I can pinpoint the exact moment when I became obsessed with reusing trash. I was in my grandfather’s apartment on Central Park West in New York City. It was a hot, smelly August. I was nervously fiddling with the unraveling seam of a yellow vinyl kitchen chair. I knew the chair would be fixed with tape, which my grandfather used to fix everything. In this old rambling apartment book bindings, bathroom tiles, wobbly furniture, door frames, even pincushions were repaired with tape. So I knew how the kitchen chair would look with its new facelift, but I had no clue what my grandfather was preparing for me. He was a tall man with sharp blue eyes, a lawyer, used to impressing juries, and he was opening a wine bottle. With a sharp knife he cut around the rim of the bottle, making a tight curlycue. He placed the circular top on the butcher block table, and carefully peeled the remaining lead off the bottle. He put all three pieces in his hand and showed them to me:
“These,” he announced solemnly, “are God’s tears.”
I must have looked a little frightened as well as confused, because his gaze softened. “Take a close look,” he explained, and pointed out the embossed design on the top, the delicate shape of the curlycue, the deep lustrous burgundy which tinted the lead. “All this beauty. All the labor and love which was put into this. The miner, risking his life to get the metal from the earth. The fuel to transport it, the ingenuity, artistry, and energy to transform it into a seal for a wine bottle. So many people, so much work, so many of earth’s precious gifts – and what do we do?”
I shook my head. I was only ten — I had no idea. He made his hand into a fist, crumpling the soft metal and he threw the ball, hard. It landed in the trash.
“We throw it out!” his voice a terrible whisper. “Wasted creation. God’s tears.”
I understood now. I was chocking down my own tears. Why had he thrown it away? Later, I fished through the garbage and rescued the lead. The pretty embossed top was crumpled and torn but I saved it anyway. I also saved the seals from all the other wine bottles I came across. Each year, on New Year’s Eve, my family would sit around a pot of cold water and melt them down. We took turns dropping a spoonful of the molten lead into the water, then, looking at the weird and fantastic shapes, we tried to divine what the new year would bring to us.
Nowadays wine bottle seals are no longer made of lead and our family tradition has ended. Still I continue to seek ways to avoid waste. I use trash as a material and ingredient throughout this book, so this chapter focusses on inedible food waste and ways to organize and store all the other garbage. It’s no use saving stuff if you can’t lay your hands on it when you need it, or if it clutters up your place and makes you miserable.