Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A litter bit at a time

Last year, Christian and I flew down to Missouri to campaign on behalf of our candidate of choice. From the woman who generously hosted us, to the people we worked alongside and the voters we visited, the experience was great. And I left with many fond and interesting memories...


Early on, I was partnered with an elderly woman from a neighborhood we were canvassing. She was a trip -- I enjoyed watching her utilize her matriarchal powers of influence.
"Young man, you tuck in your shirt. Now!"
"Boys! Stop making such a ruckus"
"Of course you are going to vote!"
In the presence of this itty-bitty, bi-focal bespectacled broad, intimidating-looking men became sheepish, eyes-lowered, yes ma'am gentlemen.

On our way back to the office after completing our rounds, she apologetically pulled out a bag of her small fast-food lunch and asked if I minded her eating en route. Of course I didn't mind.

That is, until once she was done eating, she crumbled up the bag and handed it to me.
"Open up your window, hon."
What?! I can't even imagine how confused I must have looked. Though she was explaining herself clearly enough, it took me a while to understand what she was asking of me.
"Just toss it out the window, dear."
It's hard to describe, but my response to this request was visceral.


I grew up during a time of "Don't Be a Litter Bug" public service ad campaigns! More importantly, I was raised by parents that specifically taught me that littering is rude and irresponsible. At football stadiums, in movie theaters, on deserted roads my behavior is consistent -- if there is no place to toss my trash, I carry it with me until I find a trashcan.

Years ago, I noticed that a little girl who was walking ahead of me with her mother took out a piece of candy, unwrapped it, and threw the wrapper on the sidewalk. Maybe her mother hadn't noticed? I racked my brain for some polite way to approach this. I was pretty sure that if I said something to her mother, no matter what tone I used, it would come across as rude or sarcastic. So, I called out to the little girl in as small and as sweet a voice as I could manage. "Excuse me, I think you dropped something." The little girl turned to me, then looked up at her mother who motioned for her to pick up her trash.

Sometimes I fantasize about creating a new anti-littering public service ad campaign.


Without out rightly saying no, I suggested that I hold the crumpled bag on my lap until we got into the office. "I can throw it away for you there," I offered.

She let me know how silly I was being and the knot in my stomach tightened a bit. I told her about a phenomena one of my professors used to site about machine shops -- if the machine shop was kept clean and orderly, there were fewer accidents. This same professor had also sworn that, when he and his wife had contractors working on his house, the act of cleaning up every evening led to better quality work the next day.
"People are paid to clean the streets. It's okay, really!"
I asked her how often the streets were cleaned and how long she thought her bag of trash would lie around before getting picked up. I believe that if a person sees trash scattered all over a place, they are more likely to treat that place like a trashcan. It was clear she was not going to align with my way of thinking, so I tried another (truthful) angle. "This goes against what my father taught me. If he were to see me tossing this bag out that window, he would be ashamed."

With a head shake, a "suit yourself" and "silly girl" she let me be.

Litter Attracts LitterThe closest parking spot we could find near the office turned out to be right next to an alley that was scattered with trash. (The picture to the right is a close approximation of how bad it looked.) My driver noticed just as we were getting out of her car and seemed shaken by the sight. She immediately began to apologize.

"... there I was, trying to get you to do what your daddy taught you not to!"

And then she thanked me.

I'm not sure if or when I'll manage to put together a public service ad campaign. But, for now, I know that at least one person (and perhaps her children and grandchildren) will be less likely to litter as a result of her time with me. And that's something. Because every litter bit counts.


Old Gaming Mama said...

Garrett and I were recently talking about this very subject. I saw someone toss what was clearly a bag of fast food garbage out there window in front of me as I was driving home. It totally shocked me, it runs to strongly against what I've learned.

Back in the 70s I remember the huge campaigns not to litter. There used to be garbage along the streets everywhere. It's so much cleaner now compared to then. It really rubs me the wrong way when people do that.

Even at the movie theater we pick up all our stuff and throw it away.

I think it's primarily a matter of personal responsibility, and consideration for others and the world.

Wonder what we can do to drive the message home again. :)

normanrey said...

Great post. I have been in situations where I wanted to say something about somebody's behavior but was too timid/polite/scared to do so, despite knowing that when we speak up, people listen, though sometimes begrudgingly.

It's great that you stood your ground and ended up making a difference.


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