Over Spring Break, the weather was sufficiently nice for me to take longish walks almost every day. That means I hook the mp3 player to my head, slip on the tennies, and take off for what I hope will be at minimum an hour and a half long jaunt. I live in an older part of town, and as I’m assuredly not one of the wealthy (doing philosophy? HA!), I live in a tattered old neighborhood, just barely north of historic downtown.
One particularly brilliant afternoon, I set out on my walk, and Kitaro permeated my consciousness like a movie soundtrack. The song was Kitaro’s “Gaia” from the CD Gaia Onbashira. I saw the neighborhoods I walked through as if through a movie lens. And what I saw was grievous.
Every other yard, recently freed from the clutches of ice and snow, was festering with piles of fetid dog manure. Every gutter choked with crumpled paper cups, Styrofoam containers, and cigarette butts. Every bush was entangled in half-decayed trash, discarded and forgotten by some passer by, perhaps by some nearby resident. Garbage cans were strewn across alleyways, their contents spilling into nearby yards. Abandoned scooters and bicycles lay rusting, their wheels deliberately bent beyond usefulness by the malicious. Shoes, laces tied together, dangled from overhead wires, and graffiti sneered at me from boarded-over windows and broken fence-posts. When the wind caught, newspapers would shuffle down the street, almost keeping up with my walking pace. Dilapidated porches boasted broken toys, old rusty appliances, and ragged American flags. And trees were entangled in the ever-present and ubiquitous plastic bags.
What made me particularly aware of this scene is that I don’t live in a bad neighborhood. And I certainly don’t live in a big inner city. I live in a small Midwestern college town. And before I moved into this neighborhood, I lived in another, just as litter-strewn. Before that, I lived in a modern part of town, in what might be called an “ant farm” apartment complex. Just outside the complex boundary, though, along the street, one found a constant stream of decay and dinginess. Litter, trash, waste.
It’s been a bother to me since I moved here. Somebody told me once, and I completely agree, that if the Pacific Northwest (whence I hail) were to have an official religion, it would be environmentalism. Here in the Midwest, they say that with a disparaging sneer. Those crazy liberal Northwesterners! But then, after the conversation, I go outside to clean up the litter people have thrown onto my yard as they’ve driven by. Discarded cups still half filled with soda from the local fast food place, beer bottles, socks, and one glove. Sometimes a shoe. Candy wrappers. Cigarette butts. And once—I wish I were making this up—two completely filled and tied up kitchen bags of trash. Tossed like beer cans into my yard.
What makes such a society? Not too long ago, I was waiting for the bus that never came. It was like Waiting for Godot, only more happens. It was a blinding snowfall, horrible visibility, horrible roads, horrible wind and cold. Across the street from Burger King, there stands a bus shelter, so I hunkered down and braved my way the few blocks from my usual stop to the shelter. There were a half dozen of us, the hopeful naive, there. One gloveless woman was sipping down a soda in a BK cup. After waiting an hour, I realized that even were the bus finally to come, I would in no way arrive at the college in time to teach my class. I had to get home to call the office and cancel. So I started home, and the soda-slurping woman decided to give up, too. She walked beside me a bit in the wind, then announced loudly, “I know I’m not supposed to, but…” and she threw the half-drunk soda, cup and all, into somebody’s yard.
I was indignant. “If you know you’re not supposed to, why do it? What’s the point of knowing anything? You’re the kind of person who makes this town look so crappy!” She looked shocked at me for speaking. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. But then, she did announce to me that she was doing something she shouldn’t be doing, and she knew it. She did involve me in her action.
“But my fingers are cold,” she said.
I just walked on, fuming. There was a trash receptacle at the bus shelter. And I trudged on past fast food bags, half buried in the snow beside the abandoned soda cans and frozen rags.
Walking through the trash both of these days, that snowy afternoon and this recent sunny walk, got me to wondering about what makes people so blind to the litter in their lives, so ready to make an excuse to toss garbage anywhere they happen to be, once it is mildly inconvenient for them to continue to carry it. What makes it acceptable for people to abandon responsibility, and thrust it on the lives of strangers? Where did neighborliness go?
Even as I walked through the ‘historic downtown’ neighborhood, litter peeked out beneath half decomposed leaves, stared at me from the undergrowth, not yet hidden by summer’s grass. Even when trash cans are abundant, they stand ankle-deep in litter.
I fume and complain like this, inside my head, each time I see the litter make an otherwise charming neighborhood seem run-down and shabby, with criminal element undertones.
And then I get it. In this throwaway culture, when don’t we toss our garbage onto perfect strangers? And how few actually mind having garbage tossed into their lives? People watch the gossip shows with rapt fascination. People thrill to see the influential leaders of our society fall, and then they smear themselves with the manure of the messy details of the fall. And when they’re not living for the garbage others throw away, they’re writing tell-all biographies, littering the bookshelves of Borders and Barnes & Noble with their own trash. Reality TV is strewn with gossip and uncharitable behavior—and the more trashy, the more ratings go up.
And it makes me wonder. How much has the garbage infiltrated me? How much of my life is strewn with litter? How much of the beauty of my inner nature is marred by trash I’ve tossed aside and never bothered to properly dispose of? And how much have I merely thrown away, when I could have recycled it into something worthwhile? It’s so easy to litter.
Almost as easy as it is to judge others.