Monday, August 15, 2011

Litter Shmitter

          I’ll be taking a few weeks off after this post to prep for the GRE.  If all goes well, then by this time next year I’ll be all fellowshipped and assistantshipped and getting paid to become a better writer.  So I’ll see you in mid-September, just in time for the start of Marching Band Season.  Which is a big deal around here, by the way.  Not just for the Buckeyes who will soon be performing Script Ohio with crisp precision, but for the East High Tigers around the corner with their weekly parades through the neighborhood and, most especially, for my little Moon Boy who has been waiting since the snow melted for the leaves to grow, and then turn color, and then fall, so that he could see the band.  Already we can hear them practicing when it’s cool enough to open the windows.
          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.)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hot Shot's Island

          We traveled back to Maine last month to surround ourselves with family and wonderful old friends and wade into the Atlantic.  And of course we were peering around like TV spies, collecting evidence that we’d made the right decision to move, to leave behind this beautiful land that smells of salt air and sweet pizza.   Our last evening in Portland was the only cool one of the week, but it didn’t keep us from the ocean.  Darling Virgo and I arrived at Willard Beach with our brood and Game On, a young friend whose Mama and little brother would arrive a while later.
          We had no beach toys with us, having driven all the way from Ohio, but Game On didn’t care, he was quickly engaged in everyone else’s fun.  At six, he’s a year younger than our Hot Shot; they have known each other since they were babies and couldn’t be less alike.  We weren’t on the beach a minute before he had turned someone else’s game of catch into Monkey in the Middle, and he wasn’t the monkey.  And then he was playing Frisbee with another family.  Hot Shot, meanwhile, was wandering around trying to find her groove, looking for a shell, or a rock, or a stick, or something that would spark her interest, give her an idea of what she could do, what she could make, on this chilly beach night.  But nothing turned up, so she and Darling Virgo made their way over to the playground.
          I’m not used to parenting a child like Game On and I wondered if I should be checking in with the other people and making sure he wasn’t bothering them.  But everyone seemed happy enough, so I trailed my little boys who were equally as interested in everyone else’s toys but not as skillful as their big-boy friend at getting in the game.
          So there I am at Willard Beach, following the boys and weighing the trade off.  The four children in my care are not just the only African Americans on the beach, they are the only people of color.  And it’s a cool afternoon, so it’s not like we’ve got a sample of hundreds.  Maybe not even fifty.  And then, as a few more people arrive, our kids are not the only people of color.  But I can count (and believe me I am counting) the rest on one hand.  There’s a part of me that looks at all the nice white people and sighs at how familiar they feel.  They're so, so, what is it?  Oh, right.  They’re so sloppy.  They’re windblown and loose fitting and without make-up, and getting all dirty.  They are, without doubt, my people.   But comfortable as I am, I cannot shake a growing feeling that my kids are a spectacle.  I feel it in a different way than I did when we lived here.  When we lived here I was busy scoping out multiracial families and trying to sit near them and then looking around for more, so my view of the community, even though I knew it was very white, was focused on the not-so-white parts.  But now, coming back, I see a sparsely attended beach of easy-breezy white folks, and four brown children.  Our presence feels huge.  Like we have arrived at the beach, the six of us, each playing a tuba, or leading a parade of elephants behind.  I feel watched.  And when my boys run over to other families and try to snatch their buckets, I cringe at how my giggling little thieves must be perceived on this sandy white beach. 
          It’s the kind of moment my spies eyes were looking for.  The kind of moment I was secretly hoping to celebrate with a little victory dance.  But I didn’t feel like celebrating.  I felt like finding a way to reengage my boys.  And quick!
          So I fed the little bucket-snatchers a pint of blueberries and then demonstrated how they could make castles out of the cardboard container until it got soggy. 
          And I knew the feeling there at the beach was my own.  Little Ankle Biter and Moon Boy were not feeling watched.  Moon Boy was full of giggles and mischief, and Ankle Biter, who I think could pass the Princess and the Pea test, was trying take off his swim trunks every other minute because they’d gotten a little wet or a smudged with sand.  So the self-consciousness was mine entirely.   Not theirs.  I was feeling watched on their behalf.  And I know it’s me who has to be satisfied with our decision to leave behind the ocean and the friends.  Because I am the grown up.  I am the one who has to see the big picture and make the calls.  But I could tell there, on the beach, I was looking for more.  I was waiting for my children to tell me they agreed--to give some sign that they saw the wisdom in our decision.  Like maybe Moon Boy could stop for a minute and say, “hey Mom, I love finding crabs in the tide pools here with all these unkempt white folks, but really I prefer picking up shards of broken glass back in the ‘hood with my people.”  Was it really so much to ask?
          Mama C arrived just as my city boys were experimenting with seagull chasing which they learned is less satisfying than goose chasing because the gulls prefer flight as a form of retreat where the geese make that terrific sploosh into the duck pond.  Darling Virgo came back from the playground to greet our friend, followed by Hot Shot who started building a castle right at the edge of the water.  She soon saw her mistake, with the incoming tide, and began collecting seaweed to build a protective wall around the castle, and then to cover the castle, and then was having so much fun she just made a huge pile of seaweed which she stood on top of and let the tide come in around her.  In case it isn’t obvious, I’ll tell you: this isn’t something you can do in Columbus, Ohio.  She screamed and laughed every time another wave crashed and her island remained in tact.
