In the mean time I still have a few posts due up on Kveller. And as always, please feel free to share anything you read here or there. This winter I'll begin peddling my book for real, and the more readers I have, the more publishable I’ll be. So thanks for your help in that regard.
But for now I give you: Litter Shmitter.
I was raised to have a Puritanical disdain for litter. I was the child stretching forward in a full body lunge to keep the candy wrappers falling out of my friends’ careless hands from reaching the ground. And not just at the innocent ages of six or eight. No. I was still risking knee bruises at eleven and thirteen when I should have cared more how my friends thought of me than I did about the planet. And it’s not that I didn’t care what they thought of me. I did. My neck and ears flushed red with embarrassment as I made the dive to the pavement, but I could not stop myself. I would not stand idle in the face of litter.
And fortunately I found me a good wife who shares this virtue. Alongside a collective disgust for household pets, and a coincidental mutual disinterest in alcohol, our shared intolerance for litter completes the holy trinity of our union. On a dull afternoon back before we had children and could spend our time lolling about in day dreams, Darling Virgo and I found ourselves in a heated discussion of what-ifs about our someday kids. It started off fanciful, of course, but quickly moved into the dreary.
“What if they aren’t feminists?” Darling Virgo asked me wide eyed.
“They will be feminists. We will raise them to be feminists.”
“But what if they aren’t?” she pressed.
I hadn’t thought of this: that they might have minds of their own. It was a shadowy path to peer down.
“What if they’re Republicans” I wondered allowed. “Will we disown them, you think?”
D.V. considered this for a minute, unsure. And then her mouth fell open. When she recaptured her breath she began speaking again.
“What,” she paused, gathering the strength to name the evil that had choked her good soul. “What if they’re litter bugs?”
This is the fervor with which we have raised our children. Cautious, always cautious, that they understand the power of women, have a healthy appreciation for the merits of big government, and a complete revulsion for the treatment of the Earth’s surface as a wastebasket. And by all measures we’re doing pretty well.
So when we arrived in our new neighborhood, in our new city, in our new state one year ago this week, we were a little surprised by all the litter. To give the full picture I must explain the trash collection system in our neighborhood, which is like none my sheltered little eyes have seen before. Between each street there are alleys through which we access our parking and take short cuts to the park and learn to ride bikes, etc. And the alleys are lined with enormous green trash barrels. The barrels easily stand as high as my shoulders and are probably four feet in diameter at the bottom and six feet at the top. There is no charge to use the barrels and the city empties them weekly. So with an enormous public trash barrel behind every other building (and a quarter of the apartments unoccupied) you’d think there’d be ample space for the elimination of trash. But not so. There are often even big piles of trash beside the barrels. Sidewalks covered with broken bottles. Whole bags of fast food waste, decorating the sides of the streets.
There is an empty elementary school building a block from our apartment. Last year was its first non-functioning year, so it was only just getting used to its status as abandoned when we arrived. Out back on the playground knee-high plants sprouted up from beneath the woodchips, tickling my sons’ armpits. The black top surrounding the play structures glinted with shards of glass. And it was clear that the swing set had been a popular neighborhood hangout that summer, the ground beneath literally covered with empty “pop” bottles and crinkled up Hot Cheetos bags.
Hot Shot and I spent a an afternoon alone on that playground a few days into the last school year. She was heavy with transition and needed some one-on-one mom time. So she climbed out her angst a little bit. And made herself laugh by performing daring stunts on high perches in an attempt to make me lose my cool. And then we spent a little time on the swings.
As we leaned our bodies forward with each backward swing, we couldn’t help but notice the sea of litter that lay below us.
“Why do people do that?” Hot Shot asked. “It’s so bad!”
I talked to her a little about my take, something right out of the Pity 101 textbook, you know: people feel bad about where they live, so they don’t take care of it and then the trashier it is the more people don’t think twice about throwing down more.
Hot Shot wondered if the police might be able to do something about it. I asked her if maybe there was something we could do about it. And that was all it took. We made a plan then and there. Labor day weekend was coming up, we would celebrate my favorite holiday with trash bags and gloves and spades and rakes and… wait a minute. Hot Shot was ready to weed the entire playground. I thought maybe we better focus on just the trash and see if we could get that part of the job done.
So we did. The five of us (the boys at that time not quite two and three yet) filled up two trash bags of little candy wrappers and swept up piles and piles of broken glass. And, as I had hypothesized, now that the place was a little cleaner, the trash didn't collect so quickly. Or maybe it just seemed that way. Maybe we were just getting a little used to it.
Because there’s still trash on the streets. And glass everywhere. “Stay away from the glass,” I’m always shrieking at Moon Boy and Ankle Biter. “Walk around! Don’t touch it. You'll bleed!”
“Don’t touch it, don’t touch it,” Ankle Biter repeats as he leans over and picks up a piece.
“No! No! No!” Moon Boy yells, mimicking my constant shrieks. “You going to get a big cut and go to the hospital!”
But little Ankle Biter is confident. “Yook, Mommy,” he approaches holding out to the sparkly shard like a gift. “It’s bootifull.”
