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The grocery cart dumped on the lawn outside Stephen Quinn’s home in Vancouver. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
The grocery cart dumped on the lawn outside Stephen Quinn’s home in Vancouver. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

CITY LIMITS

Relishing the battle with imperfect city services Add to ...

We made the first call to 311 last Saturday. The report: Overnight someone had parked a shopping cart on our lawn, just outside the fence under a magnolia tree. It wasn't one of those sad supermarket carts overflowing with the earthly possessions of a homeless person. This was one of those upright liquor-store carts. The top and bottom tiers held something square and heavy, wrapped neatly in garbage bags, with a couple of odd items stuffed into the crevices that remained: a water bottle, some plastic bags. Attached to the back of the cart with a bungee cord was a rented industrial shop vacuum, its wheels positioned to roll in the direction of the cart, the rental sticker still shiny. The whole thing was bound with heavy rope and knots that may have been tied by someone who once knew the sea.

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Tucked underneath the rope was a piece of green foam about the same size and shape as the deck of a skateboard. It looked vaguely like the hoverboard Michael J. Fox rode in Back the Future 2. Maybe he’s a hobo from the future who had to go back unexpectedly, I thought.

Not surprisingly, the 311 operator explained that city crews were busy dealing with the effects of that weekend’s heavy rainstorm. They were unclogging storm drains and dealing with puddles that were swallowing smaller cars. The shopping cart would have to wait. But she gave us a reference number to track the progress of our all-important case.

On Sunday, the heavy rain continued. That day’s call to 311 was meant to be a friendly reminder that whoever had abandoned the cart had not returned to pick it up.

On Monday, the rain finally ended, and as my wife continued to worry about what may have happened to the person who owned the contents of the cart, I worried that whatever was inside it may have been stolen. We took turns calling 311 that day. I called in the evening and tried to persuade the operator that somewhere was a city truck that could be radioed to come and do the job. He put me on hold for a long time, then came back to tell me that, yes, regular sanitation crews are on the road, but that dealing with our particular concern required a specialized unit. “So the thing that’s been on my lawn now for three days is a toxic hazard?” I asked, not really expecting an answer. I told him that if the cart was not gone in the morning, I would roll it across the street to the park, or at least onto the sidewalk. Either way, it would be the city’s problem and not mine. He told me that if I were to abandon it on city property, that would be seen as illegal dumping, and I could be charged.

And here is what went through my head: Last weekend, when a month’s rain fell in two days, we shovelled leaves from the storm drain five times. We regularly mow the grass on the boulevard. We water the immature trees, as the city specifically asks us to do, with little notes tied around the growing trunks. We shovel snow and put sand on the sidewalk in the winter. We plant flowers and shrubs that make the neighbourhood more attractive. We have made a family activity out of picking up garbage in the park and playground across the street.

I mentioned some of this a few weeks ago in this space and I begrudge none of it.

We do all of that because we want to be good citizens – and neighbours – but there’s an implied contract with the city: If we do our part, they will do theirs.

Is it reasonable to expect action on this after two or three days (or four or five)?

The legal-action-threat conversation ended reasonably, with the promise the cart would be removed the following day. It was not. Nor the day after, nor the following day as the 311 operators were now commenting on the thickness of our file.

Why not throw it in the back of the car and take it to the dump ourselves? Well, the caution exercised by the city tells me maybe this is something I don’t want in my car. Not that it would fit. As well, we learned by calling 311 that the city actually holds onto abandoned carts in case an owner comes back to claim the contents. Which is commendable.

Six days and seven phone calls later, the cart was still there when we received this e-mail from one of our neighbours: “Hey, what’s up with the cart under your tree? Some poor soul had to abandon it there? It’s good of you to leave it there for them.”

And yes, we felt terrible.

At 7:36 on Friday morning, we received a call from Frank at the City. He was outside our house, he had spotted the cart, and he informed us that a crew would be by that day to remove it.

It’s times like these I’m reminded of the words of the 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal: “It is the fight alone that pleases us, not the victory.”

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One in Vancouver, 690 AM and 88.1 FM. @cbcstephenquinn

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