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Wrapped Up Like a Ruse

Claim:   During a recent garbage workers' strike, clever folks took to gift-wrapping their garbage and leaving it in plain sight in unlocked cars.

LEGEND

Examples:

[Cerf, 1970]

If the garbage workers in your community ever go out on strike you might like to know how a wise New Yorker disposed of his refuse for the nine days the sanitation workers were off the job last summer. Each day he wrapped his garbage in gift paper. Then he put it in a shopping bag. When he parked his car, he left the bag on the front seat with the window open. When he got back to the car the garbage always had been collected.
 

[Youngman, 1983]

I have a brother-in-law so smart that during the garbage striek, do you know how he got rid of it? Gift wrapped it, and put it in the back of his car, and they stole it.
 

[Collected on the Internet, 2000]

During the garbage collectors strike in NYC in the 1980's, I heard that people would put it in a box and wrap it up in gift wrap and ribbons, then take it to the park and leave it on a bench.
 

Origins:   New York is known both for its garbage workers' strikes and for its horrendously high crime level, which is why this story has become attached to that particular town. As much as we'd like to believe some beleaguered New Yorker not only found a clever Gift way to emerge untrashed through a garbage strike but also managed to stick someone who'd richly earned it with his problem, there's little reason to suppose this tale is anything other than wishful thinking.

Who would gift-wrap his garbage? (Most people don't want to go that hands-on with their leavings. Heck, it's usually a battle of wills to get someone to carry it as far as the garbage chute; imagine trying to convince any otherwise sane person to package it into cute little parcels.) More telling, who would risk permeating his car with garbage stench as his little packet of love sits there on spec happily rotting away in the noon-day sun? Even if a thief does eventually come to collect those easy pickings, chances are it wouldn't be before that rich garbagy smell had thoroughly soaked into everything.

Each time this story surfaces, it is related as a true occurrence. That's hard to believe, however, when a 1970 account places it "last summer," a 1992 rendition says it happened "a few years back," a 2000 surfacing dates it to "in the 1980s," and a 1987 telling identifies it as arising out of a 1975 strike. The choice is simple — choose to believe this scenario gets acted out every time there's a sanitation workers' job action and that the Big Apple thieves haven't yet caught on to this
ploy, or accept that this well-loved tale is apocryphal and is merely trotted out anew every now and again.

Gossip columnist Doris Lilly attests Joan Crawford claimed this story of herself. According to Lilly, during a sanitation strike, Crawford had her trash put in Bergdorf Goodman boxes complete with big purple bows before having them taken out. Though no dates are given for when this supposedly took place or when Crawford began telling the tale, we can safely place the anecdote prior to May 1977, the month Crawford died.

Our garbage story has a great deal in common with a couple of other legends. A well known version of the "dead cat in the package" also makes use of the "thief who steals something repulsive" theme. In that story, an opportunistic booster swoops off with a shopping bag left in a parking lot, only to later discover her purloined prize is actually a deceased kitty. Another related legend (briefly mentioned on our Lait for Work page) tells of a urine sample being transported to the lab in an old whiskey bottle. The specimen is lifted from the car when its donor momentarily leaves the vehicle unattended. In each of these three legends, the crime of stealing is punished by the fruits of the act itself.

Barbara "fruits of the loom" Mikkelson

Last updated:   19 July 2011

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Sources:

    Cerf, Bennett.   The Sound of Laughter.
    New York: Doubleday and Company, 1970   (p. 6).

    Mackey, Aurora.   "Attitudes: Waste Disposal; State of Trash."
    Los Angeles Times.   5 November 1992   (p. J15).

    Morgan, Hal and Kerry Tucker.   More Rumor!
    New York: Penguin, 1987.   ISBN 0-14-009720-1   (p. 118).

    Walls, Jeannett.   Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip.
    New York: Avon Books, 2000   ISBN 0-380-97821-0   (p. 126).

Also told in:

    Rosen, Milt.   Milton Berle's Private Joke File.
    New York: Crown Publishers, 1989   (p. 282).

    Youngman, Henny.   Take My Jokes, Please.
    Richardson & Snyder, 1983   ISBN 0-943940-05-2   (p. 96).