LATELY, I've been making people pick up their own trash."Excuse me," I say politely, "I think you dropped this." And then I hand their litter back to them. That's when they give me The Look, rolling their eyes.
It started this way: While I was at a stop light at the intersection of Wolfe and Lombard streets, I saw a man push a shopping cart through the neighborhood. There was a sign on the front of his cart promoting his car washing and waxing business. He was like a one-man traveling show and I admired his enthusiastic entrepreneurial spirit. But then, he crumpled a note he was reading and dropped the paper on the ground as he happily rolled his cart down the street.
I was dumbstruck. Here was a man who was dedicated to cleanliness as a business, the spotlessness of other people's cars. Yet he'd just thrown his litter on the street without a thought. This wasn't the first time I'd witnessed such an oxymoron.
Fifteen years ago, I lived in Sparks when it was still mostly fields. One afternoon I saw a farmer on his tractor, puttering down York Road. It was a hot afternoon and the farmer took a long swig from his soda, then carelessly tossed the can on the side of the road, not far from a field. A farmer littering a field, throwing trash onto his own livelihood. This never made sense to me.
Nor have I ever forgotten it, just as I couldn't forget the crumpled note on the street when the light turned green and I drove by. I was as guilty as the cleaning man who'd littered because I'd seen it happen and did nothing. Shortly after that incident, I went backpacking in a wilderness area in West Virginia, a place so pristine that a gum wrapper is an obvious offense.
Yet even in the wilds of West Virginia, in which my friend and I saw no other humans over four days, we found evidence of the outside world: candy bar wrappers and torn bits of paper along the trail. Every few miles, when I spotted a piece of litter, I picked it upand packed it out of the woods with my own refuse.
If I do this in West Virginia, why not in Baltimore?
It's true, I could pick up other people's litter all day long. There's enough for a lifetime.
I heard an interview with a man in Mississippi who's devoted his days to pulling garbage out of the Mississippi River. He's 25 years old and he keeps count of all the trash he collects. Seven stoves, 20-some lawn mowers, 500-and-some tires, washing machines, motorcycles, televisions -- the numbers keep changing. Cleaning up other people's trash is an admirable job and most important, but at some point, the litterers have to become accountable for the garbage.
Which is why I bent down to pick up a flyer that a man tossed from his car window and handed it back to him. I was at the intersection of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road, crossing the street, when I witnessed the man discard his trash so carelessly.
At the same time, he was flirting with a woman in another car, showing off. He was not very pleased when I approached his window and politely handed his litter back to him. Neither was the delivery man in Fells Point who'd torn the perforations from an invoice and left his scraps on the sidewalk. "You dropped this," I had to say twice before he understood that I was placing his perforations in his palm.
Thus began my personal quest of handing trash back to the people who are littering. I am a small woman, one who looks like a push-over most of the time, so when I say, "Excuse me," I sound as if I'm asking for directions instead of handing back litter.
I am not moralistic or bossy or even rude about it. But if I witness someone dropping trash on the street, I pick it up and hand it back to them. I've found that littering is not a problem of place, or evensocial-economic standing. Litter isa problem of mindset, thedestructive and irresponsible atti-tude that someone else will pick it up.
Does anyone else remember that television commercial in the early 1970s which featured an American Indian by the side of a highway, a single tear rolling down his cheek at the sight of all the litter?
What about all the trash can dunk shots made during an ad campaign in the early 1980s? It worked. I was impressionable and the lesson has lasted.
It's time for another campaign about picking up trash. Either shame us into it, or make it look as if it's fun. But someone, please,use the power of advertising fora good cause. Make us pick up trash.
Jennifer Grow is a writer who lives in Butcher's Hill.