Their long, middle-parted hair tied back with leather thongs, a mother and her preschool daughter stare transfixed into a stew pot full of melting wax, watching a purple Crayola crayon dissolve to a thundercloud that gradually colors the whole steaming potful a rich magenta.
The mother dries her hands on her embroidered jeans, takes a deep breath and pours the wax into half a dozen emptied and washed half-gallon wine jugs that already contain hardened layers of Crayola crimson and Crayola orange. Mother and daughter watch the purple layer settle, knowing it'll have to dry a few days before they can add the blue and the green layers.
In a few weeks, right before Christmas, the mother reminds her toddler-hippie they'll have the best time of all: taking the jugs out onto the patio and breaking the glass with a hammer, freeing from their molds perfect, many-layered, gorgeous candles.
THIS IS A FEMALE BONDING SCENE from the early '70s, which is when the late '60s happened in Baltimore; and I didn't remember it until the early '90s, when a desultory spring-cleaning of the dank back cellar unearthed Aunt Maude's candle. Actually it was a candle my family and I gave Aunt Maude for Christmas -- Christmas, 1971. That was the year everybody unlucky enough to be our near and dear got a humongous handmade, dripped-into-an-Almaden-jug, melted-crayon-colored candle instead of a crass store-bought present. When Aunt Maude died a few years back, I inherited the things on top of Aunt Maude's kitchen cabinets. The handmade candle was one of those things.
Well, no wonder. There was only one skinny wick for about 18 pounds of wax, so the thing put itself out -- drowned its own wick -- as soon as the flame got going. For years the barely burned remnants of just such a homemade candle gathered dust and additional grease atop our own kitchen cabinets. Cellars over the age of 20 everywhere in the United States must hold a couple of those candles. They were one of my generation's old-fashioned solutions to the problem of used glass jugs.
Today, a spring day in 1991, it's the daughter of the above vignette -- wearing her immaculate jeans like a miniature J. Crew model -- who has taught her mother the Now approach to these jugs. They get collected in paper bags labeled Green Glass and Brown Glass and carted in the hatchback to the nearest recycling center -- in our case, at the corner of Joppa and La Salle roads in Towson. (In Towson, curbside recycling is still just a dream.)
"I can't believe you aren't already into it," was the way she shamed me into getting back into recycling. She, the female half of a married pair recently described by a family friend as "the most conservative couple in Charles Village," has been into it ever since she and her husband moved into a house of their own. Could it be that the linguistic kinship of "conservative" and "conservation" has actually started to mean something again?
I, on the other hand, couldn't believe I'd ever get into it again. I remembered all too well the full-time nature of recycling, back in the '70s. I remembered getting turned away from recycling dumps 15 miles away from our home because they were inexplicably closed that day, or, far worse, because I'd accidentally failed to comply with a regulation, like not steaming off every single scrap of every single label. Being cited for Inadequate Can Crushing was what finally made me abandon the whole recycling aspect of my life. I feel certain that '70s-style recycling was the beginning of the end of my first marriage.
Listening to my young mentor describe her system of lined-up paper bags -- one each for tin, aluminum, newspapers, non-newspaper paper, white, brown and green glass ("Wine bottles that look white are really green, in case you didn't know"), mentally trying to locate such a system in my tiny and already overstuffed kitchen, I could see a second marriage headed for the dump.
Nevertheless, that afternoon I bought two oversized, bright blue outdoor trash cans -- one for newspapers, one for bottles and cans. It took close to a month for both to fill to the brim. During that month, I noticed something magical: Our curbside trash dwindled from four cans each collection day to one or two cans once a week. But the Saturday of Reckoning was bound to roll around.
My first 1990's trip to the recycling center: I cringed at the thought. Experience told me it would be a bum trip, not unlike trying to register a used vehicle at the Motor Vehicle Administration. I'd wait in long lines and when it was finally my turn somebody grim-faced would tell me I'd done one little thing wrong and send me away to start all over again a week later. That's how recycling was in the bad old days.