The leaves are off the trees and bushes. There is no blanket of clean white snow. In this naked state, an unwanted undergrowth has become more apparent, our sidewalks and streets are strewn with garbage. This is not an issue like global warming that causes us to ponder major policy initiatives or the far distant future. Yet, the sight of all this litter has a profound impact on our psyches and its presence reveals a troubling lack of civility.
One day, shortly after my husband and I first moved to Brookline in 1988, we were standing on the corner of School and Washington Streets waiting for the light to change, when a trio of young people sauntered down the sidewalk and proceeded to drop the paper boxes and wrappers from their convenience store purchases onto the sidewalk, about 10 ft. away from us. Not being inclined to tolerate such behavior, my husband said, "Hey, you dropped something!" The litterers response was, "What's it to you, this isn't your yard or something", to which my husband replied, "No, but it's my sidewalk and it is yours too, do you just drop your trash in the middle of the floor at home?" Eventually, the dour youths picked up their trash. I don't recommend confronting people in this way, it can be dangerous, but I have to admit there is a certain satisfaction in calling people on their bad behavior.
This encounter illustrated an attitude that I simply couldn't understand, but, it explained their careless behavior. This sidewalk was a no man's land, it didn't belong to anybody and therefore was theirs to exploit. Of course the truth is just the opposite, the sidewalk belongs to everyone and therefore trashing it was an affront to the entire community.
During my college years I worked for a summer at an amusement park as a "sweeperette". I walked the paths with a dainty broom and dustpan cleaning up dropped trash. I was stunned and saddened by the continuous act of dropping trash. A fellow worker explained that for a lot of the patrons this was their only vacation and perhaps they felt entitled to be "lord of the manner" for a day. This piggish behavior made us so jaded that by the end of the summer the patrons were no longer guests, they were "the animals".
Back on our home turf, the littering attitude seems to spring from one of entitlement. Kind of like the way people drive. The rules are for everyone else, but I'm more important and can't be bothered. The result is a rag tag looking environment that reflects a lack of care and pride.
I have lived in several different states and visited many cities around the country and I must say the litter problem seems worse here. Granted, it is somewhat a factor of density, and it only takes a tiny fraction of the population to have a big impact, but I've been to many dense urban areas that are much cleaner. What has brought about this state of affairs? Is it simply the lack of a public awareness campaign? Enforcement would be nice, but of course there are other, more pressing priorities. Adults looking the other way or even condoning this behavior? I love Michael Dukakis for picking up trash along the Riverway. This is the practical response. Don't like the trash you see? Pick it up. I am constantly picking up trash in and around the Minot Rose Garden which I help tend, but I shouldn't have to. There are plenty of frequently emptied trash containers.
I propose that all junior and senior high school students should participate in annual clean-up days, going around picking up litter to instill in them the idea that we all are responsible for keeping Brookline tidy. Just think about how much nicer the town would look without all those plastic cups, bags and papers lodged at the base of bushes or alongside the sidewalks.