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On a bus, imagining a new message for litterbugs

I wish I knew what to say to you. I wish I knew how to say it. What you just did — just a few minutes ago, on the No. 3 bus in the 1100 block of St. Paul St. — was disgraceful, but I'm not sure you know what that means. You just did the kind of thing that hurts the city of Baltimore day in, day out. It makes most of us who live and work here groan and sneer and shake our heads.

Come on, man. This is your city as well as mine, and it's a crying shame you still don't see that. What are you, 21, maybe 22? Maybe you don't feel invested in the city. Maybe it's time you did. Maybe it's time you claimed your piece of it and took some responsibility.

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The bus was crowded, but you stood out because you were sipping a large McDonald's soda and eating a hamburger, and you certainly seemed to be hungry. You inhaled that thing. The aroma of greasy-grilled beef filled the forward part of the bus. Of course, eating on the MTA is prohibited; there are signs that say so on the buses and at bus stops. In my experience, most people seem to follow that rule, including guys your age.

But you ate your 2 o'clock lunch on the bus. You sat behind the partition at the bus driver's back so she wouldn't see you.

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Just as you pulled a second burger out of the bag, the bus door opened and an older woman — 70 or 72, I'm guessing — stepped in.

I'll give you this, young man: You're deferential to the elderly, at least to older women. As the law instructs, you immediately gave that senior your seat.

You walked down the crowded aisle, McDonald's bag and soda in hand, then bit into your second burger. At that point, we were about a foot apart. I tried to make eye contact — a simple, nodding acknowledgment of your arrival in the middle of the bus — but you had the nowhere stare. I've seen it in guys who are either shy or angry, who have no interest in making small-talk with anyone, much less some middle-aged stranger with a briefcase.

You were still eating. The smell of fast-food America was strong. You drifted to a spot behind me.

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The bus stopped in the 1100 block of St. Paul, between Chase and Biddle. The middle door opened. Someone stepped off.

There was a loud noise, a kind of dull clunk. I thought something had hit the side of the bus. I turned. The door was still open. On the sidewalk was your big McDonald's cup, with plenty of soda and ice still inside, and your McDonald's bag. Just like that — fresh, fast-food trash in front of some good-looking old rowhouses in Mount Vernon.

I've seen plenty of trash in Baltimore, but I've rarely been there when someone boldly let it fly like that, and in broad daylight. I once chastised a guy who threw a cigarette from his Mustang into the middle of Light Street. As he drove away, he snapped back: "Bite me." There was a teenage girl who threw a fast-food cup full of red liquid on Fayette Street, about two feet from where I'd stopped my car in traffic. I yelled, "Hey, young lady, pick that up!" She made a gesture with a finger.

So here we are. The door has closed. The bus is moving again. Middle-aged men sitting and standing behind you saw what you did, too. But no one speaks up. The older guys are looking at me, and we're all discreetly shaking our heads. We don't know what to say or how to say it. We don't know you. We might sound angry; you might get angry. We might sound insulting; you might get insulted.

Do you have any idea how much trash comes off the city streets in a given year? About 36,000 tons, according to the Department of Public Works. That's not household trash. That's trash from littering and dumping. Considering the scope of that problem, it's amazing Baltimore looks as good as it does. We could ban plastic shopping bags — a measure passed by the City Council but vetoed by the mayor — but there would still be plenty of trash. Guys like you are the problem. You never got the message about civic pride, about not dumping where you live.

Or maybe you don't see Mount Vernon as part of your city. Maybe you throw trash as an act of municipal anarchy or rebellion. Or whatever. It's inexcusable.

One of those older women on the bus needs to speak to you and everyone else who throws their trash into the streets. We need a restart of a citywide anti-littering campaign — some serious and sustained message, and from the mothers and grandmothers of Baltimore. Guys like you would probably listen to them.

Dan Rodricks column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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