Monday, July 12, 2010

The World Was My Ashtray

I suspect nearly all of us have been witness, if not to actual abuse, to dreadful public treatment of children. We’re in a supermarket, let’s say, and come upon an impatient mother screaming at her kid for asking once too often for a particular kind of cereal. We see another mother getting right in her child’s face, loudly demanding, “You stuck on Stupid or something today?” with a face like a thunderstorm. Or, worse, we see a parent grab a misbehaving kid so roughly as to nearly dislocate the kid’s arm.

I’ve tried intervening a few times over the years — deferentially, not confrontationally — and never been confident that my action actually benefited the child. I’ve been told, in front of the child, to fuck off and mind my own business. At other times, I’ve felt pretty sure that the parent, after having apologized, would take his embarrassment out on the kid the second they were in private. I never know what to do now.

I’m writing this after coming home from a twilight walk down to the river, on the way to which I passed a couple of teenagers in the sort of shorts that don’t deserve the name, the kind that extend down to mid-ankle. One of them took the wrapper of what he’d been eating and casually tossed it into the foliage adjoining the sidewalk. I wanted to knock his and his homeboy’s heads together, but wound up saying nothing, as I had reached an especially interesting segment of to a Fresh Air interview with a woman who’d been taken prisoner by North Korea, and remembered all too well how poorly my previous attempts to reform litterers had gone.

The first time was in LA’s Westwood Village. An archetypal rock dude was leaning against someone else’s car on Broxton Avenue eating a burrito and chatting up a girl. There was a trash receptacle maybe three long strides from him, but when he finished the burrito, he squeezed its wrapper into a ball and casually tossed it over his shoulder. In a aw-c’mon-now-bro tone, I pointed out that I didn’t ask him to have to look at my trash, and would much prefer not to look at his, and suggested he use the trashcan next time. He took the whole thing as an impeachment of his masculinity and suggested I mind my own fucking business. I pointed out that his trash became my business, and everyone else’s, when he just threw it over his shoulder. We did a lot of manly glowering and growling at each other.

In North London maybe 25 years after that, while picnicking with Claire, I saw a foreign-looking (that is, non-Brit) mum and her three kids carefully compress the remains of their own picnic and hide it, not very well, at the edge of a wooded area. When I went over to appeal to them to instead discard it properly, the lot of them looked terrified, and I felt monstrous.

I am not blameless, of course. When I was a smoker, I, like every other smoker in the world, would just flick my butts into the street when there was no ashtray handy, or crush them underfoot in a cinema. The world was my ashtray. Somehow, because the butts were so small, it didn't feel like littering. What an idiot I was.

Composing this, I remember the ghastly sight, when I lived in the UK, of swans trying to make their way through the plastic supermarket bags and plastic drink containers of which the stretch of the Richmond I lived near was always full. I thought at the time that the government should ban the sale of plastic beverage containers, and instead issue every resident of the country maybe half a dozen such containers of different sizes that he or she could refill at the supermarket. Lose your bottles, die of thirst; no additional ones will be issued.

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