The three happiest countries in the world are: Number 1, Sweden; Number 2, Denmark; and Number 3, Finland.
This is not one of those countries.
How do I know what the happiest places on earth are? Well, because I read about them in an article last week. And don’t think that just because I drive a garbage truck for a living, I don’t read the paper regularly.
Sweden. Denmark. Finland. This place didn’t even make the top ten. In fact, it wasn’t even mentioned. I’ve never been to Scandinavia, but apparently that part of the world has a lot going for it. A healthy GDP, the correct balance between life and work, and a safety net of family and community networks.
I’m also willing to bet on what they don’t have – yellow, choking dust drifting over from across the sea, headstrong daughters and that foul-mouthed moron swinging from the back of my truck like a gibbon.
I’m a garbage truck driver, a trash jockey. At this point, I’m under no illusions about my life, my work. I drive a bubble gum-colored truck with an ill-tempered ruffian named “Tak” on the back generally making my life miserable. Tak. Spelled just like that. We work the edges, the barely suburban wasteland of wanna-be-gangsters and potato people. It only gets worse as we head further out of town.
The tinted haze thickens today as the sun rises, and with it come the ubiquitous crows – black birds of misfortune, not just stupidly ominous but quite possibly the dark-hearted keepers of the world’s very first malicious thought. They are known to attack humans, and any garbageman with brains carries a small canister of pepper spray just in case. Our neighbor’s wife tells stories of the small flock that infests her garden. One crow learned to replicate her pet cat’s meow to lure a kitten out into the garden. It’s enough to make you shiver. Another actually learned to mimic her husband.
“Mari”, it cries, “Mari!” She hears this from the house, where she now stays, afraid to do her gardening outside anymore. Some may call her a kook, but not me. I believe her. The crows are mean. They are nasty. It makes my canker sores flare up just thinking about them.
The doctor says the sores appear with stress, and between the crows and my daughter and that jackass in the rear-view mirror, my mouth is a regular inferno these days. I have four right now and can feel them with my tongue. You know, I attribute each to something specific. The one on the inside of my lower lip is from the crows and the dust. The one on my upper lip is from the dimwit clown back there that I can’t seem to shake off the truck, no matter how hard I hit the potholes. The one on my gums is from my daughter, and the one on my tongue is from this silly-looking pink truck and the goddamn music coming from its speakers. Yes, I realize that people expect to be reminded to put out their garbage at the proper time. And I don’t mind that we play music. But does it have to be this loud? This infantile? What is this? Circus music? I remember when it was Beethoven. I remember when it was “Fur Elise” and it was soothing, gentle. And don’t think just because I drive a garbage truck for a living that I don’t enjoy a little classical music.
I’m not the most cosmopolitan guy in the world, but I’ve heard that some countries don’t have any music playing from their trucks. None. I wonder about Scandinavia. Does Sweden have musical garbage trucks? Does Denmark have antagonistic crows and yellow dust from across the sea? Is Finland filled with aging men stoically suffering their canker sores? I doubt it.
Hold on. Pothole. Bam!!! Nope, the cretin with the idiotic white towel wrapped around his head is still there and is angrily shouting something at me. I can’t hear him over the music, though. Hard to believe, but the speakers on this truck have no volume control. Check for yourself.
Damn. Almost spilled my One Cup. You know, some people may criticize me for drinking and driving. But those very same people also seem to have no interest whatsoever in collecting and disposing their own refuse. So stuff it. In any case, One Cup really burns going down, and that’s not even to mention the fiery sizzle it inflicts on my canker sores. I have to say though, for the price, nothing beats the cozy feeling it creates in my belly. It almost makes this music bearable.
My father used to say that if you spilled a drink, a drunken stranger would knock at your door. He also told me that if you whistled at night, snakes would come. What a character. What a dad.
