“The Sewer People,” by Steven Cavros, has a myth-like air about it. The story, which is written in the third person, describes the plight of the sewer people, who lived long ago, in the year 2027. The sewer people, the narrator tells us, were an underground society formed of tiny beings made of accumulated pieces of garbage. In all, there are eighteen-thousand sewer people. Their troubles began when they tried to form a government. First, someone named Dirt proposed to his friends, Junk and Meaningless, that they form a government. They called a meeting, but it did not go very well—the sewer people weren’t very good at writing clearly interpretable laws.
Even still, Dirt was elected chief of the sewer people, and the sewer people fled in terror, many of them dying. Eventually, angry mobs arrested Dirt. Then they tried to elect Junk as leader, but he ran away. Finally, Meaningless was made the chief of the sewer people. Meaningless wanted a large government, but eventually kills many members of his cabinet after infighting. The sewer people are basically ungovernable until one night Junk’s son encourages everyone to crawl from the sewer and dance in the moonlight all night.
What makes this world believable?
Part of what makes the world of “The Sewer People” so believable is the specificity of detail. The opening passage brings us to an extremely believable, particular world.
Now once, long ago, on June 12, 2027, a stray banana peel found its way into the sewers of Orlando, Florida. It traveled through the sewers for twenty minutes, and then it at last came to the very bottom of the sewers, to a deep puddle. Like all the junk there, it joined itself to a sea of junk, and nine minutes later, a little human-like creature with frail limbs stood where eighteen or so bits of junk had come together.
The image of a banana peel in a sewer in Orlando, Florida, is very striking—as readers, we can really envision it making its way down the winding tunnels of the sewer. We learn that the banana peel’s journey lasts twenty minutes, a very specific measure of time that helps us as readers understand the extent of the journey much better than an abstract phrase like “a while” would. Twenty minutes is a long time—the banana is deep in the sewer. Finally, we land on another extremely specific detail: the idea that each sewer person is made of about eighteen or so bits of junk. That “or so” is really what sells me on the world. Eighteen would have felt almost too precise on its own. This is, after all, a kind of biological process. People might on average have 100,000 strands of hair—but the number is not exact. I might have 98,000, and you might have 101,341. Likewise, there is some physical variation in the sewer people. One might be made of seventeen pieces of junk, or nineteen. The preciseness and impreciseness in the story feels a lot like most things that are real.
These sorts of details exist throughout the story. We quickly learn that there are 18,000 sewer people—again, a number that feels realistic because it feels both precise and a little random. We learn that even though they’re made of garbage, sewer people still want to have a government—something that feels very specific to the human world and thus striking in a sewer context. And, we learn that sometimes the sewer people die awful deaths, like being fileted on the sewer grates. Being sliced up by sewer grates is an incredibly unique form of death that seems like it could only ever exist in this world.
Finally, the names of the sewer people really help make the story believable. In some ways, what’s so unique about this world is that it is a messy imitation of the human one. The sewer people look like people, but they’re made of trash and very small. They try to form a government, but the people they ask to lead would rather live in tin cans. Even their names feel a bit like mistakes—Dirt, Junk, and Meaningless are reused words that had other purposes in the human world. If they had been named “Charlie” and “Caroline,” the story would in many ways have felt less unique. Part of what’s interesting about the sewer people is their unusual repurposing of the human world.
- How do you think this story would have been different if it had been told from the perspective of one of the sewer people?
- How does the government in the sewer people’s world feel similar to governments in the human world? How does it differ?
- In some ways, the sewer people are portrayed very negatively, but in other parts of the story, readers might feel sympathy for their plight. How do you think the writing impacts how we feel about the sewer people? Does this change throughout the story?
The Sewer People
Now once, long ago, on June 12, 2027, a stray banana peel found its way into the sewers of Orlando, Florida. It travelled through the sewers for twenty minutes, and then it at last came to the very bottom of the sewers, to a deep puddle. Like all the junk there, it joined itself to a sea of junk, and nine minutes later, a little human-like creature with frail limbs stood where eighteen or so bits of junk had come together.
