I can estimate the capacity of a red-lidded household garbage bin to within about a tenth of its actual volume. There's no benefit to calculating this, but when you're hanging on the back of a garbage truck, your face being whipped by the frosty, first-light winds, you'll think about anything to distract yourself.
The lid of a garbage bin is about forty by forty centimetres. The bin stands just over a metre high. Its shape narrows closer to the bottom, and tapers in so the wheels can fit flush with the outside edge. Every bin that stands at attention, guarding the driveway of the houses on the street, would hold about 128 cubic centimetres. I don't have an innate mathematical gift, or the book smarts needed to model the exact dimensions and come up with an answer with a decimal point in it. My results are based on my high school maths: approximate width multiplied by height multiplied by depth. It takes me a few blocks to finish the long multiplication in my head.
The truck arm drops another emptied bin back to earth and a wave of smells hits me: freed baby shit, rotted vegetables and a hint of citrus. I squeeze my chin and my forehead towards each other, the hands-free way of shielding myself from the smells. The pong of mildew chases the stink; all the while I'm congratulating myself on my maths skills.
When we reach the next driveway the previous bin is still rocking from its drop. It's balanced precariously on the edge of the curb. The pressure in the truck's brakes go hiss and then the bin behind us tumbles onto the street. That's my cue. I bang twice on the side of the truck and then drop down to the road. I sprint to the bin, hoist it by the handle and perch it upright in the gutter. It's indifferent about its rescue, but I tell it that it's welcome. I reassure it with a gloved pat on the lid, and that's where I notice "120 Litres" embossed on the red plastic. That's how smart I am, I never noticed that.
The truck moves on and I run to catch it. I grip the freezing stainless-steel handle, waiting for the next unreachable bin, or post-emptying keel over. Today we empty 3,194 bins. I count them. This is my fifteenth shift. If today is an average day it will take me almost three hundred shifts to reach a million bins. That is, if a robot that can stand bins up isn't invented before then.
We pull into the depot to park and the engine of the truck shudders a final time for the morning. I decide that this can't be my life. I need to do something else. I tell the shift supervisor that I won't be in tomorrow.
He says, "Nigel, what do you think you're doing?"
I tell him, "I am going to become the greatest rapper in the world."
I throw the door open to the house and leave it ajar while I search through the rooms for Kelly. She's sleeping, her hospital uniform crumpled beside the bed. Her straight, black hair is like a firework exploding atop her pillow. I shake her gently and she smiles up at me with bleary eyes.
"Hi," she says. Her small nose wrinkles.
"I'll shower in a minute," I say. "I just had to tell you something important, then you can go back to sleep."
"I'm going to become the greatest rapper in the world."
"Are you still going to work for waste services?"
I shake my head. "No, I need to focus on this."
"Yes, I'm sure. I'm sure as…" I look around the room, "a door."
She laughs in a way that could be mistaken for a hiccup.
"Obviously I have some work to do."
She nods, eyes closed. They don't reopen. I reposition the blanket to cover her shoulders and I leave to shower.
There's a mess of paper all over the kitchen. Kelly yawns as she enters. I'm sitting at the table, scribbling my thoughts down. She backs in and plonks down on my lap, interrupting.
"Whatcha doing?" she says. "Writing rhymes?"
"I was earlier," I say, my open palm gesturing to the floor of balled up notepad pages.
She unfurls one and reads it aloud:
"I'm the number one, I've told you before. But I'm also number two, three, pi and four."
"Not really greatest rapper in the world calibre yet," I admit.
She kisses me on the cheek. With soft hands she turns the paper back into a ball and drops it again to the floor. "So what are you writing now?"
"I'm working out who the current greatest rapper in the world is. If I can quantify what makes them the best rapper, then I can come up with a strategy to out achieve their accomplishments."
"That would do it. What have you decided on?"
"Well, it's tough to nominate one specific attribute. I've narrowed it down to a few different factors."
My piece of paper has two columns, and I read them to her:
"Most Billboard number one rap songs, 13. Drake."
"Most Top 40 hits, 34. Timbaland."
"The rapper with the most money, $550 million. Diddy."
"The rapper with the most amount of rhymes. Lil' Wayne"
She raises an eyebrow.
"I did a tally of every major, active rapper's total recorded couplets."
A big pile of papers in the corner of the kitchen shows my working.
"Fastest rapper, 14.1 syllables per second. No Clue."
"Rapper with the biggest chain, $410,000. T-Pain."
"That must be a big chain."
"It is. He's iced out."
The compressor in our ancient refrigerator splutters for a moment before resuming its low-frequency rattle.
"Rapper with the most amount of MySpace friends, Eminem. Four million."
She says, "Gosh."
"That's it," I say. "If I can better just one of these rappers then I'll be a good rapper."
"Don't say ‘but'," says Kelly.
There's a three second staring contest.
"But," I say, "if I can better all of those records then I will truly, inarguably be the greatest rapper who ever lived."
She slaps her palm into her forehead. I say nothing more, I just hug her. She opens up another jumble of paper, and reads it to me:
"Bing bing, a ting ting, a ding a ling a ling ling.
Funny words to write but easy words to sing sing.
Come pump up your tweeters and jump right in in.
Feel the high pitched beats of the treble king."
"This is important to you?" she asks.
"A month ago being a garbage man was important to you."
"This is different."
I put my hands on her hips and lift her up. I sit her down and I stand in front of the sink. The faucet drips. I clear my throat.
"Yo yo," I start.
"Yo yo," I repeat, glaring, "this is me.
The number one, the man to be.
I'm going to start from the kitchen, work my way to the top.
Going to give this rap game everything that I got.
It won't be easy; it will be hard.
But I'll be accepted worldwide, like Master Card.
Got my goals marked down, my to-do list is tight.
Those other G's won't go down without a fight.
But when everything is said and told.
I'll be the greatest rapper in the world."
When I'm finished Kelly stands to clap. There are tears in her eyes. She nods. She nods her approval.
"You can do it," she says. "I believe in you."
To Be Continued