by Jim Krosschell
He’s pretty sure he doesn’t do it for approval, in hopes that neighbors or passing cars will notice. He doesn’t do it entirely out of pique, angry at careless behavior. He does it mostly in gratitude to the place, to keep it good looking, to remove evidence of disrespect, to belong to it, and if a passerby notices and nods, or feels shame and doesn’t litter the next time, then that’s a bonus.
Besides, a trash-picker would surely be considered an integral part of the community.
No one else, native or flatlander, makes the effort. Seemingly without guilt they walk or drive by the same bottle in the ditch or wrapper on the verge a thousand times and never stop. So does he, but only a hundred times, and then he remembers, and before his walk shoves a couple of trash bags in his pocket, not the waste-basket size—he doesn’t need that much capacity, this isn’t a city after all—and not the small fruit or bread bags he always carries for dog walking, but the ones that grocery-store baggers rush to use unless he remembers to ask, in the middle of unloading the cart and proffering his Shaw’s card and fumbling with his coupons, for paper. The town won’t help; it’s too small and poor to provide any trash service whatsoever, certainly not any beautification program. If you’re well-off and from away, you hire private haulers and leave your garbage cans in the driveway as if you were back home in New Jersey. If you’re local or want to be, you drive to the waste transfer station, town sticker proudly displayed. If you’re free and wanton, you open the car window and toss.
Today the bag overflows—he’s neglected his duty for some weeks. Liquid refreshments were the most popular among the month’s litterers. Alcohol nudged out sugar again, four to three: two bottles of Twisted Tea and two beer cans (Coors Light, Bud Light) vs. two large paper Pepsi cups (complete with lids and straws) and a Burger King cup, former contents unknown. Caffeine followed with two, a paper cup jumbled with brands—Newman’s Own Green Mountain Coffee from McDonald’s—and a plain white Styrofoam cup, perhaps from a mom’n’pop convenience store in town. A Lay’s potato chip bag apparently provided additional calories and some much needed salt, entertainment came courtesy of an empty pack of Marlboros and a Hot Streak Maine State Lottery ticket. But no used condoms this month. Decorum was kept, minimally, by one paper napkin, now nearly shredded. The bag bulges; a tattered American flag came last and hangs out.
His usual walk, sans refuse and conscience, comes after the daily attempt to make sense of the world. During the walk he rehearses old words and phrases, plans a new paragraph, and looks at a piece of bright green moss on a fallen log, thinking structure and place and biology and craft. In contrast, a day of debris is good therapy for all this cerebration. Get distracted. Forget the Great Thoughts for a minute. Think about people, not nature; trysts, not truth.
Most of the trash comes from Ash Point Drive, the main road down this part of the Owls Head peninsula in midcoast Maine, naturally so since it gets the auto traffic essential to a well-littered road. He imagines a teenage couple necking at midnight and sipping Twisted Tea on the town landing at the end of the drive; early-morning, coffee-addicted tourists from the city, the kind that demand brand names on their cups and clothes as they rush around Maine, ticking off every peninsula on the map; roofers and carpenters and contractors returning from lunch in town; the carful of guys out for nothing, driving nowhere, popping beers. It’s fun to invent simplicities.
The trash on Canns Beach Road and Bay View Terrace, the two little lanes that dead-end from Ash Point down to the ocean, is less fictional. Who else but someone he knows, or at least recognizes, in other words, a neighbor, uses those roads? They’re not hidden enough for necking, or long enough for touring. Why would people who live here deface what amounts to their extended driveways? And which ones would do it? The locals? Those from away?
Walking down Canns Beach and almost home, he tries to match individuals to litter; Mrs. Snow, say, to that empty pack of Marlboros, or Billy Fort to a Bud Light, but it’s not helpful. In fact, it’s a little dangerous. People can be intriguing in the abstract, disappointing in the flesh. He can imagine their actions but not feel their nonchalance. Litter works better as a metaphor if it stays anonymous. Insight doesn’t need a face.
In his other, suburban life, he doesn’t have to remember to keep the small plastic bags in his pocket. Every day he uses two, but they replenish automatically, in an endless stream of plastic from the course of America’s consumption: the daily Boston Globe is delivered, onions and potatoes and cherries come home from Shaw’s, a loaf of bread is finished, the last home-style frozen pie shell is baked for a quiche, and the emptied bags virtually jump into the pocket, the left one, of his jeans.
The reason for this system is dog waste, un-ignorable, malign, especially in the city. One can’t imagine the owner who doesn’t pick up. Besides, home owners get apoplectic about their lawns and their hedges. Obligations, conventions, protocols: dog walking there is a serious business, full of rules, scents, and evidence. Encountering other dogs and walkers is so common on their walks that big white he and small black she hardly rate a second look, and when they do, it’s a vaguely distasteful one from an obvious pet-hater, or a gush of mush from a grandmother. Just before he goes to the country and the dog stays behind with his wife, he removes the bags from his pocket, somewhat gleefully, it must be said, and adds them to the stash in the mudroom.
