Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Junk v. Garbage

"Some people, they don't know junk," says Rosskam, a character in William Kennedy's Ironweed. "It ain't garbage. And garbage, it ain't junk."

Rosskam collected junk – was a "rag man," a collector of cast-off stuff that still had some value or use. And that is what he meant by "junk." He rode around Albany, New York in a horse-drawn wagon, collecting the stuff.

Rosskam's distinction between garbage and junk is useful, at least to me, as I continue my anti-littering crusade.

My intolerance toward litter has grown considerably over the last year. Starting in the summer of 2010 I began taking a shopping bag with me on bike rides, a bag made with ties allowing it to be worn backpack-style. I'd fill it with the discarded bottles and cans found along my bike routes.

Then, toward the end of the year, I began picking up stuff during my walks. Mostly I pick up cans and bottles I later drop into a recycling bin. But I also pick up trash, like candy wrappers and fast food bags. I just can't pass it by anymore. Litter offends me; it's appalling how badly people treat this planet.
Sometimes I come across stuff I won't pick up, as much as it might need it. Cigarette butts are a good example. I did a little Googling and read that four and a half trillion butts are dropped on the ground each year in the United States. (I don't buy that number; it's just too staggering.)

And I don't pick up wet, nasty stuff. I might consider it, but I'd have to bring rubber gloves. You gotta draw the line somewhere.

After my walks, I always sort out the trash from the recyclables and place each in the proper container.

Then I wash my hands.

Literary note: Read Ironweed. It's one of my favorite novels, a truly brilliant piece of work.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

John Breaux

There used to be a guy who biked around my town picking up litter and recyclables.

His name was John Breaux, and it's been just over two years since he died. Two articles about him appeared recently in the local press: first in a community weekly, and second in the daily paper.

Both articles told essentially the same story. A local tavern has set up a webcam that streams a live view of an adjacent courtyard, where a statue in John Breaux's memory is on public display.

Breaux died on January 30, 2009, after being struck and killed by an automobile as he picked up litter along the side of the road. The community responded with a tremendous outpouring of grief.

Breaux was one of those people everyone in this town knew on sight, but few actually knew. Almost every day, he spent long hours riding around town on his mountain bike, collecting litter and discarded recyclable cans and bottles.

He was also known for random acts of kindness, like the bumper stickers suggest.

John Breaux suffered from schizophrenia but seems to have been harmless. When I first saw him some years back I thought he was a wandering old hippie. Others thought he was a vagrant, but he lived with his brother.

In death, John Breaux has been lauded as a sort of saint, and maybe he was – a selfless man whose kind and generous soul belied his shaggy appearance. The very day he was killed – within a few hours – someone created a tribute page to him on Facebook:

"It's amazing how many people he's touched," says the owner of the tavern.

But it seemed to me then, and seems to me now, that members of this community tried to out-do each other with praise for him. Much was made of his Christianity. There was talk of naming a park in his honor, and creating a "John Breaux Law" to punish litterbugs with mandatory sentences of picking up trash along the side of the road. (No one suggested we stop littering so damned much in the first place.)

In the end, they made the statue. I can't remember how it got funded, but the sculptor donated her services. The city unveiled it on the first anniversary of Breaux's death.

I think all of this, while well intentioned, was merely a stunned and saddened community's reaction to senseless loss. Most of the praise for John Breaux, I suspect, was withheld during his lifetime.

Now two years have passed, and things have reverted to the way they were. But for a brief period many of us here treated each other with a little extra kindness – in John Breaux's memory, perhaps, or in the name of our shared humanity. It is an ideal discarded as easily as a beer can, but one we should pick up, and use again, and strive for every day.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Muck Muck Goose

Today's haul consisted mostly of the usual stuff: wadded up fast food bags and wrappers, empty carry-out cups, empty Bud Lite cans, and so on.

One less bag of crap strewn over the landscape.
I came across a trove of litter in a big drainage area behind a shopping center. I wonder how stuff accumulates there? There was more crap there than I could possibly stuff into my little bag, so I'll have to make that a regular stop.

Being a drainage area it was a bit wet and mushy from a recent snowmelt. I wore clean shoes, and trod carefully amid the muck.

Soon enough I got through it all, and got back up to the nice, dry sidewalk. By then I was by a parking lot along another edge of the shopping center.

This is where I encountered a handful of Canadian geese, perhaps taking a breather from a long migration. They just flew in from Santa Fe, and boy, are their wings tired.

I saw these geese, or their cousins, a few days ago – and at just about the same location. They are understandably nervous around humanoids. I tried getting a little closer to them for a picture but they just kept moving away, showing me their backsides; this was about the best shot I got. Unfortunately I did not have a zoom lens. Or at least, not much of one.

Yeah, I always take my camera with me.

The most interesting "find" today was a high school ID card with a magnetic strip on back. Which is not really very interesting. Not at all interesting, in fact.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Incinerator Protest

In the"Zug Island" post on this blog, I used the phrase "environmental abuse." It is something all too common – even now, when we live in a supposedly more enlightened, "green" era.

Zug Island is back in Detroit, where I used to live. Another instance of environmental abuse there happened about twenty years ago.

Now, I admit that the story I'm telling here is way old. I haven't lived in Motown for years, and it is possible that what I'm about to describe has been settled to the betterment of all, especially the environment.

As with Zug Island, it goes beyond the issue of littering – at least at first glance. I think it's all part of a larger issue.

