Trash / No trash


Taking out the garbage… reflections by Srajan.

Srajan taking out the trash
Trash picking Tijuana
Trash in Tijuana river

One of my domestic jobs is taking out the trash so it can be picked up each week by a noisy blue garbage truck with a huge mechanical arm. Yes, I’m glad that it can so effortlessly eliminate all the ‘unnecessaries’ from my life, but it bothers me that there is no effective recycling effort where we live in Green Valley, Arizona; twenty miles south of Tucson and forty miles from the US/Mexican border town of Nogales.

Everything goes into the large blue bin, including bottles and cans, metal, batteries, food stuffs, plastics of all kinds, broken this and that.

If you lived in the border town of Nogales one hour south along the US/Mexican border this bin would be of great value, a valuable resource. At least I assume so after reading Luis Alberto Urrea’s riveting account of life along the southern side of the border at Tijuana. Across the Wire, written in 1993 reveals a world that few know of, even those who live in San Diego twenty minutes away from the ‘Tortilla Curtain’. Luis uncovers what it is really like for the thousands who have trekked northward to the land of “opportunity”, in most cases fleeing threats of death if not worse in their home countries and enduring unbelievable hardships just to arrive at the closed border. There, many would-be immigrants seeking that opportunity live in squalor sifting through garbage dumps for their livelihood.

Urrea was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother, registered as an American Citizen, Born Abroad. Although raised in San Diego, he crossed the border often during his youth and found familiarity with both sides. Later, although he never intended to be a missionary, he met an unorthodox preacher named Von who got him involved in the hardships and discipline of working with those in the borderlands. Von was an inspirational person, ‘a minister, a veteran, a graphic artist, a German baron, a puppeteer, an adventurer and practical joker.’ He didn’t however, speak Spanish so Luis became his translator. Through the years they witnessed squalor, horrors, miracles, and compassion.

Urrea’s first chapter is entitled ‘Sifting through the Trash’ and begins with this: “One of the most beautiful views of San Diego is from the summit of a small hill in Tijuana’s garbage dump. People live on that hill, picking through the trash with long poles that end in hooks made of bent nails. They scavenge for bottles, tin, aluminum, cloth; for cast-out beds, wood, furniture. Sometimes they find meat that is not too rotten to be cooked.

This view-spot is where the city drops off its dead animals – dogs, cats, sometimes goats, horses. They are piled in heaps six feet high and torched. In that stinking blue haze, amid nightmarish sculptures of charred ribs and carbonized tails, the garbage pickers can watch the buildings of San Diego gleam gold on the blue coastline. The city looks cool in the summer when heat cracks the ground and flies drill into their noses. And in the winter, when windchill drops night temperatures into the low thirties, when the cold makes their lips bleed, and rain turns the hill into a gray pudding of ash and mud, and babies are wrapped in plastic trash bags for warmth, San Diego glows like a big electric dream. And every night on that burnt hill, these people watch.”

These experiences are fully documented in this first chapter. You wonder what could possibly happen next. Surprises await you.

Life in the borderlands was not without its levity. One summer Von arranged a camping trip for barrio children and had written a list of items the kids needed to bring along. The list was copied and sent out to sixty families. Now, the word for ‘comb’ in Spanish is ‘peine’; leave out one letter and see what happens:

You must bring
and BOYS – You Must Remember

The counterpoint to Urrea’s recollection was another book that I was reading simultaneously. Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity, by Soko Morinaga also has a chapter about trash entitled, ‘There is no Trash’.

Soko Morinaga was conscripted into the Japanese army at age 19 as WW2 was raging. He believed as did most Japanese that they were fighting a righteous war of liberation from exploitation. Upon Japan’s unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945 it was revealed that the righteous war was actually a war of aggression, a war of evil, and those responsible for it were to be executed. Fortunately for Soko he was allowed to re-enter college; it was there that he was introduced to Zen. Eventually he decided to take the next step and be admitted in a training temple.

Soko arrived at the gate of Daishun in Kyoto intending to study under Zuigan Goto roshi, the abbot of Daitokuji. Showing up at the temple door with long stringy hair, a towel hanging from his waist, and heavy clogs on his feet, he was not politely welcomed to come inside. Instead he endured three days and nights of standing in the garden, each day receiving refusals, verbal abuse, and physical assault thereby testing his resolve. Finally, after three days he was invited to step through the temple gate and ushered into a small room. There he was given three small meals a day and bedding at night for the next five days. After doing zazen diligently and thereby testing his own resolve, he was allowed to meet with the roshi.

The roshi asked him, “Why have you come here?” Soko replied and rambled on for almost an hour about his situation. The roshi listened in silence and then said, “Listening to you now, I can see that you’ve reached a point where there is nothing you can believe in. But there is no such thing as practice without believing in your teacher. Can you believe in me? If you can, I’ll take you right now, as you are. But if you can’t believe in me, then your being here is just a waste of time, and you can go right back where you came from.”

Soko decided that even if his words were a lie he better reply affirmatively so he said, “I believe in you. Please.” And so, began his training.

Zen garden
Zen garden with pond
Zen pebble lawn

His first task was to clean the garden. The 70 year-old roshi Zuigan said, “Follow me” and directed him to the garden where he is asked to sweep with a bamboo broom. Soko, hoping to impress the ‘foolish old man’ began sweeping with a vengeance, quickly gathering a large heap of dead leaves and stones. Eagerly Soko asked the roshi, “Where should I throw this trash?”

Zuigan responded with a thunderous voice, “There is NO Trash!”

Soko replied that he was only wanting to know where to dump the leaves, to which roshi replied, “You don’t throw them out, go to the shed and bring back an empty charcoal sack.”

He returned to find the roshi sifting through the pile so that the leaves rose to the top. Then, stuffing the leaves into the sack and tamping them down with his foot, he said, “Take these to the shed. We’ll use them to make a fire under the bath.”

As Soko carried the bulky sack of leaves back to the shed he mused that it was probably true that this was not trash as it would be useful for starting a fire.

Upon returning to what Soko now thought would certainly be ‘trash’, he found the roshi squatting over the pile sifting out the stones. He then uttered to the incredulous Soko, “Take these out and arrange them under the rain gutters.”

After arranging the stones in the gutters Soko noted how they filled holes and that it even looked “rather elegant.” He had to admit that also the stones could not be classified as ‘trash’.

Upon returning to the lump of earth and moss that remained of the pile he found roshi gathering up the remaining pieces into his hand and using them to fill low spots in the path. Finally, not a single particle of the pile remained.

Roshi queried, “Well, do you understand a little bit better now? From the first, in people and in things, there is no such thing as trash.”

Such was Soko’s first sermon from master Zuigan.

From the first, in people and in things, there is no such thing as trash.

Urrea like Soko was to learn that there is no trash, not people or things, including the trash sifters who he worked with and grew to love.

And I, dropping the daily garbage into the large bin, now know too that the greater truth is “there is no trash.”


Srajan is a writer, lover of Asian art and relishes life as a global nomad.

Comments are closed.