The first words I ever said to him were, “Sir, please don’t litter.” The first words he said to me were “F**k you.” And that was the beginning of a beautiful conversation.
I was at a conference for the Environment & Urban Societies. I was sitting in the shade of one of those blue pop-up tents you see hovering over tables and volunteers and vendors at races and festivals. The sun was beating down, albeit at a late afternoon slant, onto the short-clipped grass, outdated concrete plaza fountain, and crowded street around the rows of tents. People from the conference were pressing in to hear the announcement we’d just learned would be made shortly about some detail of the conference. City traffic – cars and pedestrians – added to the throng.
I had thought he was one of those pedestrians, and thought the handful of whatever he had flung to his left, just out of my sight, was wrappers or a Styrofoam to-go box or who knows what. I was sitting there stewing in the heat thinking about – and had been musing all day about – the litter issue: why some cultures in some times seem more likely to litter, what the real threats of litter are, and the impact on humans, wildlife, and the ecosystem. As an interpreter and educator I like to learn, puzzle things out, see patterns, and use education as one way to help reverse problems. Litter had been in my mental microscope for the conference thus far, and my obsession carried through to this brief break before we jumped back into lectures, networking, and expanding our ideas and knowledge. Buoyed and blinded by this obsession, I uncharacteristically spoke a brazen rebuke to a stranger before examining the situation, and that was the source of the strife, and the curse.
After our sweet little exchange, I took a mental split-second to look again. His words hadn’t seemed malicious – just a ‘get off my back’ or ‘give me a break’ tone. For some reason I was in touch with my confidence and compassion enough that I was only momentarily offended and angered, and quickly realized I needed to take a breath and a step backward. It also helped that the crowd wasn’t moving and he wasn’t in a hurry to get out of my presence.
His demeanor wasn’t any more agitated than someone waiting in line, which I took to be a sign of some calm good-naturedness. As he shifted his weight, standing blocked by the crowd, I saw what he had tossed onto the grass was a binder full of papers. Not typical litter. Oops.
He was of average height and weight – taller than me but not imposingly so, slightly stocky with middle-aged roundness around the gut. He had leathery, mottled skin and the overall hoary appearance common among heavy smokers, or maybe someone who used to smoke a lot.
But what tipped the balance in favor of another exchange was that he had looked back at me, too, not angrily, and at the same time we realized we were wearing the same shirt from the conference. Then we seemed to both recognize each other from, of all things, a choir rehearsal associated with the conference. (Yes, some musically-inclined soul had the idea that music was a good venue to share environmental messages, and thankfully had the conducting and composing expertise to make it happen. So this was the second Environment & Urban Societies conference that had had a volunteer choir, and we were both in it.)
That little bit of commonality emboldened me to say, “I’m sorry. I really thought you were littering–” but before I finished he waved me off and in a gruff voice said, “Forget it.”
“I work at a nature preserve,” I pressed on, “so I’m so used to dealing with…” Words failed me – should I say ‘litter’ again? In the same conversation – the second or third sentence I was saying to the guy? I gestured vaguely at what I’d thought was his trash, which I’d realized was a binder, and now it was dawning on me that the binder was probably the music from rehearsal. Yeesh, did I feel unobservant and gun-shy about jumping to conclusions.
But he was unfazed by my fumbling and said, ‘Hey, I know. I tell crapheads to pick up their shit all the time. And it’s not even my job – I don’t work for an environmental place.” He paused, perhaps calculating the value of continuing our exchange, or the intensity of whatever he was feeling at the time, weighing whether he wanted to say more. He seemed to unwind slightly as he looked around and continued, “I’m tired of people who treat everywhere like it’s a trashcan, like the earth is one big trash can.”
He was indicating the space around us but I could tell his mental reach with that gesture encompassed the globe, maybe even the space around the globe, where thousands of pounds of our human-made satellite debris orbits even now… and maybe it included companies who leave trails of trash and environmental damage like they own the earth – the whole earth – or worse, like no one owns it, so no one inherits it, and it has no inherent value.
I’d been nodding as he spoke as a conciliatory gesture and to show my support for the sentiment. I even said something lame like, “Yeah, totally” just to be sure he knew I felt we were on the same side.
I figured it was time to wrap up this exchange with this middle-aged stranger on a positive note. “Well, I didn’t realize you were with the conference,” I began, but again he spoke over me in that gravelly voice which probably served him well in the bass section.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean jack. I’ve seen people in there walking in with Styrofoam cups, or throwing away those stupid-ass plastic water bottles. Throwing them away. At an environmental thing. People are clueless. Even when they care. So just being in this conference–” he shrugged and shook his head– “people just don’t know.”
It’s hard to pinopoint the mental calculus involved in any human exchange. Below the level of consciousness, we evaluate all sorts of factors: the value of our interaction with the person, his or her honesty or intentions, subtle cues about health and attractiveness or repulsion, thoughts of other things to do, social fears and morés and consequences. Somewhere in this brief exchange, I decided I liked the guy. And I dared to engage.
“Even if they do know,” I continued for us both, “you’re never sure if they care at all. There are too many people who know, on some level, that littering is bad and they just don’t care. Or it’s an inconvenience to have to deal with it, and they don’t want to be inconvenienced.”
I figured I’d prattled too much for a typical stranger exchange, but he hadn’t lost interest; on the contrary, he seemed to be digging in.
He answered, “Yeah. Ethics can be inconvenient. Look, I’m an atheist, and people think that means I have no ethics, but that’s not true, that’s not what it means. I have strong morals and they’re based on observation and trying to make things better. And I observe that humans make a lot of stuff worse. It’s just what we do – it’s natural, not intentional.” He took a deep ragged breath like he was sucking air through a cigarette, like this way of thinking made him tired and wired at the same time. “We’ve never had to change our behavior before, because up until now we couldn’t have much impact on the globe. There were too few of us, we didn’t have the technology then. Now, we have to totally re-steer our species to do what’s NOT natural, to do what’s NOT convenient, so we don’t ruin what we’ve got.”
I had noticed other people standing around were starting to get interested, to turn toward us subtly and lean in slightly. I was happy to see this could potentially blossom into a philosophical conversation among new acquaintances.
A woman standing near the man chimed in sardonically, “Like, we have to act like our future depends on sharing the planet?” A lovely, wry statement – obvious to conservationists, hard to swallow for the average human when she or he realizes the implications for business and personal life.
In only a few minutes, the conversation had turned from an affront to a pleasant camaraderie. I could feel the warmth of growing respect blooming in my smile.
The aforementioned announcement served as an interruption, after which our group disbanded, but I knew I’d be seeing the man and the other people throughout the conference. Some in rehearsal. Ours is a small, though growing, world of people who care enough about the environment to take time off work to go to conferences like these and gripe and grow and learn and lead. We’d run into each other again, and after a few fumbling, awkward exchanges, we’d delve back into sharing ideas and groping toward changing the world for the better.
If you’ve read this far, I thank you for sharing this experience with me, and apologize for going over my self-imposed 500 words limit. Those who know me well know that my dreams are vivid, and I didn’t want to break this one into a series or boil it down past its subtlety, which I hope I’ve conveyed. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this trip into one of the worlds my brain conjured during sleep.