|Hollywood Beach, Chicago|
Perhaps you’ve seen them in a park or along a shore near where you live—the ones stooping down and picking up trash, a plastic bag or two or three hanging from an arm or attached to a belt loop. Maybe they have an old dog tagging along behind them, but usually they’re alone, and older. Almost always men. (Though I’ve seen women, too.)
|Montrose Harbor Dunes|
You wonder at first, are they with some group doing community service of some kind? But no, they’re there almost every day. They’re not to be confused with the beachcombers—the ladies who salvage bits of lake-polished glass. Or the men in their infernal metal-detectors with earphones, hoping to turn someone's loss into treasure. No, these are of another eccentric tribe that beaches and city parks create--the people who pick up trash, the trash men, as I call them.
|Whiting, Indiana Beach (British Petreleum in Distance|
I’d met one man a few years ago on a walk I took to Indiana. I’d seen him often, watching him from afar, a short stocky man, with weather worn clothes and hat, old tennis shoes, glasses, energetic for an older man (maybe late 70’s or early 80’s). He seemed almost in a hurry as he tottered Chaplin-like, balancing two plastic bags on each sun-tanned arm, as he went about his daily chore. I’d kind of felt sorry for him as I have others like him I’ve seen, eccentrics, I imagined, lonely, widowed, no doubt suffering from mild obsessive-compulsive disorder, having, needing to make their morning rounds. Or so this is how I explained these types of aging men I've seen.
It was an extraordinary beautiful summer morning along Chicago’s lake front and I was in an expansive mood, under the spell we put ourselves into when we are on a purposeful journey. Walkers and hikers know what I mean. We set ourselves a goal and define it as something of value, and suddenly we see the world anew. So when he appeared as I thought he would, I went right up to him and introduced myself and told him (almost as a kind of confession). I had a camera around my neck. I told him I’d seen him so many times gathering trash and wanted to thank him for it. “You inspire us out here,” I said, gesturing to the Polish ladies getting ready to take their morning swim.
He stammered. And I realized I’d scared him. He was older than I thought, but as he talked, his body seemed to become younger and more animated. “Please don’t take my picture, I don’t’ want any publicity, I’m nobody important. I just come and do this because I like to help. Keep the beach clean. Make it safe.”
“How long have you been doing this,” I asked as he waved at some older couple he knew who passed.
“I’ve been coming . . . a long time. Over twenty five years. I can’t remember.”
He went on to tell me the story of how he’d begun his cleaning up of the beach. His daughter apparently cut herself badly on a piece of glass and with the help from the lifeguard’s bandages he got her to a hospital. “It was terrible," he said as if still seeing her foot, shaking his head, "so much pain and blood.”
After that, he told me he felt it was his duty to clean things up. "You know, it could happen to some other children, stepping on the glass, they can’t see it in the sand. They're children. I just thought I should do it.”
But he obviously cleans up more than glass, and now he hits two beaches, Hollywood and Foster, a good half mile or more of beach and lakefront.
And then he was off down the beach, heading for another plastic bag, a solitary Starbucks cup rolling in the surf.
|Chidago Lakefront, between Hollywood and Foster Beaches|
It’s Earth Day, and as usual school kids everywhere will be dragging plastic bags around on beaches and parks, neighbor groups tidying up neglected lots and planting trees, and the Sierra Club will be out somewhere battling invasive species for the day. On Hollywood Beach, my hunch is a man will be out there feeling somewhat more at home with so many following his lead.
The other week I was walking along the lake shore, a bit overwhelmed with the world and "the cruelist month" as Elliot called April, and I saw some trash and naturally picked it up, then a few more yards down, a black plastic gently swayed as the waves flowed over it a foot below the water. I looked around to see if anyone was watching me (why I have no idea), and I took off my shoes and waded into the freezing surf and retrieved it. I walked on, picking up this and that, scattered on the surf. I was glad to have something to do to eclipse my manufactured melancholy.
|Montrose Harbor Beach, Chicago|
I could become a "trash man" like the man at Hollywood Beach. I’d have to practice, but I could do it.