The 19th time this week I saw someone throw their cigarette on the sidewalk, I really wanted to let them have it; the butt that broke my back. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to think up biting one-liners after witnessing an act of illegal disposal, it happens all the time. Most of the time though I settle for a poorly-executed death stare, which I know to be ineffective because of my somewhat cute young-girl look and my pathetic eyebrows which are impotent converged in furrowed fury. Cussing them out doesn’t work either, I have no problem throwing the fuck word around but it would likely bounce off their thick New Yorker skin like an errant paper airplane. What I really longed for was a debate, a confrontation escalating into a righteous battle of words where my of irrefutable arguments would leave the offender chastened and changed forever.
I would first point out that the New York City features trash cans on every street corner. One does not have to walk more than twenty seconds to be in reach of a bin. Many buildings have ash trays incorporated into their facades. It is not due to a lack of proper disposal options that people throw their waste on the ground rather than where they belong.
Maybe this smoker, like so many people, would not consider his discarded stubs as “litter.” I would explain that they will either remain outdoors forever or be picked up by someone else. Many of the stray butts will be washed away into the sewers, contaminating and clogging up the overtaxed system. Others will be swept up by the myriad anonymous souls tasked with maintaining the patch of sidewalk before the building where they work.
Whether or not the litterer considers those poor souls tasked with retrieving stray sidewalk trash with pathetic plastic brooms, he is placing himself above them. Those who discard their trash on the sidewalk may not be outwardly malicious, they may not even consider if it will be picked up or who will do it. Yet such self-absorption is hardly better than knowingly asking someone else to pick up after you.
I became attuned to the superiority implicit in littering when I lived in South Africa. My friends there would toss McDonalds bags, empty water bottles and random trash out car windows on the highway. These well educated and otherwise good people gave a cheerful slogan every time: “job creation!” The truth is, these friends of mine really didn’t give a soggy fry about the 25% unemployed in their country who were mostly black and who would probably rather stay unemployed than pick up other people’s intentionally distributed junk. Even if litterers in New York are savvy enough not to say so out loud, they are following the same mindset.
The premise behind the “job creation” “argument” is that by doing less, you give someone else to do more. But if garbage collectors have so little to do picking up the property parceled mountains of bags then we should pick up the individual items as well? Maybe we should scatter the garbage from the bags- presto, more jobs! Better yet, we could start relieving ourselves on the sidewalks next to the dogs- just think how much work it would be to clean that up, see ya later unemployment! Call up the mayor!
Ideally, my target is a fiscal conservative, I’d ask him if he thinks his tax dollars are best spent sweeping asphalt. Or maybe the person is a fireman or teacher about to get laid off so the local government can spent more on city services.
Maybe my conversation would reveal that New York smokers are feeling embattled with law after law coming down on them. Their ever-shrinking smoking pastures must be giving them claustrophobia, and for most people a clam-bake is way too retro. There have been recent murmurings of threats to take away their sidewalks too. I have to admit it’s a little thrilling to imagine smokers confined to little perches above the pavement or even boxed into glass cubes like in European airports, but I’m after the litterers here. If we’re into making laws, lets just slap a nice fine on the people who litter in the street. Talk about job creation! New York’s finest would have 4G-enabled ticket-writing machines in no time with all the cash they’d make off those fines. I favor this approach as it would certainly punish the lax dog-owners and any of the afore-mentioned street-shitters as well.
Sadly, this debate has only taken place in my mind, I have yet to effectively confront a litterer and I expect that my South African friends are carrying on as blithely as they were when I lived with them. As consolation, the next loose-fingered litterers who pass my on the street will feel my wrath as I mutter under my breath “I hope you step in gum.”