YOU KIDS, GET back here and clean up this litter before I ground you!
Well, that’s what I’d like to say, but I have no maternal power over those who walk the neighborhood sidewalks and drive the neighborhood streets leaving a wake of detritus scattered on the lawn. Detritus: look that up in this half of a dictionary I found lying in my front yard.
Fast food wrappers, pages torn out of notebooks, discarded grocery lists, unfinished lunches. When it’s on the front lawn, I’m forced to pick up the stuff. If I don’t, the neighbors will wonder what domestic disagreement caused me to open the front door and fling out onto the berm a half-consumed Slurpy in a battered cup and one Nike without a shoelace.
Picking up other people’s garbage is not pleasant, but it does make one philosophical about how one man’s junk becomes another woman’s household cleaning task. (The few times I’ve caught a litterer in the act, it’s been a fellow, sorry to say). I amuse myself by making up fanciful stories about how this crap might have gotten stuck to the front step in the first place. Garbage profiling. Gives me something to think about besides, “Ewww, I wonder what last touched this particular item, and was it leaking at the time?”
Take a walk with me around my yard.
Never mind the popped and bedraggled blue balloon, still tied to a limp ribbon, lying under my cherry tree. That’s a friendly piece of litter. A refugee from an 8-year-old’s birthday party. Something dropped off by an annoyed blackbird. The work of fairies. Whoever delivered that wasn’t the kind of selfish boor who left this balled up fistful of three candy wrappers on the boulevard. Pick it up, toss it in this trash bag, and let’s pretend it came from a kid who doesn’t want Mom to know he blew his allowance on 950 calories.
Here’s an empty, pocket-sized bottle of whisky in the boxwood hedge. It’s neither easy nor comfortable to perch on a boxwood and throw a kegger, so I suppose this was tossed out the window of a passing (and weaving) car. Who screws the top back on a bottle before throwing it out the window? A tidy, thoughtful litterer with a gentle heart, and, I hope, a good solid hangover. I have rubber gloves and a long-handed picker-upper dealie for this sort of thing.
Oh, a lone gray sock is curled around one spike of the wrought iron fence. Now, this could be a sad story. An out-of-work actress may be down in her basement right now, accusing a perfectly innocent dryer of having eaten this very sock. Or perhaps it flew out of the backpack of an ecologically mindful bicyclist who now misses its non-petroleum-based fiber content. It feels wrong, somehow, to just throw one half of a pair of socks into a bag with the rest of the trash. Perhaps a burial is called for, over there by the impatiens: The Tomb of the Unowned Sock.
A torn envelope by the downspout is covered in handwriting, smeared and runny from the rain. A rejection letter from the Alaskan professional basketball team, the envelope discarded in disgust? Yet another rejection letter from The New Yorker? It’s not that hard to pick up garbage that Jane Austen might have left behind.
These little threads of other people’s days, these bits of life, these breadcrumbs of the daily comings and goings of people I will never know. It’s so poetic. And if I ever catch them in the act, I’ll make them take out their own damn garbage.
A version of this appeared in the Southwest Journal July 18, 2005.