          I loved her so much I began running around, scooping up seaweed myself and adding it to her pile.  Wanting to prove to her she had my attention and appreciation.  And she gladly accepted, sending me out for more each time I came to her with an offering.  And so I was maybe ten feet away from Hot Shot, on her island--arms open ready to catch a big clump of seaweed that was washing in--when a little girl, maybe a year or two younger than Hot Shot, approached me. 
          “You can’t take all the seaweed,” she said to me all snarly and entirely entitled.  “We’re using it over here to decorate our mermaids.” 
          I looked up and down the shoreline at the piles of kelp gathered along the waters edge and the endless supply brought in by the tide, then looked over at Hot Shot in disbelief.  She was steaming.  More than I would have expected from this petty intrusion.  I turned back to the girl and told her I thought there was enough seaweed on the beach for each of our projects and didn’t she think so too?  As soon as the girl turned her back, Hot Shot spilled it.
          “She was mean to me on the monkey bars too!” She told me.  She yelled to me over the crashing waves, knowing that the girl could probably hear her as well.  This isn’t characteristic for Hot Shot.  Usually anger at friends shows up in sobbing tirades after the fact.  Not while the offender is still present.  But she wasn’t sobbing.  She was mad.  “She told me I wasn’t doing the monkey bars right.  She and her sister.  Ouuugghhh!” 
          She was disgusted.  Revolted. Standing on top of her island yelling, groaning, obviously trying to emit this feeling from her body.  Why had they been so mean?  Talking to her as if she didn’t know anything?  She despised the feeling and roared it out of herself. 
          “They told me there was only one way to do it and they should teach me how,” she yelled.  “Oogghh!  And they said it mean.” 
          And then it came. 
          “And I think it was because of my RACE!”
          This she yelled the loudest, punching out the word “race,” and looking over at the girls who had begun balancing on some rocks newly surrounded by the incoming waves.
          “It’s like they think I don’t know anything,” she hollered.  “It’s like the enslavement days!”  This she said wide-eyed in disbelief at their stupidity.
          I watched her sort it all out.  Scream it all out and I believed her.  I believed every ounce of her anger.  Because I know how it is.  Because I am a woman, and I know when I am being talked down to.  Because I’m a lesbian, and I know when people think I’m disgusting.  And so I was sure she was right.  I was sure she would know. 
          “What do you want to do about it?” I asked her.  I was bending over to add more seaweed to her pile, so our faces were inches from each other.  And I was there.  I was in it.  My adrenaline was going and she could tell I was with her.
          It didn’t take her a second to respond.  “GET THEM BACK!” she yelled. 
          And it was all I could do to keep from smiling.  Smiling?  Really?  But yes, it’s true: I was filled, at that moment, with a sudden surge of happiness, of joy, of pride.  My little girl was the victim of racism and there I was experiencing rapture.  I couldn’t explain it, but I disguised it and kept listening and collecting. 
          “Look at them!”  she yelled.  She was laughing a bit now herself, full of irony and disgust.  And she pointed at the girls balancing on their rock islands.  “Just look!  Now they’re copying me!”
          And that’s when I got it.  Why my rapture.  She was not the four-year-old coming home from preschool devastated that the other girls said she couldn’t be Little Red Riding Hood because Little Red doesn’t have brown skin.  There was no sad or sulky on this beach.  Only anger.  And a complete understanding that those girls were wrong as hell.  My girl knew it was not her who had the problem.  She was no victim.
           “This is why we moved.  Isn’t it?” She asked.  But it wasn’t really a question.  More of a confirmation.
          And luckily that’s how I took it.  So I didn’t answer.  Even though I felt as if this was the gold star I was waiting for my children to hand me.  I didn’t say, YES! YES! YES! This is why we moved!  See, wasn’t it worth it?  Wasn’t it worth leaving everyone you love to go to a place where everyone yells at you?  Wasn’t it?
          Because by the end of the night when we were snuggled in Mama C’s big comfy chair, I had to remember, again: there is no final grade. 
           “How did you know?”  I asked her.  “How could you tell those girls were being mean because you’re black?”
          She was thoughtful for a few minutes, really trying to figure it out.  “I just can’t imagine anyone talking to a white person that way,”  she said.  “Like they had to teach me everything or else I wouldn’t know.”
           And I tried to bring up her question again: is this why we moved.  I told her the answer was “yes and no.”  I told her the “yes” part was that for sure, people in Portland have a lot fewer chances to meet black people, so they don’t know as much.  So they’re not as familiar.  So sometimes they ask dumb questions about your hair and treat you like you don’t know anything on the monkey bars.  That’s the “yes” part.
          But Hot Shot interrupted me before I could get the “no” part out.   She was ready to say good night.  To hop up into the top bunk with Game On and listen to Mama C read one of those great books Mama C always finds.  She said we could talk more about it tomorrow.  Not right now.  She would wait another day before she had to hear me tell her what she already knows: we didn’t leave racism when we left Portland.