Growing up, my grandma was, as I saw it, incredibly involved in the community. She weighed in on proposed bills, wrote to Congress, traveled to Alaska to stand up for polar bears. All of this was pretty ridiculous, given no one else in my family necessarily had a philanthropic bone in their body. Everyone was too concerned with getting the bills paid and putting their kids through school. Good deeds, on a larger community scale at least, were for unemployed rich ladies with time and money on their hands or old people like my grandmother who had nothing better to do. Call me selfish, but life is sort of like an airplane in an emergency situation: you affix the oxygen mask to your own face before attempting to help someone else with theirs. Because how are you going to save someone if you’re still gasping for air?
Not everything my grandma did was unattainable. She was the “mayor” of what would come to be known as the Village Green, a triangular plot of land off of Sunset Boulevard that for many years housed rogue bits of trash and sleeping homeless people. The community cleaned the joint up, planting flowers and painting iron benches with a glossy, water-resistant finish. The improvement required some light maintenance, and my grandma went there nearly every day to make sure the waxed paper from Subway sandwiches and plastic Starbucks coffee cups had all been placed in the waste bin, which often wasn’t the case.
Grandma was a big anti-litterer. Walking alongside her always meant having to pause intermittently while she bent over to pick up other people’s carelessly tossed refuse. It was like picking flowers from neighborhood yards in the aim of building a beautiful bouquet, only this bouquet was often more grimy, smelly, and would end up being promptly thrown away. She never asked me to help, never ranted loudly about people’s ignorance or their bad habits. She simply bent over, again and again and again, picking up things that did not belong to her – little orphans of trash.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found this trait to be an inherited one, only whenever I see people litter, the diatribe in my head is one of fury and vaguely fascist environmentalism. When I see kids chucking their empty plastic water bottles onto the subway tracks, I want to grab them by the hair and tell them about islands of plastic floating in the ocean, about seals choking to death on plastic bags, about dead seagulls filled with bits garbage like candy in a piñata. I want to tell them that a glass bottle takes one million years to break down, that a tiny paper cigarette lasts one to five, that an aluminum can you drank when you were four years old will have just barely begun disintegrating by the time you die. One can. Of course I don’t say anything, only stare at them and wonder what their parents are like, because one only learns these ways from adults, and to pass on one’s horrible habits, to smear a clean slate with your own muddied vision, seems truly reprehensible, though regrettably unavoidable.
And so, the best I can do is follow in my grandma’s footsteps, bending over silently to pick up the garbage in front of my apartment — the forgotten cardboard boxes, the unsolicited business cards, the vodka bottles of Friday nights. Because while each individual item is not necessarily my responsibility, but – call me selfish –the planet is everyone’s.