I’m hot on the trail of a paper cup. It’s being blown on the wind down an endless sidewalk that leads to the D train in Brooklyn and ultimately back to my Manhattan apartment. Plenty of other trash is blowing in the wind too, twisting in strange vortexes like leaves on spring days.
When leaves dance in upward spirals in odd drifts of wind, it’s a beautiful thing. When trash blows in crazy directions on a sidewalk in the middle of an impossibly long winter, it’s not pretty at all. There’s an impulse to grab at it. Collect it. Stuff it all somewhere. Tidy up. But you don’t. You just push on against the biting wind and through the swirling trash toward home.
You don’t see lots of trash blowing around like this in the southern tip of Manhattan where I live. It’s as if Manhattan has been properly scrubbed down and civilized. Brooklyn is one of those throw-away boys recruited as an apprentice chimney sweep 100 years ago in London with dark ash permanently smudged on his cheeks and lots of moxie but no proper manners to speak of. Brooklyn isn’t singing songs and dancing with animated penguins like Dick Van Dyke’s talented chimney sweep in Mary Poppins. It’s just plodding along with a dirty unglamorous face, truant from school while also managing to be tuneless and unrepentant.
The paper cup skitters this way and that. It can’t quite make it off the sidewalk and onto the street because a brackish mix of snow and ice still lingers on the curb. So, it keeps caroming along from one side of the sidewalk to the next and ever forward. It’s trapped, as we all are at times, moving forward with our ungainly and uncertain gaits toward unknown destinations.
Trash has been piling up for a while in front of homes as curbside trash pickup has been impossible due to snow. One snow ends and another begins until three or four successive snows pile up on top of each other. Cars get locked in miniature icebergs where snow plows have pushed the snow out of the middle of the street and toward the curb where it melts a little and then quick-freezes up to form a hard block of ice. A chisel or a miner’s pick axe might help to free a car encased in such a wintry concoction, but a shovel is fairly useless.
It’s not as if trash doesn’t pile up in places in the South where I come from because it certainly does. It collects in odd places. Behind a short gravel road that led to a trailer, there was a large gully filled with trash on an odd two-acre plot of land in Salisbury, North Carolina my dad owned during my childhood. My sister and I tromped around in it sometimes like amateur archeologists discovering things about the people from what they threw out. Beer cans. A working E-Z bake oven my sister tried to claim. The illegal dump seemed to go down for miles as if generations of people had gotten rid of their trash in this odd place.
Trash can spread like a disease. On the side of a minor state highway in Asheville, North Carolina someone disposes of an old mattress in a random ditch. Someone else adds a broken rocking chair to that. Little unofficial dumps crop up like brush fires. Maybe some group forms to adopt that particular stretch of highway. Then the litterbugs find somewhere else to make illegal dumps. This notion of throwing trash in a random spot spreads easily from person to person and is horribly hard to stamp out once it takes root.
Back in Florence, Alabama, I noticed a strange phenomenon. Our neighbors were very curious about our trash. If you took something out to the curb like a worn out chair or a slightly unsteady bookshelf, they would stop and look it over like museum curators considering the addition of a new painting to their gallery.
During our move to Florida from Alabama, I kept dragging stuff to the curb for hours that just couldn’t make the trip. I was shocked at how fast some of the larger stuff was hauled off. Maybe it was restored through craftsmanship to better than new and given a brand new life. Maybe it was taken as is and kept in a huge basement by a hoarder.
I never spotted the people taking away our old furniture throughout the move. Oddly, the stuff would just disappear while I was inside rummaging around and looking for the next thing to drag out. It made me feel as if maybe the house was under constant surveillance by the odd race of scavenging sand people from Star Wars. Feeling that way made it even harder to get rid of things because I knew once it was on the curb it would be gone in a matter of minutes. If it was valuable to them, why wasn’t it valuable to me? But it just wasn’t. Whatever odd purposes they imagined for the thing I was ready to toss out, I couldn’t picture. I simply had to keep letting it go.
The paper cup jitterbugging along the Brooklyn sidewalk eventually lodges itself somewhere, and I keep moving on past toward the elevated train tracks I find both quaint and shockingly anachronistic in a way that feels wrong. I always keep moving on when the cold wind blows like this. The world is not a neat and tidy place. Trash sometimes rushes madly down sidewalks in all directions in the North when it isn’t collecting in a random gully in the South. Civilization itself seems held together by a thin string.
Trash and leaves aren’t the only thing blowing up in odd swirling vortexes. The salt used to make sidewalks walkable just outside our apartment building after a winter snow blows up ten stories to coat our windows. Upon learning it would cost $125 for a maintenance man to wash our windows, my wife and I decide we should do the job ourselves. Which is why I am leaning way out of the open window scrubbing hard as my wife holds onto my legs.
So it goes. I hold on tight with one hand as I lean out into the abyss to scrub my grimy window. I hunch into the bitter wind in a light hail of trash in Brooklyn and inch forward toward home.
An abundance of random trash isn’t all bad. When I find I have run out of doggie bags to scoop up my dog’s poop off the sidewalk, I retrieve a toddler’s sock and a dry cleaning receipt from the sidewalk. I ponder both. The dry cleaning receipt suits my purposes perfectly. So, I use that.
As she’s doing laundry a few days later, my wife plucks the toddler’s sock from my pants pocket. “Is there something you want to tell me?” she asks. I explain I have conceived a tiny child without her in my spare time who likes to run around with one bare foot.