I remember a time when I could light up my daughter’s face with what I brought home from my shift. If you could have seen what I’ve found her over the years! Bracelets, a fully-working, beautiful lamp made of quartz, a leather-bound book of pressed leaves and best of all, a complete set of ornamental imperial dolls – including the emperor and empress, court ladies and musicians. The things that people throw away! To her child’s mind, mine was just about the most magical job in the world. But it’s been a long time since I was able to give Emi something that made her happy. These days I’m less a magician to her than I am, well, a garbageman.
Last month she comes over for dinner with this guy. Good-looking. Handsome. Nice suit, tremendous manners and a solid job with a human resources company in the city. Imagine our joy, then, seeing our beautiful daughter so happy and in love. Imagine my joy, too, when later over drinks and pickled vegetables he tells me that he wants to marry my Emi. We had the mandatory talk, but to tell you the truth, he had won me over before any alcohol had even touched my lips. Everything was set in motion then, until my wife got hold of that book. It’s illegal, I know. It is not even officially supposed to exist. But my wife found a copy (I won’t say where), and from it we learned the awful truth.
He was one of them. A “hamlet person”. Outcasts despised by society since antiquity. I mean, no, maybe he wasn’t exactly living there now, in one of those Assimilation Districts, and maybe his family hadn’t for generations. But he was of those people. There it was, in black and white. His family name. His family registry and town of origin. I know exactly where it is, too, that “community”. I used to have a route through there. It used to be almost like a rite of passage for new drivers.
And I had seen them. Furtive. Poor. Unclean. Dangerous-looking. A shame to the country. I remember years ago rounding a corner in the truck and seeing the rotten meat slung over the tree limb by a rope, just out of reach of the snarling dog. I remember the primal rage of that animal, and them, laughing and egging it on as it leapt and leapt, unable to get the meat in its teeth. When they saw us approach they dispersed but the dog, oblivious to anything else, kept jumping and twisting in the trash-filled yard as we drove slowly by, the whole scene like a vision of hell from some old Italian classic.
Savages. Filth. Non-humans. That’s what my partner, the shit-for-brains dodo that rides along with me calls them. Like he can talk. He spends all his free time chasing teenage tail at the game parlor, if he’s not too busy frequenting Philipino Soapland.
The dust swirls and the crows swarm thick as we get closer to the dump outside of town. The music is blaring and the One Cup is kicking in and my canker sores are practically humming for sweet deliverance.
You may want to know what happened to that guy. The handsome one. The one whose identity we confronted our daughter with. The young, up-and-comer whose truth was already known and accepted by our daughter. The only one who might have brought happiness to our beauty, but who has now torn our family apart. The one who we have not spoken to or about, have not discussed or mentioned or even breathed a word of since. The one who has compelled us to forsake our own daughter, our treasure. And also the one who informed us by letter yesterday, courteously and with manly dignity, that he would be marrying our daughter anyway, because they were deeply in love with each other and that one truth superseded all other truths.
I stop the truck to make our dump, the boorish birdbrain in back with the orange tan and dangling earring cursing stupidly the whole time. The air is rancid and hot and we are definitely not in Finland, we are certainly not in Denmark and we are absolutely, without a doubt, not in Sweden. We are still here, I am still a garbageman, and if there’s anything I should have learned from my line of work, it’s that what some discard, others find the greatest magic in. I guess after all these years, Emi was the only one who remembered that.
I want to tell you how they determined the happiest countries in the world. It was a survey, actually, which asked respondents a series of questions, some of which I remember and would like to respond to now.
Question: Did you learn something new yesterday?
Question: Did you feel you were treated with respect yesterday?
Question: Do you feel proud of something that you did yesterday?
But today can be tomorrow’s yesterday, and the past can be the past. So I do a slow donut in the dust and turn my singing truck around, away from the cacophonous black cloud of crows and back toward town. It’s time to give a rightful love its rightful blessing, and as the sun breaks through the shifting shroud above, every passing block takes me closer to my happiness, to my treasure, to my Finland, my Denmark, my Sweden. To my daughter.