Saturday, April 6, 2013

Wonders of the Invisible World

This morning, I picked up trash.  Not major trash, not like hauling out plastic bag after plastic bag of the leftovers of a workweek or any thing like that.  Not sludge or slime or any kind of putrification.  Just ordinary, everyday trash.  The kind that you don't see.  The kind that I don't see.

A couple of times each year, I take a group of boys looking to work off detentions downtown to help out with a citywide beautification project.  It isn't always difficult work.  It usually ends up being a pretty good deal for the boys--they get a t-shirt, a water bottle, some other shwag, maybe some breakfast or a drink, and fewer hours than whatever their detention was, all in exchange for a little community service.  So this isn't about some grand sacrifice on their part or mine.  It's just about the stuff that is on the ground and that, briefly, isn't there right now.

When you spend your morning with a pair of plastic gloves, a plastic trash bag, and an area that you are supposed to improve, you can't help but wandering off on your own, doing your own trash thing and trying to make the experience as private and as relaxed as possible.  You want to work at your own pace.  You don't want someone else looking over your shoulder or telling you what to do.  And you certainly don't want to share the hate that you feel.

Boys are different.  Boys are competitive.  They are all about who can fill up the bag with the most trash.  They accept the trash that has become part of an American city of any size as a matter of fact.  Boys don't hate.

But I do.  I hate the personal and the abstract, the specific item and the concept behind it, the things that I reach for and the ones that I figure aren't worth it.  As part of a citywide clean-up program, I got praise from strangers, thanks for the organizers, tacit approval from other people at the school where I work for involving boys in something meaningful on the weekend.  But no one addresses the reality of the event--that we live in a country where people throw stuff out of their car windows when they are finished, that people don't really care whether a cigarette butt biodegrades or not, that, on some level, it's okay to toss what we don't want for someone else to pick up.  Or not.

I've done my share.  I'm not claiming the high ground here.

But most days, none of us notice any of the things that I picked up today.  If we lived in Canada, we might, but not here.  Even one of the boys I had with me, no idea where he's from, remarked, "This is a clean city." Of course, he said that after we collected 7 decently-filled trash bags of stuff and handed them off to the organizers of the event.  All things are relative, I know.

You probably think I hate people.  Nah, not in this case.  People are people.  They are going to do, most of them, what is presented to them, what is the path of least resistance.  So I'll grant them a pass in this case, noting that if I understand this trait, so do the giant corporations that run our lives.

And so,

I hate cellophane.
I hate styrofoam.
I hate filters on cigarettes.
I hate to-go boxes from restaurants.
I hate lids that go on drinks.
I hate plastic in most any form that you can imagine.

The insidiousness of these items is that if they can get a little bit dirty, if they can get inside a bush or shrub, if they are just too small to register, if they go over the side of a highway or an interstate into a poor area, then they are accepted and no one really cares that they are accepted.  I hate that somewhere someone probably has a job determining what is an acceptable amount of trash with a particular company's name on it.  I hate that if I were that corporation, I probably wouldn't know or think of how much non-recycled trash I had generated.

We accept the insects that get inside our homes and businesses that we can't stop.  But those are the natural invaders that we must accept, regardless of how much we try to sanitize our modern world. Isn't it funny, though, that as much as we try to keep nature out of our lives--insects, viruses, allergens, heat or cold, epidemics and invisible carcinogens--we pay so little attention to the man-made intrusions to our controlled, urban landscapes?  Note that.  It doesn't make much sense.

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