One of the great things about getting out of town is the opportunity to see how people do — or don’t do — things differently in another place. Cities and states have their own sets of social mores most everyone comes to accept as part of the unwritten contract of living in a certain community.
Last week I went to Vermont for the first time in my life. I had a vision in my head of crisp, cool weather, changing leaves and maple syrup and cheese. Mmmm, syrup.
When I landed in Burlington and met friends, we drove around looking for a place to eat and I was pretty impressed with the ridiculous “quaintness” of this town best known for its coat factory. We stopped at a place that had too many micro-brewed beers on tap to fathom and ordered a charcuterie board full of delicious cheeses to go with some fancy sandwiches.
If you’d told me 30 years ago that these buffoons I went to college with and I would one day be trying to pronounce charcuterie so we could enjoy tiny, expensive pieces of cheese, I’d have just stood there wondering what charcuterie means. But that’s really not the point of this column.
We saw signs for the Vermont Teddy Bear Company and at least were still manly enough not to end up on a stuffed animal tour. We also passed up a chance to tour Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream factory. I did have an interest in touring Burlington Coat Factory, but saw no signs for it.
But it’s really what I didn’t see that got my attention. No trash. No litter all over the roads and sidewalks. Yes, this is yet another installment of “Why Is Mobile the Capital of Throwing Trash Everywhere?”
We drove on up to Middlebury College, about 45 minutes away, and everything was still clean. Even along the highway there wasn’t the standard-in-Alabama collection of trash hurled from moving cars, or things that have fallen off of cars never to be picked up.
The town of Middlebury was even quainter, if that’s a word, and would give Fairhope a run for its money. It too was overwhelmingly litter-free. The college itself was spotless. As we walked around the campus, I couldn’t help thinking about how much they must spend just mowing all the grass and keeping things clean. But I was also reminded of our own litter problems as one of my friends chain-smoked and flipped cigarette butts all over the place like he was leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.
He’s a Jersey boy, so maybe that’s his excuse, but I could probably have said the same if he was a Bama boy. One of my biggest pet peeves is cigarette smokers throwing butts around like they’re squirrel treats or food for starving flocks of seagulls. You can hardly drive anywhere in Mobile without seeing someone roll down a window and flick a butt into the street.
Flying back into Mobile after spending time in a place where they actually don’t litter like it’s an Olympic sport is always jarring. Driving down Airport Boulevard toward the house, roadside trash stood out like a guy tossing cigarette butts all over a pristine lawn.
Visits to mostly litter-free societies always seem to re-sensitize me to our own problems here. The wife and I went for lunch after my plane landed, and heading across the bay there was an entire bumper sitting on the side of the road, along with a string of other auto parts smashed into the shoulder of the road for the next mile. I might not even have noticed that a few days earlier.
Coming to work Monday, someone had just thrown full cans of what looked to be Mr. Pibb all over Government Street. They rolled around in traffic and gathered in the gutters. Sitting down in my hideously old and beaten-down chair, I saw the usual collection of fast food bags, drink cups, straws and discarded beer cans that regularly accumulate in the little piece of median we’ve landscaped in front of the Lagniappe World HQ. Someone could make a living trying to keep the front of our office litter free.
I know Mayor Sandy Stimpson probably considers Mobilians’ continuing love affair with throwing trash one of the more frustrating things about running Litter City. When he first took office, Stimpson had big plans for breaking us of our trashy habits, and God knows he tried. But when I look, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s a lost cause.
Perhaps my favorite litter story is driving along behind someone in the garden district one day and having the driver fling her entire lunch out of their car’s sunroof, all of it landing on the hood of my car. It still says it all about the attitude many people in our area have about litter. Why throw it in a trash can when there’s a perfectly potholed city street right there?
We talk a lot about tourism here and drawing visitors from across the country to see our beautiful city, but I wonder how often we fail to notice what they’re sure to see once they arrive? I know in a world full of school shootings, impeachment proceedings, military invasions and “The Genesis Halftime Show,” we’re dealing with some pretty awful things that may take precedent in our minds over trash on the side of the road. There’s not much we can do about many of those things, though, but we can make our little piece of heaven more heavenly.
I recognize my own resignation on this matter. I need to get back out there and clean up the sidewalk more often like I used to, even though I know some slob is going to mess it up again. A few weeks ago a high school kid took a Lagniappe out of the box in front of our office, which I thought was nice, until he threw it all over Mobile Public Library’s property for no apparent reason. I went full-on grouchy old man and ran outside and yelled at him to clean it up — and he actually did it!
I’m not recommending yelling at strangers, but if that’s what it takes ….
People asked if Vermont was like a postcard, and I’d have to say it was. I’d say Mobile can be postcard-like as well, but I’ve never seen a postcard full of old bumpers and Mr. Pibb cans. We should do better.
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