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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Organized Trash Picking:STAR column

On Saturday, April 2nd I finally did it. After writing about the trash problems in the neighborhood for a number of years, I put my muscle where my writing hand is and joined a handful of volunteers from the Olde Richmond Civic Association (ORCA) and spent a few hours cleaning up the neighborhood.

We met at 9 A.M. behind the Wawa on the 2400 block of Thompson Street where we signed waivers, received a pair of work gloves and then split up into teams of 2 or 3. Equipped with brooms, rakes, trash picking hand extensions and industrial strength trash bags, we set out like determined missionaries to rid the hood of debris.
What struck me first of all was how quiet the streets were on this cool, sunny morning. Do people really sleep this late?

Those of us with brooms got to work right away sweeping the curbs until we had significantly high trash piles. When a pile seemed sufficiently high we’d sweep another long stretch of the street and then make another one. It wasn’t long before our eyes became accustomed to food wrappers, iced tea bottles, half eaten sandwiches and discarded articles of clothing. Sweeping the streets you very often get a lot of dirt so the process isn’t as easy as sweeping your kitchen.

When my little group hit the area behind Wawa and Applebee’s restaurant—that stretch of green grass bordered by the East Thompson Street fence—we encountered a heavy concentration of trash.

The number of cigarette butts alone could very well have matched the plague of locusts that hit Salt Lake City during the great Mormon migration of the 1800s. Picking up individual butts with those E.T. extension arms would have taken all day; not only that, it probably would have had a deleterious mental effect on the picker. As a result, we decided to let most of the butts go. In the meantime, some of us had to dislodge large pieces of cardboard stuck into the ground from the Wawa and Rite Aide properties. But the big cinematic trash moment came when we cleaned Applebee’s backyard, an area that the Applebee’s General Manager told me later is regularly cleaned by his staff at least once or twice a week and then given an in-depth cleaning once a month. But more on Applebee’s later.

I don’t know what it’s like for everyone, but I went through a couple of different mental stages as I was picking up trash. The first stage is the reluctance to get started stage because of the daunting task ahead. The second is the “God awful!” stage when your eyes settle on something unusually disgusting or offbeat. It’s as if your hands, though gloved, were in full revolt at the mere thought of reaching out, if even by proxy, to the conglomerate of garbage. This stage soon passes, and suddenly everything changes as a ‘trash killing’ instinct kicks in. I compare it to going to the gym and experiencing muscle resistance for the first 5 minutes before feeling an all consuming adrenalin rush. Suddenly you and the rest of the volunteers are like synchronized dancers in some cosmic You Tube video, especially as you watch members of team throwing large cardboard pieces over the Wawa fence.

“You’re wasting your time,” a passerby snorted to one of the volunteers.
Had we listened to this advice we would have promptly given up and gone home and effectively killed any plans for future spring time cleanups. “Yes, you’re right, lady,” the ORCA volunteer could have replied, “This is a total waste. I switch my allegiance to trash.”

The plan was to cover as much of the neighborhood as possible. At first there was talk of going under I-95 but in the end we decided that that area was a day’s work in itself. We still stuck to the tributary streets around Thompson like the stretch to Richmond and then north to Cumberland Street and the Conrail tracks. But there was also Sergeant Street, Albert Street, parts of Webb Street, and of course the Vatican of Trash itself, Thompson Street behind Wawa, where most of this stuff seems to have mimicked evolution in its breeding capabilities.

The cleanest street was Salmon Street and parts of Edgemont. Give these streets the Gold Medal Award.

It’s hard to think of a family restaurant as being a magnet for trash, but when we tackled the backyard of Applebee’s, we got more than we bargained for. With Lisa, the volunteer in my group, I extracted a full set of wet, half decayed sweats—shirt, pants, undies—as well as an entire encampment of contemporary archeological finds: crack pipe, beer cans, condoms, half eaten Wawa wrap sandwiches, combs, suspicious plastic bags, and more condoms. If the early Native Americans could come back and compare our culture’s archeological findings with theirs, they’d regret that Penn Treaty deal with William Penn.

When I phoned Applebee’s GM after the cleanup and asked him what his take on the situation was, and if he could do something to help, I got good news.

“In the winter people camped behind the restaurant and drank beer all night, and sometimes things got rowdy when we would ask them to leave,” he said. “One night they even lit a bonfire. Unfortunately, much of the trash blows in from Wawa, and if we don’t clean it then it all blows into the parking lot. But I really want to work with the community,” he said. “I support your efforts.”
But the next time ORCA does a cleaning, let me know and we’ll arrange a free lunch for the volunteers at Applebee’s.”

That’s saying something in my book.

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