Nothing I tried quelled his attraction to glass. And the more times Ankle Biter successfully picked up a piece of glass without ending up dead, the more Moon Boy became interested as well. And I started feeling a little foolish for all my shrieking. So D.V. and I threw out the “don’t touch it” rule and replaced it with a new one: always hold glass with an open palm.
Then a couple of weeks ago, after days and days of 95 degree heat and extreme humidity, there was a cool gray morning that wanted to rain, but mostly did not. I was thrilled to get out of the a.c. and revive our old morning walks. So the boys each grabbed a stick (for pretend trumpet playing, or poking at poop, or whacking out marching band rhythms to keep us all in step) and led the way to the playground behind the old school. But when we got there most of the playground was gone.
It had been done carefully. There weren’t spikes of sharp metal sticking up out of the ground waiting to execute a tripping toddler. But neither were there slides or climbers or fire poles. I was sad to see it gone though I had rarely seen anyone but us use it. I hoped it had been put back together at a school where piles of children would climb all over it at recess.
The boys climbed on the small section of playground still left there for us, weaving around the weeds now grown taller than their heads. But eventually they made their way to the expanse of upturned dirt and woodchips where the bigger play structure had been. There were dramatic grooves and mounds of dirt, perhaps left from whatever piece of equipment had been used to accomplish the removal, and big rocks uncovered by the upheaval. Ankle Biter laughed and ran up and down the “mountains” and Moon Boy set to work collecting a big pile of rocks.
I watched Moon Boy’s thoughtfulness, putting together a layer of rocks just-so in order to balance a triangular rock between them, and I thought about how I’ve kind of given up on getting him to try drawing or writing or much of anything artistic. And how I feel all guilty about boxing my kids into their obvious interests at such a young age, but it’s just so much work to corral my small crowd into anything other than what they’re naturally drawn to. Yet here he was, drum sticks forgotten, lost in the act of creation.
“You’re making a sculpture,” I called to him, from my perch on a railroad tie.
“What’s a scupchuh?” he asked.
“Something to look at and enjoy,” I began. “It’s a kind of art. Only instead of drawing or painting it on paper, you build it out of stuff you can hold in your hand.”
“Oh!” he said, moon eyes all round and shiny, “I’m making a scupchuh!”
And he was content there in his art making for quite a while until Ankle Biter happened on a large soft drink cup and began making me some “doop.”
“What are you going to put in the soup?” I asked him.
“Cauwiflowah, and geen beans, and fish, and booberries!” he called to me as he gripped his cup and began running through a ditch. Moon Boy was quick on his tail and eager to relieve him of his pot.
“Woah, woah,” I called, jumping up and grabbing Moon Boy out of the chase. “There’s plenty of trash around. Let’s see if we can find you a pot too.” Which of course we did. A plastic drink bottle with a wide mouth served the purpose well enough and soon there were two soups brewing for my pleasure.
So that’s how the morning went on. We may have been there two hours, playing in the remains of our old playground, making use of the trash that blew around our feet. And as I watched them, in their first peaceful, non-indoors play in weeks, it occurred to me it might just be time to let my guard down on litter. You know, it’s so shiny, and fun, and useful, when you let it be. I didn’t have to haul any toys to this big dirt pile. No buckets, no shovels, no toy trucks. And if I had they would have fought over them. Instead, we looked around, and the neighborhood provided: cups for cooking, lids for serving, big hunks of loose cement fared well as the bases for sculptures. Whatever we needed, it was there. And I looked out on the pavement that surrounded this former playground, and out beyond to the alleys with their big trash barrels, and the streets and the parking lots, and I thought: what have I been so worried about, the planet is paved. Paved! At least our part of it. The patches where actual life grows up through ground are just that: patches. And what’s beneath that? An underground world of sewer pipes and I don’t even know what all. But not Earth. I’ve peeked down my share of open manholes; I know the Earth is a long way down. And as much as I’d like to say picking up two big bags of candy wrappers made a little impact on the planet, I’m not so sure it did. Not even a little.
And for the first time ever (ever!) in my big, bleeding, benevolent, pitiful heart I thought, maybe neighborhoods are not trashy because people don’t like where they live, maybe neighborhoods are trashy because people know where they live: in the middle of a paved city. They don’t need to pretend otherwise with fancy landscaping and irrigated lawns. They can throw their “Church’s Chicken” box on the road and know it will never, in a million years, have actual contact with the planet for which I feign such unyielding concern.
So the plastic factory on the other side of I-670, belching out toxins on the kids as they ride their buses passed to that school we thought about sending Hot Shot to; and the freight car after freight car after freight car piled high with coal, the ones we watch go by the park ever day, many times a day; and the trains and planes and trucks filling our grocery store with “fresh” produce from God knows where when the farms begin about an inch beyond the city limits and stretch on for miles and miles and miles. Those, I would say, have some impact on our planet. But that Wendy’s bag blowing down the road. Or even ten of them, or twenty, or a hundred? Maybe not so much.
Litter shmitter. That’s what I’ve got to say.
(Oh, and in case you were wondering, my Darling Virgo does not share this litter revelation, but I think our marriage can survive the rift.)