A Sure Sign of Spring in the City – Trash and Crap

Those of us who live in the northern climates glorify in the passing of winter into spring.   Even cold weather enthusiasts such as myself can’t help but feel a thrill when waking to the energetic chirping of the birds that have been huddling in abeyance for months, and enjoy the return of daylight to our early morning routines.  Going out without a hat or scarf is a victory, and suddenly the search for a missing mitten or glove is no longer a part of getting out the door.  Seeing the grass peeking out between mounds of glaciated snow packs and smelling the good earth rather than simply enjoying the sharpness of the cold air relaxes – we can begin to let down our guard against the elements.  We made it, we survived.

But there’s a seedier aspect to the coming of spring in the city.  It’s not the crust of dirt and silt along the ice packs that linger at the sides of streets, nor the suddenly burgeoning potholes that threaten suspensions and patience.  It’s not the detritus of salt and sand on periodic sidewalks.  It’s not even the irritating intrusion of the thumper cars that accompany any surge in temperature.  It’s the disgusting upswing in trash that suddenly dots the urban landscape, a humiliating testament of the callousness of our throwaway society.

In the winter, especially a winter that was as cold and treacherous as the one just past, folks generally venture outside merely to make their way from one place to another.  They do not linger outdoors, and if they do, its bundled up and closed in, swaddled in coats and headgear and gloves, or hands sunk deep into pockets, retreating as deeply into coverings as possible.  There is little hanging out curbside, or meandering down residential blocks – people scuttle rather than meander.  Newspapers are not casually read on porches or park benches or at bus stops, snacks are not consumed in transit; only cigarette butts are left behind like perverse breadcrumbs marking movement across the cityscape.

But now that the thermometer reads consistently above freezing and the wind is not sharp and cutting, the trash is returning.  Fingers do not freeze in the open air, so snack bag of chips are again being consumed between bus stop and apartment building, and the empty container tossed.  Candy wrappers, plastic bags, fast food wrappers and drink bottles – both plastic and glass – again have started to litter the curbs and sidewalks.

Now, I’ve lived in the city long enough to know that not every scrap of trash that ends up in front of my house comes from wanton recklessness.   Garbage pickup days always leave at least some trail of waste behind, because of overstuffed, unsecured (or unused) garbage bags, and scavenging wildlife unconcernedly chew into and scatter packaging in search of a quick meal from our excess.  Blown garbage finds easier purchase in the open landscape, and more people out and about are bound to add to accidental messing.  But the shiny Cheetos bag lying casually on my sidewalk, and the sodden McDonalds bag with accompanying drink cup stuck at the base of the tree on my boulevard did not blow in from an errant trash collection – they were simply abandoned there by an uncaring neighbor.

Yes, a neighbor.  Maybe not the person who lives next door or across the street, but someone who lives close by.  I could go the easy route and blame it on the kids getting home from school (or let’s face it – from wherever they are coming from), and yes, a lot of it, especially the candy wrappers and chip bags, comes from youngsters; I’ve seen them, time after time, simply dropping garbage when they’re done consuming whatever is inside.  But kids learn from their elders, and the beer bottles, left en masse curbside, are not to be blamed on the young.  Nor is the plastic wrap that held some type of home improvement material which is lodged along the fence bordering my neighbor’s house and the fixer-upper rented house next to it.  The Slurpee cup laying in the ditch came from a car’s passenger, not a kid coming back from the corner store.

It’s not that my inner city neighborhood is a cesspool – or at least not all of it.  Most of us, whether we like it or not, will keep the sidewalks and boulevards in front of our houses pretty much free of trash (even though many will leave it for days before capitulating – what, do we think whoever dropped the Cheetos bag will eventually come back and dispose of it properly, or that the guys who were hanging around the black SUV will have a change of heart and clean up their Corona bottles before the glass gets smashed by bored kids?)  But yes, there are a few “problem” properties – houses where the occupants could manage to shovel from their front doors to the street, but not their sidewalks, leaving others to trudge through the snowdrifts and allowing the drudge to turn icy and treacherous.  These same properties already have more than their share of garbage littering their yards:  juice boxes, unwanted flyers, broken bits of toys, empty cigarette packs, bottle tops.  I frown as I walk my dog past these houses, but I refuse to pick up anything here, as I will for other neighbors.  This patina of trash reflects the people inside, who are themselves nothing more than trash themselves; uncaring, irresponsible folks who will go through their entire lives expecting others to pick up after them and complaining loudly at any perceived slight to their what?  Their dignity?  Garbage people.  Worthless.  Teaching the same to their kids.  That kind of blight is a clean up job that is just too big for me, other than the occasional call to the absentee landlord if it’s a rental property, a city inspector if it’s not.  Let them label themselves.

But beyond this garbage, there is a kind of trash that is proliferating in my neighborhood now that the weather is warmer that I find even more infuriating.  It is left behind on sidewalks and not easy to clean up by even the most meticulous homeowner.  It is unattractive, hideously messy, and virtually impossible to miss, left behind in front of neat houses and trash houses alike.  It looks bad, smells bad, and is unsanitary.  It is dog poop.

