Simpler times when garbage can lids had meaning

  • Written by Ray Hanania

Hanania-GrapevineElections have changed a lot over the years. These days, it’s about representation, equality and fairness.
But there was a time when it was all about garbage can lids.
I grew up on Chicago’s Southeast Side when Daley’s Democratic Machine had the city in its first headlock.
You really didn’t hear much from the politicians, and most people wanted to stay away from them, until election time. That’s when the precinct captains, usually a neighbor you knew, would come by and ask you to commit your vote to “our” candidate. It was really “his” candidate, but he was “our” friend.
Back then, we didn’t scream about skyrocketing crime and violence. The “murder rate” didn’t exist. We were just happy to live where we lived.
Who locked their front door?
But there was one problem.
Garbage can lids.
We had a cement trash bin that was popular in the 1940s and 1950s. The waste haulers had to shovel the trash from the cement bin into the truck. It was a lot of work.
But sometime in the 1960s, someone came up with a new invention. The galvanized garbage can. They weren’t painted. They were just silver. And there was nothing more important than the lid, which as it turns out, was stolen, a lot.
Who stole the garbage can lids?
I’m not sure. My dad always suspected it might be the precinct captains.
What I mean is the garbage can lid in the 1960s was a lot like the T-Top panels popular in the late 1980s on Camaros. The two glass T-Tops would always get stolen, and you would have to go to the auto dealership to buy replacements, which ran about $600. Who benefited from that arrangement? The car dealers, who we always suspected of stealing them so they could re-sell them.
And that brings me back to the garbage can lids. My dad was convinced the precinct captains stole the garbage can lids. He noticed that lids were often stolen from the homes that voted, or were in the voter rolls.
Because just before every election, the precinct captain would come by, knock on our door, ask us to vote for “our” candidate, and then promise to get us a new garbage can lid.
How did he know?
Eventually, they cement-paved our alley and removed the now unused cement garbage bins. And, we forgot about the garbage can lids. Who needed garbage covers anyway?
Of course, at about the same time that garbage can lids became a non-essential item of sanitation or vote bribery, we noticed an increase in crime, something similar to what is sweeping Chicagoland today. I’m just saying.
Every time I hear about a series of street gang related killings over a weekend, it makes me think back to the 1960s, when all we cared about were garbage can lids at election time.
The only thing that came close to replacing a garbage can lid during an election that I can remember was in the 1970s, when John Fary was the congressman representing the Southwest Side. Fary, who was a decent guy, would hand out little replicas of “toilets.” His way of reminding you that his name was “John.”
I wonder what would happen today if precinct captains went around handing out garbage can lids or little toy toilets to voters?
These days, I guess, we’ve come to expect a little more.
Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall reporter. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .