Early one morning, as I was walking near the campus of Kean University in Union, New Jersey, I happened upon a garbage truck picking up the neighborhood trash, black plastic bags neatly piled on the curb. It was the start of a 98-degree day, the three men were already sweating, the garbage smelled, and the truck was obnoxiously loud. I was offended by this assault on my tranquility and resented the garbage men who caused it. That evening I showed my class Poet of Poverty, a film about Camden, New Jersey, one of the most blighted cities in America. Camden is, literally, the garbage dump for the state. Because its people are powerless and poor, the legislature has put in its neighborhoods the state prison, the county’s trash-to-steam incinerator and the sewage treatment plant. “It is,” said Father Michael Doyle, who has served in Camden since 1968, “as if all the toilet bowls in the county are lined up on Camden, and every flush says – to Camden, to Camden, to Camden.” The stench, particularly on a hot summer day, is overwhelming, and Camden is an assault on America’s image of itself.
Neither the garbage men nor Camden create the stench we blame them for. Their role is to get it out of the noses of the rest of us, so we can continue in the belief that we take care of ourselves when we put our trash in black plastic bags and set them on the curb for removal from our neighborhood.