A guy at the Quickie Mart took me into his confidence.
“There is a rumor going around about Otis,” he told me.
Otis is our trash collector and about the sweetest guy imaginable. Every Thursday morning at first light, his old Ford truck rumbles down our road and shutters to a stop. Otis then ambles out of his cab to spend a few moment romping with Scooter before picking up whatever we pile at the end of our driveway.
Well, not everything.
Occasionally, he will leave an item, along with a note that reads. ‘Greg, remember the trouble you got in with your wife the last time you tried to throw this out?’
“What are they saying about him?” I asked.
“He’s poaching trash.”
Everybody knows that.
A few years ago, our county mandated that all trash must be picked up by a certified hauler and carted off to the county burner, which is forty miles away. The thing is, we live near the border and the neighboring county has its own burner just eight miles away.
Common sense would dictate that trash be directed to the nearest burner – but that is not how government works and since the economics of hauling it forty miles is so far out of whack – our contractors limit each customer to the meager offering of a single tiny cart to be picked up on Wednesday.
At dawn on Thursday, Otis rumbles by to gather the remainder and illegally haul it over the border.
“Who told you?” I asked.
“I can’t say,” the guy said.
“They asked to remain anonymous.”
Later that day at The Big Box Store, another guy whispered, “There is a rumor going around about Otis.”
“Let me guess,” I told him, “whoever told you prefers to remain anonymous?”
“Not exactly,” he said.
“I heard it from two different sources.”
“Who both refuse to be identified?”
“Bingo! …and uh, don’t tell anyone that I told you. Okay?”
At the John Deere parts counter, a clerk confided the same thing and it was all the buzz at the scale house.
And everyone insisted upon remaining anonymous.
Finally, out of pure disgust, I resolved to get to the bottom of it. The next time someone told me that their source preferred to remain anonymous, I turned it around. “But tell me, who have you told?”
“I dunno if I can say,” they said.
“Look,” I told him, “they promised not to tell on you, but you didn’t promise to not tell on them.”
It took him a moment to stumble through the fog of doubt before emerging into the bright light of clarity. “I suppose that’s true,” he said.
“Then cough them up.”
Having some experience in investigations, I constructed a “ring of associates” graph and traced every twig of innuendo back to its branch of hearsay and every branch of gossip back to the trunk of rumor. Along the way, I found that each, “Don’t tell” and “I heard it from multiple sources” originated from the same single source – my buddy Stan.
“Stan,” I said, “I hear you are spreading rumors.”
“Who from?” he said.
“They prefer to remain anonymous.”
“That really sucks.”
“But didn’t you ask that of them?”
“That’s an entirely different deal,” he said, “I pass along credible information, not rat on people.”
“Spreading rumors while hiding behind anonymity is not what I would call credible.”
“How is that different from what you get from FOX, CNN, MSNBC, Buzzfeed, The New York Times and Washington Post? They all rely on single anonymous sources.”
I just shook my head. “But why Otis? He is such a sweet guy.”
“Promise you won’t tell?”
“I’ve been consulting with the county on a project to expand their burner. Apparently, the metropolitan area can’t handle its own waste and wants to ship it out.”
“And what does this have to do with Otis?”
“The county is making more money off the metro trash than the local stuff.”
“Right. They can’t admit it because they still have to honor their contracts with the local haulers and service the taxpayers– but the more trash that gets poached locally, the more capacity there is for metro trash and the more money the county makes.”
“Which is why they asked you to spread the word about Otis and boost his business?”
“And they asked you to do it anonymously so none of it gets back to them.”
“You betchya,” Stan said, “that’s how government works.”
“It sure is, but you didn’t hear it from me.”