I learned about the tragedy of the commons in a college sociology class, but I didn’t understand it on a spiritual level until I moved to New York City and lived with roommates from Craigslist.
If your major was one in which you learned how to make money instead of learning how humans treat each other and the world poorly, the tragedy of the commons comes into play when humans choose to act in their own limited sense of self-interest instead of in the common good. People are often bad at imagining themselves as a member of the group that would ultimately benefit from the common good, which means scenarios in which a group shares resources become depleted or unkempt as individuals extract what they want and fail to do the work necessary to maintain them.
The best middle-class American example of the tragedy of the commons is probably any workplace’s shared break room refrigerator, but the dynamic extends to private spaces too. Because of high housing costs and the large number of young transplants who move to the city, NYC is full of individuals in living situations where they don’t feel particularly bound to their roommates, the upkeep of their shared spaces, or the group’s shared interests. It’s a million little tragic commonses.
For the six years I did it, the Craigslist roommate experience was mostly fine — everyone washed their dishes in a reasonable amount of time, and we were all mostly deferential to the other shared indignities of living with humans whose shower schedules don’t always line up with your own. The only place this cooperation consistently broke down was the kitchen trash can, an area of such mutual disgust across apartments and roommate configurations that eventually I tried to avoid being home on trash night so I could eschew extended physical interaction with the trash can, a move I copied from one of my other roommates.
That’s how the commons becomes tragic, of course — we acted in our own situational self-interest, which meant avoiding the trash entirely in hopes that someone else would take care of it, and then no one did. Even when one of us eventually got fed up and bought a new can, which happened a couple of times, the situation would deteriorate again quickly. Cheap plastic trash cans, with their stamped texture and lids you have to physically open with your hands in the middle of cleaning raw chicken, just want to be grimy.
That’s how, after the better part of a decade spent trying to toss open crusty lids with only my pinky finger, spending $130 on a trash can sounded like a thing I might reasonably do in order to buy my way out of that experience and into a product that promised never to become gross.
The trash can in question is the Simplehuman 45-liter step-open model, and given that American trash bags are usually sized in quarts or gallons, you already know it’s fancy. The occasion of its potential purchase was the acquisition of my own apartment — at 31 years old, I had managed to raise my freelance writing rates enough that, on top of the salary from my full-time job, I could afford to live by myself, in a real one-bedroom apartment near the Brooklyn bagel shop I already liked. The New York Dream: No Trust Fund Edition.
My apartment was one of the rare, unblemished steps forward that come around less frequently as you transition from young adulthood to the more stable and regular kind, but it also required me to acknowledge that I had probably peaked, in New York real estate terms. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else with my life, but writing’s ability to move me into ever-nicer apartments is based mostly on luck and timing beyond this point in my career, and my willingness to spend more time imagining a future based on good luck and good timing is slim.
What I have is the best of what I’m likely to ever have, which is a jarring thing to admit to yourself in a culture that raises children on the myth that we can all be fabulously wealthy one day, if only we apply ourselves. I have applied myself, and where I am is in my own modest apartment in New York City, which I am almost unfathomably lucky to be able to afford, above and beyond any work I’ve done to get here. It would probably be wiser to still have the roommates, to still pay rent on a bedroom instead of a whole place, to put that extra money into saving for some kind of grand but presently indeterminate future that I will theoretically have with a theoretical house and maybe a theoretical husband, sometime before the seas rise up and kill us all.
It’s hard for me to look around at the world in 2018, to look at all the malevolent things about it that I can’t control but that can control me, and feel like playing that game is something more than rearranging the deck chairs on my own personal Titanic. It’s hard to imagine what putting $130 in my savings account instead of putting it out into the world could possibly do to help solve any of the big, intractable problems that are more worrisome and probably more immediate than my own retirement. So fuck it, I bought the trash can. The future I’d be saving for seems increasingly unlikely, and putting little bits of money aside seems like an increasingly futile way to deal with the future that is coming, but garbage day never ends.
My Simplehuman is most widely available in silver-finished stainless steel, which I found compelling enough even without looking into other options, or considering that other options might exist — it’s a stainless steel trash can, of course it’s silver. When I mentioned my love for this ridiculous thing on Twitter, though, a friend asked if I was getting the rose gold version. Even before my fingers could type “rose gold trash can” into Google, I knew that yes, of course, I was getting the rose gold version. I would die without the rose gold trash can, which I had not known existed four seconds prior.
I’ve spent most of my career writing about fashion, so what I felt was familiar to me: a crushing need to buy something more expensive than it could ever be worth, plus the ambient self-hatred of knowing that marketing had worked on me, even though I had known what it was up to all along.
And more than a year later, somehow, my pink metal refuse receptacle feels like it was worth the money. I used one of those omnipresent Bed Bath & Beyond coupons and got 20 percent off, so my actual expenditure was closer to $100 — my deep well of millennial dread might make me spend money in dumb ways sometimes, but my also-very-millennial facility with online shopping means I won’t spend more than I have to.
My Simplehuman is as pristine today as the day I bought it, because its stainless exterior and soft curves make it easy to wipe down with Lysol until there is nary a fingerprint in sight. After you insert a bag, the can’s cap fully covers the overhang within, so the aesthetic of the thing is vaguely spaceship-y — cool, clean, uninterrupted metal.
And even the worst smells don’t escape, somehow. Once the lid (which descends in a slow, controlled, totally silent way, so as not to disturb its ideal, rich owners with something as pedestrian as sound) is closed, the stink stays in. If you can find it within yourself and your bank account to spend this much money on a place to put your empty takeout containers, the Simplehuman can does its best to let you forget that’s where you put them at all, which is the highest purpose a trash can could possibly achieve.
When you live with other people, whether it’s roommates or your family, the rarest pleasure is having things exactly how you’d prefer to have them. And in general, that’s fine, and even good — the small compromises of living with others make us better, less brittle, more human. But after decades of that, there’s undeniable pleasure in getting to be the final arbiter of all decisions, the chooser of all choices, the only person whose fault it could be if the trash can is grimy, and therefore the only one whose responsibility it is to maintain it. As the world grows more chaotic and our collective sense of ambient dread settles in to stay a while, I’ve found a commons of one’s own.
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