This post was edited by my dear friend Sayan Das. His edits and suggestions made this piece of writing worth reading. You can follow Sayan on Instagram here. His exceptional writing is an inspiration to me every day. He loves London and butter chicken.
The other day, I was sitting and waiting for the bus, which was late as usual. It was an unusually warm day for that time of the year and there was no one sharing the bus stop with me. I had time on my hands and thus, the rare opportunity of noticing people passing by. I stared at everyone I could see, noticing their clothes and their mannerisms. I guessed at their convictions and imagined their stories. One such passerby – a man in his thirties, caught my eye. He had a balding head and ‘serious’ glasses, which placed him towards the latter part of the decade. He was wearing a checked reddish-brown shirt, as if he wanted to go for the hipster woodcutter look. At some point, he’d decided he’d overdone it and thus had not gone full-hipster. His boring jeans and the ID tag hanging from his neck made me place him as an IT professional. It is the bane of IT professionals to be dressed in such clothes, bordering on personal freedom and misplaced professionalism. My own blue jeans, green t-shirt, and ID tag mirrored him in dullness and unoriginality.
I first noticed him as he was crossing the street, maintaining his position in the middle of the zebra crossing. He’s cautious, I remember thinking. But he wasn’t rushing to get out of the road either. So he recognizes that he’s white, I also remember thinking. As he came near the end of the zebra crossing, he came to a bush, the kind you find in cities where local governments have a mandate to plant ‘greenery’ in every viable location they can find. It was dull, dying, dust colored, and definitely a catchall for pollution from the cars that drive on by.
I noticed that it was dull and dying, but I knew the reason for that too. The summers have been harsh and dry and we’re heading into fall. I cannot expect bushes to be green and flowering. But it irritated me nonetheless that the bush was a dead creature.
As I watched the redshirted man cross the bush, he reached close to it, bent down and picked something up from there. Did he really pick up a piece of trash from the sidewalk? Why would he do that? Was he a spy picking up a dead drop? I’ve been watching too many spy shows and movies, I told myself. Was it a message from a lover? No, certainly not. I was letting my imagination run too wild.
As he approached, I saw that the man had picked out what looked like a beer can, an empty “tall boy”, if you must know. It was black and emblazoned with some lettering and the image of a cold mountain. I watched him come to me, towards the bus stop that I alone occupied. He tossed the beer can playfully into the air and looked at it as if he had been the owner of it all along. Was he not worried of residual beer falling out? Perhaps it was an old beer can and he instinctively knew it to be dry.
But I get ahead of myself. As soon as I saw what he had picked out of the bushes, I asked myself a question – why? Why would someone take the effort of picking up garbage from the street? Was he a do-gooder who wanted to clean up his city? Was he concerned about the slow and painful degradation of the material of the can, polluting his airspace and the soil, destroying his city one tall boy at a time? Was it something he fancied and wanted to take home with himself? (I hoped it’s a firm no on that last one!)
What are, by the way, the ethics of removing garbage from the street? I have myself, on many occasions, picked up stray bits of paper, a can here or there, or discarded plastic straws, and dutifully deposited them to the bin. But have I known others to do so? Certainly not! My friends have chided me for it. I have heard the various diseases I could die of from other people’s garbage. I used to think that my small action made a difference to that one straw. But I’ve learnt that in the longer context, my actions do not matter at all.
Also, what are the economics of picking up said garbage? There would be a trash collector for the area. Does he go about checking every bush for waylaid beer cans? Are you stealing from his quota? What will he do when he comes around and sees that the bush is too clean? He’ll report that there is less garbage on this street. His superiors will decide to reduce the number of rounds he makes here. Trash will then accumulate for longer till the next time he comes around to pick it up. What of the IT professional himself? What if, god forbid, he does get some infection due to the beer can? Will his insurance give him any aid, when they find out he got ill because he picked up garbage from the street? Can he claim that the city is responsible in some way, because he was helping clean up the area he works in? They’ll ask him to prove that he’s a qualified trash collector and had the requisite equipment such as gloves and a trash grabber. Since I could see that he did not, why would the city come to his support when he falls ill?
What is, finally, the morality of picking up garbage and getting it off the streets? There is definitely some right in doing so. Every few years, in places like Gurgaon and Bangalore, in India, you’ll see some IT company donating semi-precious time, resources, and man-hours to cleaning up some extremely dirty road in the region and painting it in bright, boring shades of uniformity. NGOs often sponsor such events and with much ado. Is picking up this garbage on a per-beer-can basis an act of heroism? Is the balding man a hero in my eyes now? I cannot say that for certain, but I do have some newfound respect for him. I stopped doing this same thing due to peer pressure and societal mores. But this fellow marches on, solitary in his pursuit of cleaning up every beer can in every bush that comes in his path. He knows only one truth – it matters to this beer can that it gets to the recycling bin. The destiny of this one can is not to rot in some foul corner of the city. It must rot out there in the oceans, or head to Madras, where it can be safely dumped away from the prying eyes of bothered Americans. He is a hero in the way that heroes ought to be – unassuming, silent folk, soldiering on in their pursuits without regard for personal safety or peer pressure.
As he approached the bus station, this messiah of cleanliness stood with an aura around him. But there was confusion on his bright, beautiful face. I looked to where he looked and noticed what he noticed. Usually, bus stands have a trashcan or two accompanying them. But in this singular instance, this was not the case. Alas, there was no trash receptacle! Where would our hero deposit this beer can? How was he to complete his mission in leading another piece of discard to its destiny?
As he pondered on this dilemma, and I must confess, I did too, the bus arrived. Seeing this, he looked around and, noticing a USPS post box, tossed the can in there and got in line to board the bus.