Now, I’m a dog owner.  I try to walk my dog daily, even in the most hostile of weather, and this was indeed a nasty winter for walking dogs, with icy sidewalks and mounds of snow making alley and street crossings treacherous.  No matter what, however, I would always pick up any droppings my dog would leave.  Heck, I even felt embarrassed when she would pee, leaving a little yellow hole in the snow next to the sidewalk (since the drifts were too high for her to “do her business” on the boulevard).  I made sure to never leave the house without plenty of “poop bags” – recycled newspaper slipcovers, empty bread wrappers, anything suitable.  Each defecation promptly scooped up, double bagged, tightly knotted and properly disposed of, even if it meant carrying it through most of the walk to throw into the lined bucket at the side of my porch which is there specifically for that purpose.  That’s a part of being a dog owner, after all.  My dog has to poop, and if it’s not on my property, I must clean it up and take it away with us.  No excuses.

I was actually pretty proud of our neighborhood this winter, because as I walked my dog each day, I saw virtually no poop left on the sidewalks even though there was evidence of dogs being exercised along all our routes.  It was a false pride, however, for which I now am cringing along with a growing sense of outrage.

I should have expected it, I guess.  The winter was bad.  Some days, many days, my dog’s walk was truncated down to just a few scant blocks due to the treacherous nature of the sidewalks.  But now that the weather is better, it seems that lots of dog owners are finally getting out with their pets.  And what I thought was responsible behavior in the winter was actually a lack of exercising Fido, because all of sudden there are big piles of dog poop everywhere.  Everywhere.  These are not old droppings being exposed by melting snows, these are new piles left on sidewalks all over, some breaking down in the meltwater, some slimed by careless walkers, some simply heaped up and left to decay.

And let me reiterate – they are on sidewalks everywhere.  Since there is still a great deal of snow on the boulevards, most dogs are forced to squat on the sidewalks – you can’t blame the dogs; they walk, they poop.  And I can understand the resistance to picking up after your dog; it’s a disgusting task.  Heck, my teenagers love our pup, but they balk at walking her simply because they don’t want to have to deal with cleaning up after her.  But leaving your dog’s crap on someone else’s property for anyone else to have to navigate is simply unconscionable.  It’s unsightly, unhealthy, and a complete abjuration of human responsibility.   And it is, quite simply, cowardly, to anonymously leave behind such a mess for others to have to deal with.  The elderly or infirm should have pooper scoopers.  The rushed should not use time as an excuse; picking up after your dog adds virtually no time to the walk.  The uncaring have no business having dogs in the first place.   Yet, there the piles are, sometimes 6 or 7 within the space of a few houses.  Disgusting to have to see, walk around, and possibly to have to clean off your shoes if you aren’t paying attention (we had to throw out a pair of my daughter’s athletic shoes once when she stepped in poop on her way back from the school bus once – we simply could not clean it off well enough to lose the stain or the smell).  People who don’t pick up after their dogs should be siphoned off to a deep level of hell in the afterlife.

So what can be done about all this waste and garbage?  What can one person do?  The obvious thing is to lead by example, at the very least.  Pick up your own trash, or trash left by those for whom you are responsible, whether it be manufactured, organic, or fecal.  Keep your own property clean and pick up any trash left behind so that your area is clean and cared for.  Extend the favor to your neighbors.  Call landlords and complain about trash left on their rental property.  Do not hesitate to contact city inspectors if there is a health hazard.  Get to know your neighbors, interact with others around you, and let them know you care.

And be obvious.  I openly pick up trash around my house often, and have a trash barrel on my porch specifically for what I pick up by my fence, on the boulevard, in the street.  I will even occasionally carry a garbage bag with me and pick up trash along the block as I walk my dog.  I almost always pick up bottles left on the sidewalk, as they will invariably be broken if laying there too long, creating a very real danger.  (If a child’s bare foot later in the season gets cut on old, broken glass, the person who threw the bottle by the side of the street won’t suffer a bit for it.)  When walking my dog, I carry laden poop bags with a sense of honor, and am not embarrassed to have others witness that I’ve taken responsibility for my dog and myself.  Sometimes I do pick up poop that may be close by where my dog has squatted, as disgusting as that is.  And you can bet, if I ever see a dog owner leave behind a mess their pet has made, I’m going to have something to say about it.

Is it enough?  No, it never seems to be enough.  But at least it’s something.

Spring is a time of transformation, of reawakening, of rebirth.  Sometimes it’s messy, yes.  But in our commercialistic, waste ridden society, it still need not be trashy.  Each of us can do a little something to make spring about bird calls and greening and freshness, not garbage and crap left behind.  This spring, I hope to make my corner of the world a little more about robins, and a little less about rubbish.  I invite you all to join me, and together, I honestly believe we can make a difference.

~ by arcticwren on March 10, 2010.

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