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Yankton's annual citywide cleanup week is a sure sign that spring has arrived.
Yankton's annual citywide cleanup week is a sure sign that spring has arrived.

The First Toilet of Spring

Mar 31, 2015

We are just over a week into spring, that most glorious season when flora and fauna awake from their annual slumber and life renews itself. I am especially heartened by the sun this time of year. Each day it ascends a bit higher in the sky and stays a little longer in the evening. I absolutely love it! If I wasn’t a Christian I would probably worship Helios, the ancient Greek god who drove the fiery chariot of the sun across the heavens each day. On his feast day my fellow Heliots and I would drag flaming carts through the streets in his honor. It would be epic.

Everyone has their own way of deciding when spring is here. Some go strictly by the calendar. As for me, I don’t need no steenking calendar to tell me when the seasons have changed. Summer is here when kids get out of school. Fall begins on the night of the first high school football game, no matter how hot it is. Winter starts on the last day you can make a sandwich with the leftover Thanksgiving turkey. You can’t just stick a bunch of shredded turkey between two slices of bread and call it a sandwich, either. It has to incorporate big, man-sized chunks of meat.

People who are in tune with nature have their own ways of deciding when springtime has arrived. Some think the season has turned when they hear the first robin sing, or see great Vs of geese heading north. Gardeners don’t feel it’s here until they plant something, or see a particular blossom. I remember a wizened old gardener saying she knew it was spring when the buds on a certain tree were the size of a mouse’s ear. Ever since then I’ve wondered: how big is a mouse’s ear? Pretty small, I assume, but I can’t say for certain because I only ever see them streaking across the kitchen floor.

Fortunately for me, my means of deciding the weighty matter of spring’s true arrival doesn’t depend on the calendar, birds, or my knowledge of rodent anatomy. I know it’s spring when I see a toilet sitting by the curb.

For 50 or so weeks out of every year you can drive around Yankton and our fair city is a reasonably tidy place. Then right around this time great mounds of refuse appear on every street. It’s the springtime ritual known as Citywide Cleanup. For two glorious weeks citizens can drag to the curb items at which the garbage man would normally turn up his nose and the city will haul them away. No charge. No limit. It’s as close to pure freedom as you can get in this day and age.

In addition to toilets and sinks and an occasional bathtub, there are boards and brush and basketball hoops. Twisted hunks of tin. Cabinets without drawers and drawers without cabinets. Shattered plastic objects, enjoying a few moments in the sun before an eternity in the landfill. Unspeakably ratty couches and chairs. I often wonder where they were before they arrived at the curb. Surely they weren’t sitting on that couch!

Some homes have naught but an old electric fan or a five-gallon bucket before them. If I’m in a good mood when I pass by I admire such people for being so well-ordered and neat that they have almost nothing to discard. If I’m mildly crabby such places are mildly irritating. What are they hiding? Are they trying to make the rest of us look bad?

You are probably wondering why I pay attention to such things in the first place. It is garbage, after all. Well, I’m either embarrassed or not embarrassed to admit that I am one of those people who cruise through unfamiliar neighborhoods during this time of year looking for treasures amidst the trash.

I can’t decide if I’m embarrassed or not because my attitude on this aspect of the Citywide Cleanup likewise varies with the day. Sometimes I feel like I’m Dumpster diving, as if I’ve crossed the line between me and the world of bums. Other days I think of myself as cutting edge. I was recycling — going green in today’s terms — long before it was fashionable. There is hardly a room in our home that doesn’t have a “rescued” item in it.

In case you’re wondering, however, there are some lines I’ve never crossed. This I swear by the great and powerful Helios: our toilet came with the house.

Editor’s Note: This column is revised from the May/June 2012 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

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