A few weeks ago, news came that one of the longtime custodians in my building at work — a lady with the gift for saying good morning a different way every day — was in the hospital with a sudden serious illness (and here I had assumed she had been taking a well-deserved vacation). Some temporary staff are filling in for her, but they must be overstretched, because since she’s been away, I’ve noticed that the ladies’ room on our floor is sometimes a mess. Water splashed around, paper towels wadded on the floor around the trash basket, and so on. This particular bathroom gets some student traffic, and America’s best and brightest young women are busy training on how to save the nation and can’t be expected to always aim precisely at a receptacle.
Besides, it is someone else’s job to clean up the bathroom. Apparently employees know this too, because yes, I have walked past the mess (in a hurry myself) and come back later and noticed the same pile of wadded up paper towels is there, with some new ones besides. At least once a day I find the time to pick up a wad or two. However, the wads just keep coming. Now what? Should I just ignore them like everyone else? After all… not my job. And nobody’s going to give me a gold star for doing it. And I personally don’t have time to stake out the bathroom and tell students to stop being slobs (would they even pay attention to me? doubtful).
I think the logical response to this problem would be to call together a bunch of co-workers and organize some sort of effort (or complaint) to deal with the occasional messes, but the building is full of a lot of different departments that have little to do with each other; not always a lot of socialization going on. The circles don’t naturally connect. And, even if you found two or three willing pinch-hitters, how do you know if they’ll really want to do this indefinitely? If we can’t or won’t pick up the wads consistently when we are each of us all alone, can we really assume that a group will want to really do it when together?
Last year I proposed a Day of Sojourn in which people would just take a lunch and a bottle of water and some good shoes and simply walk around from morning to eve, and I recall there being a potential litter component to this. “Sojourn” does not mean “journey,” but rather “a temporary stay or brief period of residence.” I don’t think I stressed that this day should be spent alone, but maybe it ought to be. Maybe anyone who wants to do something about trash should see if they have what it takes by facing a day, a week, a month of picking up the same miserable stuff from the same miserable spot over and over again. And strict rules: no pay, no gold stars, no appeals to the litterers, no appeals to the authorities, no appeals to group effort, no companionship. Just as an experiment.
How long would it take for one to give up? Or start really actively hating people who litter? When would the deranged muttering start? What are one’s personal limits? There is no sugar-coating that cleaning up after people day after day is a potentially spirit-killing activity. Doing it as a team can dull the horror, but in order to overcome it for very long, it’d have to be a pretty damn exceptional team. A certain long night of the soul would eventually have to be confronted by several individuals, before one could even hope to organize a worthy squad of long-term custodians.
So I think the sojourn idea is still a good one. And you don’t even have to travel far to go on this kind of “vision quest” as there is probably a “desert” right down the hall from you. But what person in their right mind would attempt it?