I recently read a "Where is he now?" type of story on Michael Dukakis, the erstwhile governor of Massachusetts and presidential candidate. He's presently a college professor. But for me, all of this pales when compared with one of Mr. Dukakis's personal habits.
He picks up trash.
Not as a career choice. Not as a hobby. He does it as an expression of the person he is. On his way to work he carries a plastic bag. When he sees a paper cup or piece of paper or hamburger wrapper on the ground, he stops, stoops, and scoops.
While others might chuckle or even sniff disapprovingly at the thought of an ex-presidential candidate routinely picking up litter, I found immediate kinship with the man. For I, too, am a trash picker-upper. And I have my plastic bag to prove it. (I keep one tucked in my left hip pocket. Semper paratus!)
Long before I read the Dukakis article, I had built de-littering into my daily walks through my neighborhood. Large swaths of scrub grow where I live, and for some reason these areas have been interpreted as perfect "throwing grounds" for all sorts of refuse.
Bottles, cans, coffee cups, gum wrappers. I've seen - and retrieved - them all.
I call it the Moscow subway Ideal.
Let me explain. The Moscow subway is a polished marble wonder of design - sleek, tasteful, artistic, and immaculate. Tremendous muscle went into building it, and constant vigilance keeps it pristine. The Russian philosophy is that if the subway is kept beautiful and clean, people will be inspired to do their part to maintain it that way.
In pausing to pick up the litter that mars my walks, I emulate a Moscow subway employee. I have an image of how lovely the woodlands near my home truly are - so picture perfect in their way that the smallest item of refuse is an abomination to my eye. A quick dip of my hand is all it takes to help restore the environment to its native state.
As with anything else, practice here makes perfect, and I have gotten really good at what I do. I can spot a white drinking straw in a snowdrift, a brown paper bag in a pile of autumn leaves, and a popsicle stick in a stand of tall grass. What's more, I am undaunted. Once, in the middle of one of my walks, it began to rain. Hard.
I turned heel to head for home, but along the way I caught sight of a foam cup deep in a thicket of hawthorn. Although I was getting steadily soaked, I girded myself and beat my way through the wiry, thorn-studded branches and retrieved that cup. Nobody thanked me, and nobody had to. Success was its own reward.
If, like Mr. Dukakis, I were to be interviewed one day and the reporter asked about my most memorable trash- collecting experience, I'd have to say it was this: I was walking along, and a pickup truck came roaring down the road behind me. Just as it was passing, the passenger threw a large plastic soda cup (I think it was a 7-Eleven "Big Gulp") out the window. In an instant, I pivoted, reached out, and snagged it in midflight before it came anywhere near the ground.
If there is anything more satisfying than picking up litter, it is preempting it.
A neighbor who took note of my service once asked me if I ever grew frustrated with my task. She observed, accurately, that no matter what I do, people keep throwing their trash on the ground. The truth is that I have never grown frustrated, but her comment did lead me to consider placing a sign by the side of the road, to wit:
A NEIGHBOR PICKS UP YOUR LITTER DURING HIS WALKS. PLEASE THINK ABOUT THIS.
I haven't placed this sign, and I don't think I ever will. The truth is, I don't like to lecture people, and I certainly don't like to call attention to the habits I cultivate as personal virtues.
However, I do have a little boy, and when we first started walking together, he looked on as I unceremoniously unfurled the plastic bag from my pocket and pecked about for trash.
"Can I try?" he clapped with glee.
Without saying a word, I produced a second bag and handed it to him. Together, quietly and happily, we walked and picked. We have been doing so for three years now.
I have my legacy.