“The Best Damn Garbage Man” by Mo David
I think I’m gonna kill myself.
That’s what’s going through my head as I’m getting dropped off for my first day of seventh grade. My mom puts our clunky, dilapidated minivan in park and continues with her speech, unaware of the tornadoes circling inside my brain.
“So if you work hard in school,” she goes on. “You can go to any college you want, get any job you want. The world is your oyster.”
“Mom,” I say, looking at her directly. “What if I just want to be a garbage man?”
“Well, honey,” she replies, meeting my eyes. “If that’s what you want, then you better be the best damn garbage man you can be.”
I nod and exit the car, slinging my backpack over my shoulder.
“Today is the first day of the rest of your life, sweetie!” my mom calls through the open window before pulling back into traffic, joining a long line of parents off to deposit more children at different buildings.
I turn toward the wall of stained glass windows that tower over me, and take a deep breath.
“I think I’m gonna kill myself.”
This time I say it out loud.
I spent the next two years of middle school and the following three years of high school mostly trying to be things I wasn’t. There were lots of phases. The Avril Lavigne, Hot Topic, goth phase. The argyle vests layered over powder blue oxfords. The massive sneakers with protruding tongues that tricked me into believing I could do even one trick on a skateboard. It’s only now that I’ve spent a decent amount of time away from kids my age that I’ve found an aesthetic that feels natural: a constant rotation of navy and gray t-shirts paired with the same dark jeans and white sneakers.
But through all the phases, I can’t recall even one day that I came downstairs in the morning and was told to go change. Growing up, there was always the overriding message of “try it out.” Maybe something’s not for you, but there’s no shame in slipping into another existence for a little while. Hang out with those kids you don’t usually sit with, try on the outfit that you don’t think you can pull off.
The other night I aimlessly explored the streets of Boston while on the phone with an old friend. She was having an identity crisis, becoming unsure of who she is and what she stands for.
“It’s all about trying things out,” I told her, relaying almost verbatim what my mother had taught me so many years earlier. “You have to learn how to define who you are as opposed to who you’re not. And up until this point, it’s always been about who you’re not.”
“But I’m not like you,” she countered. “I don’t try new things and explore. I’m not outgoing. I just don’t do stuff like that.”
“I wasn’t like me a year ago,” I replied. “and I’m not exactly sure who I’m like right now, whether it’s me or still someone else. But you just told me that you don’t know who you are, and then gave me a long list of predetermined ideas about yourself that you seem to hold as undeniable truths. So which one is it? Do you know or don’t you?”
“I guess,” she slowly said. “I don’t.”
“And you wanna know some really cool shit?” I asked. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
All I know for sure is that everything can change in an instant. Everything you believe to be true about yourself, the people you love, your surroundings, and the world at large can be proven false, then true, then back again. It can happen seven times this summer alone, and five more once the snow falls. I’m gearing up to become a new person as we speak. I’m packing my suitcases and buying fancy pens to try on the role of “Art Student.” I think I’ll write some bad poetry and maybe wear a newsboy cap. I’ll listen to the most obscure indie rock band I can find, and act appalled when you tell me you’ve never heard of them. And maybe I’ll like it, maybe I won’t. But the seasons will eventually change, and so will I.
But through the many versions of myself I may meet, one instruction will always snake its way through the passing years:
Be the best damn garbage man you can be.
Image is the property of Mo David.