All the sewer people came from junk, of course. Hundreds, thousands of the sewer people there were— made from all the junk in the sewers— and no junk ever left the sewers as a banana peel or bit of ripped paper.
The sewer people had no government, no economy, no friends. All ignored them, didn’t care for a moment that they existed, ignored them terribly, TERRIBLY. They were forgotten and lost.
All the troubles of the world began when an important sewer person, Dirt, proposed a government to his small ring of friends, Junk and Meaningless. But they could not create a government without the support of the 18,000 little frail-limbed sewer people they shared the sewers with. They called a meeting, but in vain, as it ended in chaos. Another meeting, then another, was held until many sewer people approved a government. But as that meeting closed, a new problem arose: how would they make a government, and who would be on it?
The idea was simple enough: they needed a leader who would have a title and make decisions, and no one but him would have power. Of course, it can be seen the sewer people were terribly mistaken about the nature of government and laws. For the laws said, “Do no wrong”—of course leaving much to be desired, as the law of “Do no wrong” was twisted by different perceptions of wrong.
Now one day, Dirt was speaking with Junk and Meaningless. Anyone just joining to listen would have been very lost, so you will be briefed: they were arguing over the meaning of right and wrong. Dirt was screaming, yelling, proving his point badly, with useless, wasted words. Dirt’s fist struck Meaningless as Junk raised his arms in surrender, panting, agreeing hastily that killing was wrong, a subject that had been key to the argument. They were so new to governments and hierarchies and laws, they were still debating over whether murder was wrong when Dirt was elected chief of the sewer people.
The poor sewer people fled their failing government, some in terror, mostly drowning in puddles or being filleted in sewer grates. Still, some remained, fighting for a strong government. Dirt stayed to fight for the government he had always hoped to achieve. But then one night he was forced by armed mobs of sewer people to surrender his place as leader. Strange things occurred while Dirt lay in chains on a hard, cold floor—like Junk’s refusal to be elected to the chief board of the sewer people.
Junk was sitting comfortably in an old soda can, his home—and a very luxurious one at that. He suddenly beheld, through a window hole cut in the side of his can home, a little sewer man running up to his wide-open door.
The little sewer man entered and hastily regurgitated some words written down on a piece of parchment—to us a shred, to them a scroll. The words Junk made out were something like this, to his ears: “Thee, thou art, appointment, chief?” Well, “chief” he could make out, but it surprised the messenger greatly when he was shooed away, after being dubbed an “irking parasite” by the would-be most important sewer person. Junk left, and was presumed dead, but his body was never found submerged in a sewer puddle, and his flesh and hair were never found in sewer grates. Junk’s refusal to be chief of the sewer people made Meaningless the chief sewer person.
Meaningless believed in a strong government but still wanted to make fair government, with equal division of power. His government began nine days after he took office, leaving him with only a small amount of power on a seventy-person cabinet. Meaningless began to call his government design weak, yet he was still very respected. Eventually, he became strong again, and many of those on the cabinet were cruelly executed. Now one day, Meaningless fled the sewers, being strongly disliked, and no government was kept among the sewer people.
One night, many years after Meaningless had fled the sewers, Junk’s son was growing old, and the moon came out over the sewers, and he said: “Tonight, all, is our night—to live life, to crawl from these sewers, even if we never see a night like this again.”
And so, all of the sewer people climbed from the sewers, those delegates of the underbelly of society, and danced and talked and ate scraps they found until the sun rose and shone down on them, and they all quickly clambered back to the sewers, sewers where they had been before.
But none ever forgot that day: even when the day came when the sewers fell apart, broke, were excavated, the memory still hung in the air somewhere else. In another place. In the poor old sewers, even as the pipes were carted away and the street crew came, garbage men and construction workers, all never knowing what had once been there. Once, long ago.