When the dog does accompany him to Maine, the protocol changes. They still walk twice a day, of course, but he carries bags only for an emergency. He attempts to follow a greener way of life up here, and she would agree if she could. They walk the lanes and the road, and sometimes she remembers to be green and add her fertilizer near the woods through which the lanes wend, but sometimes she forgets and uses, or tries to use, the lawns or bushes of the few houses they pass. He trusts he’s such a regular sight after 15 years of walking that a little waste on a lawn would be tolerated. But still…he doesn’t want to be seen as a nuisance. He wants to keep every advantage when he’s in the country.
But of course he’s a sight, he knows that he must be the subject of speculation: a very tall man, dressed in clothes from away, walking a black miniature poodle. This is not a Maine kind of dog, not a Lab or a setter or a Ridgeback. She doesn’t have the poofy poodle cut, but still….One memorable morning, before the town leash laws were widely enforced, he remonstrated with the owner of a German shepherd, off-leash and menacing, and was called a “fucking faggot” for his troubles. He knows the man was hardly representative of the town, especially as he appeared to be drunk at ten o’clock in the morning. But just to be sure of safety, he has made it a point ever since to wave at each car and pickup that passes him on the roads (in a restrained, manly way, of course, a sort of index-finger waggle at the end of a slightly raised arm), a friendly gesture that someone might remember, that might prove useful to him in a time of need.
He wouldn’t think about picking up debris in his well-ordered suburb, where there isn’t much loose anything blowing around, not even morals, except the occasional can or cup or junk mail tossed or fallen when the garbage truck with the big grasping arm slightly fumbles. Maintaining civilization requires personal space, or property space, any trespass of which, including a simple act of trash kindness, seems a violation of the covenant of non-involvement. Better to walk on by.
His neighbor polices the big park, half woods, half sports fields, nearby; that’s correct behavior, that’s pretending suburban life is redeemable, is something lovely. But on private property – a man in America must be free to pick up and put down what he wishes, without interference.
Thus, walkers there generally don’t wave, or speak a greeting, or meet one’s eye, or even move over on the sidewalk. They carry their inviolability with them. A personal wasteland is not to be breached.
By noon he’s back at the house and puts the Ash Point trash in the big blue garbage barrel, except of course for the four recyclables. The joys of walking in nature, without that rule-making dog, no trash left in sight, have brimmed over—innocent trees, sky merging with island and bay, the lichen and moss of the ages, the lives of deer and grouse and pileated woodpecker moving in the woods and sometimes intersecting with his. They inspire him to madness. That is, he thinks he doesn’t need anything else.
But he does, and those joys should be his real salvation, those walks should put him in the way of possible community. Unfortunately, in this part of Maine—a rather ordinary part, no big tourist attractions—very few people walk. They’ll drive to the lighthouse or the landing at Ash Point to look at the ocean; they’ll drive to the neighboring city for groceries and beer, movies and fast food; but almost no one walks except a few older women in the middle of the day, who are intent on exercise and care only to nod pleasantly; a stocky man with a crooked walk who is seen everywhere, at all times of day, as if he’s working off his handicap, and who gruffly says hello; and neighbors walking their dogs: all these walkers are fine and good but afford little chance of engagement.
Some days he does hope for more. Perhaps the inhabitants of that low, rambling yellow house sprawling so comfortably on the hill will emerge and comment. Perhaps when the Old Homestead is open, Wednesday afternoons in the summer, 2:00 to 4:00, he’ll interrupt his walk and ask the ladies of the Historical Society a question or two about town characters. Later, he tells himself, next week.
On the computer, he captures a phrase or two for tomorrow’s session, checks email from the city, then moves from the rocker to the deck, with book and lunch, to the fresh cool air that the most recent storm has brought. He tries to think about the contrasts of his two lives: country versus suburbs and city, quiet vs. loud, plants and animals vs. concrete and tar, locals vs. people from away. But often it all seems like escape, or a placid vacillation between two points and in the swinging back and forth he lands nowhere.
That storm banged through and cleaned out humid thoughts and blew down trees and, from the cemetery on Ash Point Drive, tore an American flag off a grave. Tattered and ripped, the flag ended up in his trash bag. Standing at the garbage barrel, he wasn’t quite sure for a moment what to do with it, this symbol of success, this unabashed and heartfelt way to honor the dead, this rallying point for rural lives. At one time, in the ’60s, he would have calmly trashed it but now he’s not so sure. America promised him liberty but gave him choice.
Several flags remain in the cemetery, some freshly planted, some hanging on by a thread. He’ll watch for them every day, analyze their progress to waste, pick them up when they tear free, perhaps fold them gently before putting them in the bag for the dump. He’ll think more about the promises of the country, and the Country. He’ll resolve to understand the people of this town—how to tolerate the unexpected, how to live more easily with the dead. He’ll walk every road and lane of his adopted community, loitering near yards, putting himself in the way, eulogizing a losing way of life, hoping to be more responsible for his mortality.