We are a nation of pigs. Having just returned from the post-Labor Day beach, I can reach no other conclusion.
Will Rogers State Beach, the jewel of Pacific Palisades, California, looked like a garbage scow. Never, ever, ever – not growing up at the Jersey Shore, not in twenty years combing Southern California beaches – have I seen a public beach so callously trashed. From jetty to jetty, water’s edge to parking lot, the sand was strewn with brightly-colored rubbish. Bearing witness were legions of tall, covered trashcans. Empty ones.
Amidst the wreckage sat an elderly couple sipping cocktails. Perched on their sand chairs, surrounded by garbage, they looked like an ad for an anti-litter campaign. “Have you ever seen such a mess?” I greeted them. “Well,” said the so-proper woman, “it was a three-day weekend.”
I don’t care if it was a thousand-day weekend. When did it re-become okay to toss our trash around?
“They don’t know any better,” explained her husband. Really? Do we really need a PhD to grasp the plainly visible fact that trash left on the beach gets blown into the sea, or washed out to sea, and that trash left anywhere near the sea is a very bad idea?
I spied a large, plastic sand pail with a broken handle. Apparently that made it disposable. I picked it up and filled it with the bottles, juice boxes, and fast food wrappers poised for take-off on the next wave.
A young girl watched closely. She asked if I worked for the city. I said no, but I lived in the city, and I hated it when people trashed it. She, no taller than a barely-used trashcan, nodded.
On my third bucketful of rubbish, a fortyish woman grabbed a plastic bag and joined in. “Remember ‘Keep America Beautiful?’” she said. In the 1960’s, Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign to de-litter our highways was a rousing success. In 2007, according to Caltrans, L.A. County freeway trash is up 30 percent.
“Keep America Beautiful” has been out-shouted by “Keep America Afraid – Very Afraid.” Which explains why perfectly nice people see not-so-nice people toss their trash into the street or the ocean, yet say nothing: we may be appalled, but we’re afraid to say Boo.
This past July 5, Will Rogers State Beach was covered in red, white, and blue trash. On my way to a swim, I picked it up. “I’m with you!” a weathered lifeguard yelled. “It just kills me when people throw their crap around.”
“What do you say to them?” I yelled back. This would be good. The beach was Brawny Bob’s turf. Moral high ground, big biceps: he had to have a “Toss it in the Can” message no one could refuse. But Mr. Muscles looked suddenly squeamish. “I, uh, I don’t say anything. It’s, uh, not my place.”
But it is his place, and it’s our place too. We live here. Yet when I ask litter-haters how they confront litter-makers, they uniformly protest, “Oh, I can’t do that. I don’t want to start anything.” Or, as my mother used to warn, “Don’t say anything! Somebody might get mad.”
Well, somebody is mad, and that somebody is me. Littering is disgusting and rude and completely unnecessary. Asking someone to stop it is not only reasonable, it’s civilized.
What in the world are we so afraid of? We might, what, hurt the feelings of a self-centered boor who’s trashing our beach, our city, our planet? And yes, litter is as urgent an issue as global warming, because it’s the same issue. Hummer drivers and laissez-faire litterers will keep guzzling and littering until we stand up and announce that it’s really pissing us off. Like we did with dog owners who didn’t scoop the poop – and now they do. Like we did with smokers who clouded our airspace – and now they don’t. Peer pressure compels us to be crazy consumers. It can also compel us to be sane disposers.
As the sun went down, I saw that young girl pack the remains of her family picnic and personally escort it to the nearest trashcan. As she lifted the lid and dropped it inside, she looked very proud of herself. This wasn’t the magic hour I’d had in mind, but it was a very nice moment.