Perhaps it all goes back to the worst summer job I ever had.
When I was 17, I spent my summer vacation working for the Ohio Transportation Department, picking up trash, cutting weeds, and sweeping debris from highway entrance and exit ramps in Cleveland. The days were hot, the work was grimy, the pay was derisory, and the garbage was gross. Unlike Iron Eyes Cody, whose “Crying Indian” TV spot I had seen countless times as a child, I never had a bag of trash flung in my direction from a passing car. I didn’t need to. Three months of cleaning other people’s rubbish from public roadways was more than enough to persuade me that if cleanliness was next to godliness, then litterbugs were going to hell.
A neat freak I am not, as anyone who has ever seen my office or desk can attest. But man, do I despise litter — and the selfish jerks who regard sidewalks, streets, and community parks as their own personal garbage dump.
One of the things I liked best about Tom Menino when he first became mayor of Boston two decades ago was his habit of carrying a Polaroid camera as he moved through the city so he could document — and prod City Hall to take care of — the graffiti, trash-strewn streets, and other eyesores he encountered. “Stuck in a traffic jam on his way to City Hall,” the Globe recounted in a profile of Menino in August 1993, “he snapped up his car phone, belted out the number of Parks Commissioner Patrick Harrington, and hollered: ‘Jesus, I thought I told you to have that litter picked up under the artery. I’m sitting here in my car looking at it and it is a mess.’ ”
Twenty years later, the Central Artery is history and Menino’s long mayoralty soon will be too, but you can still sit in Boston traffic — or stroll along Boston’s streets — and gaze at other people’s trashy messes.
While stopped at a red light near Southampton Street as I exited Interstate 93 one day this week, I jotted down the litter I was looking at: “potato sack, water bottles, newspaper, crumpled foil, paper bags, tissues, cardboard, lottery tickets, printed flyers, soda cans.” There was more, but the light turned green, and I had to stop writing. I drove to the South End and parked, then took in the sights at my feet as I walked around Tremont and West Canton Streets for 15 minutes — everything from snarls of yellow police tape and Trader Joe’s shopping bags to empty condom cartons and shattered glass. On the steps outside one apartment building I counted eight empty beer and liquor bottles, most still in paper bags.
When Menino announced in March that he would step down at the end of his current term, he warned the candidates hoping to succeed him: “Don’t trash my city.” Not to worry, Mr. Mayor. Other people are already doing it.
I don’t blame Menino for the fact that people are such thoughtless jackasses. And in fairness, his 20 years in office have included a variety of new efforts to deal with the city’s plague of filth and litter: solar-powered compacting trash receptacles, a digital app that enables residents to report problems directly to City Hall via cell phone, even an annual “Boston Shines” cleanup event for volunteers. But as long as so many people think nothing of flinging their garbage wherever they find it convenient to do so — and as long as there is no real social sanction against those who do so — the problem will persist.
My kids have grown up hearing my harangues on this subject. When my older son was 4 or 5 and at the “Papa-tell-me-a-story” stage, a favorite tale involved a magic spell that would cause anyone who littered to be instantly vaporized. I pick up litter when I’m walking, and when my kids are with me I make them pick it up too. They grumble about it, of course, and can’t understand why they should have to pick up that discarded water bottle if nobody else does.
Last week I spotted Michael Dukakis as we drove through Brookline, and with exquisite timing — just as I was pointing out the former governor and presidential candidate to my younger child — he bent over to pick up a piece of debris that someone had tossed on the sidewalk. I relished the moment of moral advantage. “You see, Micah,” I told my son, “other people care about it too.”
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.