At the age of five, I was appalled to learn that small jars and bottles, emptied of their pills, salves, and sauces, were thrown in the trash. It’s not that I was an early environmentalist. This was the early 1960s—plastic had yet to revolutionize the container world, and “recycle” was barely a word. I was guided purely by my own aesthetic and utilitarian instincts: the exquisite curves of smooth glass, the incontestable usefulness of small containers with screw-on lids. I could not bear the thought of those beautifully molded vessels being tossed in the garbage. There was a site outside of town called the City Dump. I had never been there, but I could still conjure the Stygian horror of such a place.
My indulgent mother didn’t object when I started fishing jars out of the bathroom and kitchen trash cans. At first I wanted only the naturally pristine containers, such as pill bottles. When my mom caught on to my project, she showed me how to clean out food jars, and did it for me when the job proved too gross (which was most of the time).
She also gave me a shoe box to house my collection. I kept it under my bed. I spent a lot of time with my bottles, holding them up to the light, gripping them in different ways. Looking back, I’m not sure what I was doing. But when Mom asked me how I planned to use my vessels, what I wanted to put in them, I was vaguely offended. Wasn’t it enough that they were lovely, and that I had saved them?
I started collecting bottles and jars from the neighbors. I wasn’t very good at articulating why I wanted them, but I was not at all shy about asking. I marched up and rang the doorbell of the Sweet family next door. Mr. Sweet was the editor of the Nebraska City News-Press, and might have written a feature about me if I were ten years older—the civic virtue of my project would have been evident then. As it was, my neighbors were just indulging the whim of the weird kid next door. I went around the corner to the Schrunders, whose endlessly barking dog, Skippy, annoyed the whole block. I avoided the Millers. Bobby Miller was a bully, and would make fun of me at the very least. If my treasure had come within his grasp, I would not have put it past him to smash each bottle and jar, one after another, on the brick sidewalk in front of my house. He was that kind of kid.