the garage for the night.

A version of this appeared in the Southwest Journal September 12, 2005.

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