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Thursday, August 31, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

A trashy tale of empties

Seattle Times staff columnist

It was fitting that when I stepped from the car, my foot landed on an empty bottle of cognac.

I looked around. Next to the cognac was a spent bottle of Smirnoff Ice. Scattered about like mini bowling pins were 10 airplane vials, all with the same label. Yukon Jack. The Black Sheep of Canadian Liquors. I'd come to the right place for an archaeological "dig."

Seattle is banning 29 brands of high-alcohol beers and wines from most of the central city, starting Nov. 1. The goal is to crack down on street drinking by cutting out the street drunk's drug of choice — cheap, potent booze.

There's debate whether it will work. And whether it's classist to ban cheap beers that pack a wallop, such as Colt 45 malt liquor, but not pricey beers with even more alcohol, such as Pyramid Snow Cap.

What caught my eye, though, was how city officials picked the list of taboo drinks.

They looked to the litter.

Over a year, the city sent out citizens to collect drink-related flotsam cast in streets and yards across six square miles of Seattle. Six neighborhood groups picked up cans and bottles and submitted lists of the brands and quantities.

"We needed data that showed a connection between specific products and the problems that come with public inebriation," says Jordan Royer of the mayor's office. "It started with citizens bringing bags of cans to city meetings and dumping them out on the table. We thought that made the case very effectively."

It may seem a sketchy way to craft public policy. But it turns out the study of trash is a legit academic field, called "garbology." It's the archaeology of now. By analyzing our rejectamenta, we can learn hidden truths about ourselves.

Trash doesn't lie, says the professor who pioneered the field, archaeologist William Rathje of Stanford. He's the guy who touched off that vexing paper-versus-plastic debate when he dug up landfills and found that paper bags don't degrade, either.

In that spirit, I surveyed refuse at the booze intersection nearest my home — 23rd and Union in the Central District. There's a minimarket selling most everything on the banned list. There's a liquor store, too.

Two things stood out. One, I found 94 bottles and cans in an hour. And that wasn't the lion's share of the litter (newspapers were). The volume on one city block was eye-popping. I hadn't noticed before what a midden we're building for future archaeologists.

Two, of the 27 brands of booze I found, only five appear on the city's banned list.

The drink of choice at 23rd and Union? Courvoisier, says the trash. Napoleon's favorite cognac clocked in at 14 empties. Next was Yukon Jack. Third was Sparks, a crazed concoction of malt liquor, caffeine and ginseng. I found nine Sparks tallboys, all circled around a pile of cigarette butts, like cowboys sleeping around a campfire.

None of these drinks is on the banned list.

I have no idea if this booze ban will work. I hope it does, as folks are fed up with street drunks peeing in their yards.

But if trash doesn't lie, then out at Courvoisier Corner nobody's even going to notice it.

Danny Westneat's column appears Thursday and Sunday.

Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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