Trash Talkin': The Trenton Cleanup As a Metaphor For Gummint


When I was a slip of a girl, 20-something and living in Atlanta, my boyfriend, Jerry, and I walked up Stone Mountain one Sunday, as in, like, a date. These days it would never occur to me to hike in anything but jeans or shorts but this was then and as I mentioned, like, a date, and I was wearing my favorite moon-and-star print skirt. For the last time! Because on top of the mountain, when we stretched out on a slab of granite to bask in the sun, I somehow lay on the zipper wrong and it broke. It was a back zipper with no button at the top, so the only way I could get down that mountain decently covered was for Jerry to walk beside me with his arm around my waist, ostensibly in affection but what he was really doing back there was holding the skirt up. Stone Mountain was a popular Sunday walk and as we proceeded down the granite slope crowds of people were doing the same. Directly in front of us, a redneck mama was walking with her fat child who was drinking Coke out of a Styrofoam cup. We weren’t close enough to hear their conversation but we watched as in dumbshow the child held the cup, now empty, inquiringly up to the mother, and in response the mother made a dismissive gesture with one hand: Toss it. This the child did, dropping the cup with its plastic lid to the ground so that in a step or two it was at our feet. Jerry, a fierce anti-litterer then as now, did not hesitate but scooped it up, tapped the mother on the shoulder and said, thrusting the discarded cup at her indignantly: “I believe you dropped this.” The woman did not take the cup, she instead gripped her child and beat a hasty retreat down the mountain, because when she turned around what did she see? An angry young man menacing her with a Coke cup and, behind him, a young woman standing there in her panties because when her, like, date picked up the litter, he had let go of her skirt. Fast-forward to this Saturday, when my husband, Jerry (Reader, I married him!), and I picked up garbage in Trenton’s citywide cleanup. For me, doing repetitious work like that always generates a million irrelevant thoughts: Did it ever strike you that Fred shouting “Wilma!” under the window during the introduction to The Flintstones was a parody of Stanley shouting “Stella!” under the window in “A Streetcar Named Desire”? That “tutti frutti” is not a made-up commercial name but Italian for “all fruits”? And of course I thought of the moon-and-star skirt story. But what also struck me was that the Trenton cleanup—like so much else in our pithy little microcosm here at the center of the universe— was a neat metaphor for a larger concept, in this case government. People throw garbage on the ground because in their natural animal state why should they do anything else? Can you imagine an amoeba blobbing around in a drop of water going to the trouble of swimming to the edge of the drop to let rip with whatever smaller blob constitutes amoeba poop? (Here, I confess, I wondered whether some amoebas would and others wouldn’t. I’ve noticed that just as much personality fits inside our nine pounds of cat as into our 70 pounds of dog. Why shouldn’t even smaller creatures also be unique individuals, so that some amoebas are neatniks and others slobs, some paramecia easygoing and friendly whereas others wave their cilia in rage at just about anything you say to them? But some thoughts are more irrelevant than others and we had better move on.) Climbing the evolutionary ladder now and looking at the human race, we find that letting waste lie where it falls suits some people just fine, even in their own houses. More commonly, though, people preserve a modicum of order at home but throw garbage no matter where in the spaces they share with other people. Why not? They don’t care about those others and they don’t care what the common space looks like. But get a lot of people living close together in larger groups, as in a town, and the garbage thrown in the common spaces by the careless starts getting in the way of, and on the nerves of, everybody else, so the obvious remedy is to designate someplace to dump garbage and make a rule that nobody can throw it anywhere else. That’s essentially what government is, institutions like dumps and rules like no littering, plus people to man the institutions and enforce the rules. People disagree how many rules governments should make, though, and what powers they should have to enforce them. Maybe the people who choke Dade County with garbage are expressing their defiance of a hated government. Or possibly they’re just inbred, I won’t argue the point. What I would like to posit, though, is that if we accept that littering’s a crime, perhaps we should assign some responsibility to businesses that promote it, such as the fast-food places that provide potential perps all those bags, cups and wrappers that end up by the side of the road. Perhaps they should be required to make their packaging rapidly biodegradable, or be assessed a fee to help clean up the mess. But make a rule like that and such a howl you will hear about big gummint and the absurdity of all these regulations. What’s next? Holding gun manufacturers responsible for human deaths just because they make a product designed to kill people? Not that I want to start arguing guns. I don’t have a big opinion on them except a dead certainty that if I carried one I’d use it to shoot litterers. Here is another story about Jerry and me and littering: Once, in Atlanta, we were stopped at a red light behind a pickup truck in the back of which sat a hulking black man with big tattooed arms. He was so tough, he was sitting there in the truck bed drinking beer out of a can right in front of the police station. When he had drunk the last drop, he raised his arm and, muscles rippling, tossed the beer can contemptuously to the pavement. Jerry leaned forward, incensed, and said, “Asshole!” in such an itty-bitty voice nobody heard him but me. And you know, none of those cops in the station did anything about the guy, either. The cops here also leave litterers alone. Reading through the criminal docket for this Superior Court term, I saw multiple arrests for marijuana, which is almost legal now, and not one for littering, which is a crime against humanity. That’s another way the cleanup is a metaphor for government, the absurdity of it. Like the Feds solving the mess insurance companies have made of health care by giving taxpayer money to the insurance companies, in Dade we don’t arrest litterers but get volunteers to spend Saturday mornings rolling around in the dirt cleaning up after them. But crazy as it is, what else have we got? Vigilantism doesn't work that well, as we have seen. Jerry took a slightly stronger stand against the fat little mama on Stone Mountain than he did the bruiser in the pickup truck, but she didn’t pick up her garbage, either, and really, the worst that he did to her was scare her with my panties.


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