Note the predicted year of Earth's demise.
The story at hand concerns an incinerator built by the City of Detroit in the late 1980s. There was a lot of concern it would belch massive amounts of filthy, perhaps toxic crud into the air.

Breathe deep.

One day a lot of people showed up to demonstrate their displeasure with this monstrous facility, seen in the background in the above photo.

I showed up too – in part to demonstrate my displeasure, and in part to get what I hoped would be some interesting photographs.

I managed to do both.

Like I said, it's been many years, and some of the details escape me. The protest must have got some advance publicity, based on how many demonstrators showed up.

There were quite a few cops on hand, too, protecting the integrity and good name of the incinerator.

Note the Greenpeace banner at far left.

The two sides watched each other for a while. I suppose each viewed the other as an enemy, or opponent.

See that cop on the left with her hands behind her back? I always imagine her saying, "Jasper? I don't much like the looks of this crowd."

The crowd was angry but peaceful. See the kids in the little red wagon in the foreground? No matter how committed, no parent would bring small children to an event like this if there was a chance of violence.

Assuming they weren't nuts, that is.

Inevitably, some of the demonstrators had to demonstrate something.

See the photographer at left? I had a crush on her. I used to go to many public events like this, wherever I sensed good photo ops – and there she would be. I never learned her name, or even where she worked. It was just one of those, "Ooo, there's that cute woman again!"

Yes, I was still single then.

Meanwhile, the cops said, "Oh, no you don't!" and moved in.

Looks like my would-be girlfriend got some good shots.

At least one person got arrested. I wonder what she did?

Things began to get a little crazy at this point. Note the object of my desire in the center of the picture, in sunglasses.

Even though there were a lot of Detroit cops with guns and billyclubs and the authority to arrest people, I sensed no danger.

In fact, I had a lot of fun, holding up my camera and shooting wildly.

For a while it was like slam dancing.

Say no more.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Zug Island

Just feast your eyes: Zug Island, an industrial wasteland along the Detroit River. I took this picture a number of years back when I lived in Detroit, and lucked into a helicopter ride around town.

The development of Zug Island is environmental abuse on a massive scale, one that says much about what humans have done, and are still doing, to our delicate planet.

Some guy named Zug bought the land in the mid-nineteenth century with the intention of building an estate there. It was probably quite nice back then. But near the end of the century, according to Wikipedia, Zug sold the land "to industries that wanted it as a dumping ground."

It's been downhill ever since.

The air quality around Zug Island is said to be very poor. In published reports in 2000, people living in the area complained of a "rancid odor that permeates their living spaces and causes nausea, headaches and dry heaves. The grass and trees in surrounding neighborhoods are dying and there is rust-colored dust on the streets, homes and cars."

Zug Island was once a Native American burial ground. Now it feels like a burial ground of a much different order.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Second Bag

When I first began picking up litter in earnest – that is, always picking up at least a discarded can or two on my walks – I had this vague idea I'd find interesting or unusual objects from time to time.

So far, the most unusual thing I've found is a little packet of parmesan cheese.

Sometimes I Google keywords like "litter" or "trash," just to see what comes up. Recently I found a comment from a woman whose intolerance for litter must be similar to my own. "I can't understand," she wrote, "why people won't stop for fifteen minutes to clean up a littered area."

Well, I can understand why. I gets in the way of a good walk, or a good bike ride.
Today's haul
And that's why I came up with my strategy of picking up at least some litter every time I'm out walking. Usually I pick up a lot more. There's an expression I can't exactly recall – something about leaving a place nicer than the way you found it.

During my walks it's easy to fill a plastic bag with litter. The bags I take are your standard grocery store-style shopping bags. When I fill one, I feel like I've met an obligation.

By the time I'd reached the halfway point of my walk today, the bag was full. I could pass by any further litter with a clean conscience. It would probably just fall back out, anyway.

But wouldn't you know it? I came across a discarded grocery store shopping bag. So I picked it up and used it for the balance of my walk.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Dump Festival

Just imagine: an entire festival celebrating garbage!

Okay, that's a slight exaggeration. But there used to be something very much like that in Kennebunkport, Maine. They called it the Dump Festival – I kid you not – and it was an annual thing. As founder Ed Mayo said, "We're honoring the importance of the old-fashioned town dump."

I'm piecing this together from scraps, so my info may be a little off. But it appears the Dump Festival was, at least in part, meant to raise awareness about littering. You could say it was ahead of its time: it began back in 1965.

A highlight of the Dump Festival was the crowning of "Miss Dumpy," the winner of a beauty pageant whose contestants wore outfits assembled from stuff mined out of the local dump.

The Dump Festival: Good, Clean Fun
The above photo is from an old issue of National Geographic magazine, which mentioned the Dump Festival in an article about trash and recycling. This woman placed second in the 1981 contest. The winner, whose photo did not scan well, was truly repulsive: her face and arms smeared with green goop, dead fish hanging from a mangled basket covering her upper torso, and – well, you don't want to know the rest.

The Dump Festival featured a parade, too. Like Miss Dumpy's ensemble, floats were constructed from (or at least decorated with) stuff excavated from the landfill.

I first heard of the Dump Festival in that National Geographic article, which dates to 1983. I remembered it when I started the litter and trash theme running through this blog, so I dug it out. Then I turned to the Internet. According to an item I found via Google, the festival was deemed unsafe in the early nineties, so the powers-that-be pulled the plug.

Ed Mayo told Nat Graph that the festival had a simple message: "Litter belongs at the dump, not along the road."

I second that!