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Garbage Truck / December 13, 2019

Why are thousands of people watching this man’s grass grow?

Mr. Grass and I have just spent a few hours on his porch talking about the factual accuracy of the movie Sully and eating backyard peaches and watching rabbits thump thump across the lawn and taking in the warming Colorado morning, so I figure it’s probably time to get out of his hair.

We walk through his suburban Denver home and out onto the driveway, where he stops about 10 feet past the front of the garage, a place he’s stopped hundreds if not thousands of times before.

“The sun’s gonna be a little bright in our eyes, ” Mr. Grass says, wheeling around in his bare feet. We squint and look up at the small balcony off his master bedroom, fixing our eyes on the apple-sized camera tacked to the eave overhead. “You gotta freeze because it needs to go for about two seconds.”

We both reflexively give the camera a thumbs-up, hold the pose, and smile.

This love story begins as most do, with a man searching the internet for a choppy video of a garbage truck: The truck lifts a trash can, and then unceremoniously thrashes that can up and down, spewing trash across a quiet street. I can’t remember exactly why I was searching for that video—it was technically the GIF version I was looking for—but it was likely for use in a witty email, something I admittedly spend way too much time on and am way too proud of.

When the Google Images page loaded, the GIF appeared: top left, option one. I patted myself on the back for my superior Googling skills—“garbage+truck+GIF”—and was ready to X out the window when I spotted another image of interest: blue and white garbage truck, lush lawn, suburban. Expecting to add a new arrow to my quiver of trash-chucking GIFs, I was instead met with a garbage truck lifting two trash cans one by one, and then gently returning them to the ground. Surely this must be a mistake, I thought. I watched the GIF over and over, waiting for something else to happen. It did not.

What I did see, though, was a flicking time stamp in the corner—this trash was picked up and not thrown at 10:46 a.m. on June 20, 2007—and the website’s URL, Curious enough to spend a few more minutes down this rabbit hole, I pulled up the site.

The Rocky theme song blared.

A weather report sat atop an all-green, rudimentary web page.

My cursor became a scrolling red lawnmower.

And I, for the first time, stole a look at Mr. Grass’ front lawn.

A poured concrete driveway runs down the right side of the frame, with a few coniferous trees poking into the screen. A Volkswagen-sized bush occupies the southwest quadrant, sitting at the top of a yard that slopes down to the street. The top edge is populated with the beginnings of neighbors’ yards. As I moved my cursor over the image, the words “grass webcam” appeared. According to a counter in the upper right, 37 other souls were staring at the lawn with me.

Just as I began to come to terms with what I was watching, a tan Chevy Avalanche blipped onto the screen. I jumped, and maybe yelped. (I yelped.)

I started winding my way through the tip of the site’s 11, 000-plus comments. Highlight of my day: Mr. Grass getting the newspaper, wrote Sr. Grass, from North Platte, Nebraska. The UPS van just drove by!!! a Branson, Missouri, viewer announced. This is my favourite website, said Lucy, from Serbia. Occasionally, the man behind the curtain, Mr. Grass, would respond, like when a viewer complained about the yellowing of the lawn. It will perk back up when the weather gets cooler and we get some rain, Mr. Grass said.

I scanned the dozens of screengrabbed highlights from over the years: mundane shots of him fertilizing the grass, elaborate Christmas and Halloween displays, sun-soaked carwashes. The years flitted by. Grass crinkles and reemerges; his neighbor gets a new mailbox. In one, from Father’s Day 2004, Mr. Grass is trimming the lawn, with his two early elementary-school age sons pushing toy mowers behind him. After the webcam, it’s the first image any viewer sees. It’s sweet.

I pulled the tab into its own window and left it running while I went back to work trying to write pithy emails. But I couldn’t stop looking at the feed. It updated every two seconds or so; sometimes whole minutes would pass where nothing would happen. I’d refresh the page, assuming it was stuck. Again: nothing. It was like a real time Magic Eye poster, only one where you stare at it for 10 minutes before you realize it’s not, in fact, even a Magic Eye poster.