Sojourner trash

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?

7 thoughts on “Sojourner trash

  1. sean

    if you have the patience and space for it, i attach a column in which a guy named william hunt offers the best take on litter i’ve ever seen – and offers a way not to hate the litterer, while lamenting the condition. his take on slumlords, and the governmental corollary, is brilliant. your restroom is a different situation, of course. but i find that picking a spot and clenaing it continually, night after night, is more of a zen act – it is what it is, and if cleaning it changes the condition, that’s great, but at the end, if nothing else, it is always better – because if i allow myself to go to sheer fury about it, then i’m finished.



    The Post-Standard
    Friday, April 28, 2000

    BYLINE: Sean Kirst, Post-Standard columnist

    William Hunt sees it as logic. Garbage goes with death.

    Three people died last weekend in shootings in Syracuse, raising the city’s homicide toll for the year to 11. Most of the killings have been in the same neighborhoods, the poor city streets at the heart of Syracuse. They are the same places where you often find broken bags of trash, spilling such delights as rotten food and dirty diapers.

    Hunt is president of the Greener East Side Business Association. He describes himself as an angry guy, frustrated by what he maintains is a lack of code enforcement by City Hall. While such longtime East Side businesses as the Syracuse Card Co. support Hunt’s efforts, some city employees grumble that Hunt’s group has a membership of one.

    What matters is the passion Hunt brings to a civic cancer. He is African American, and he remembers when he moved to a “clean and beautiful” Syracuse more than 30 years ago. It makes him sick to see what’s happened to once-grand city streets. His symbol for decline is Lombard Avenue, a side street turned into a dumping ground for trash and construction debris, a side street his group plans to clean Saturday morning.

    Neighborhood children, coming from Burger King, often walk along Lombard. Hunt watches some of them throw garbage on the ground, a habit he views as troubling and self-demeaning. If you raise kids on streets where they’re ankle-deep in trash, they’ll find their own reflection in that world. Is it any surprise, he asks, that kids who equate their self-esteem with garbage might find scant value in another person’s life?

    “It’s all tied together,” Hunt said. “They stop caring about themselves, about the earth, about the environment. It’s a form of depression. You can’t separate one from another.”

    He is not alone in that philosophy. Darlene Williams, principal of Elmwood Elementary School on South Avenue, said some of her pupils “come from situations that are very rough.” Williams tries to keep her building immaculate. A clean school, she said, is a powerful haven.

    “We can’t have our children walking to school through broken sidewalks, trash bags and pieces of broken glass,” she said. “That sends a message to them with every step: ‘We don’t care about you.’ We have to make sure – with our city and with our parents – that we teach our children by what we model.”

    Hunt’s model would be a massive new commitment to cleaning up our streets. He wants municipal code enforcers to escalate their crackdown on sloppy residents, merchants and landlords. He calls for extra trash collections that would pick up rotting garbage on the streets of Syracuse.

    The city, Hunt contends, “has turned into a slumlord.” He defines slumlords as landowners weary of enforcing higher standards, landowners who have lost respect for their own tenants. Take a drive through the core streets of the city, Hunt insists, and that is the only conclusion you can reach.

    His argument brings a pause from Vito Sciscioli, the city’s commissioner of community development, whose office also oversees neighborhood code enforcement. Sciscioli is a thoughtful, well-read guy who can discuss sociology as easily as zoning laws. He used to serve as commissioner of public works, and he has sympathy for the obstacles faced every day both by trash collectors and his own staff.

    “When people deal persistently with problems, on a consistent basis, they can get worn down,” Sciscioli said.

    He rejects the argument that trash on the streets has any corollary in youth violence. If that were true, Sciscioli responds, “people in Third World countries would be popping each other all the time.” But he agrees that a child raised amid trash and debris can be wounded emotionally. “If you grow up around garbage, you get acclimated to garbage,” he said.

    Sciscioli said it’s always possible for things to change. He said a community defines its own most urgent problems, and it is clear – in Syracuse – that we’re all sick of garbage. Poor neighborhoods, he said, often have a transient population that isn’t sure about trash collection dates. Trash too often goes to the curb early. The results are broken bags, blowing litter, rotten food along the streets.

    The real answer, Sciscioli maintains, is “behavior modification.” That might include education and a full-blown assault on the garbage problem, dump trucks followed by workers carrying rakes and shovels. For now, he said, that’s just a dream in Syracuse, a city desperate for new revenue.

    “We deal with a demand that far exceeds our capabilities,” Sciscioli said.

    To William Hunt, the fiscal challenge has become civic surrender. He wonders if the trash and debris piled up in our poorest neighborhoods would be tolerated in Strathmore, Sedgwick or Winkworth. He wonders about the self-image of city children who kick aside dirty diapers as they walk home from school. He wonders how those children might be lifted by a sweeping, high-profile cleanup of their streets.

    “Garbage and trash,” Hunt asked. “What’s that do to your self-worth?”

    Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Post-Standard. His columns appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Call him at 470-6015 or e-mail him at

  2. Ellen Post author

    Sean – “While such longtime East Side businesses as the Syracuse Card Co. support Hunt’s efforts, some city employees grumble that Hunt’s group has a membership of one” – was this a disappointment that no one was helping him, or that they didn’t take him seriously because he was doing it alone (or perceived to be)?

    If we could isolate and harness that amazing magnetic force that one accidentally dropped piece of garbage has for more garbage, it could probably be used to generate electricity. (Much like the mysterious binding force that allows cognitive dissonance to exist in the American mind… there’s another force that could be tamed to run the world, if only it could be captured.)

  3. sean

    “the membership of one” was basically grumbling from some inside city hall that hunt’s constituency was only hunt. what got to me, regardless, was hunt’s incredible point about municipal governments as slumlords – the idea that some landlords say repairs are senseless because the tenants will only ruin anything you fix, and how that same feeling can easily overwhelm a civic government. how many times do we hear, in one way or another – why bother cleaning up that spot? they’ll only trash it again? even vito found hunt’s point to be compelling.

    it is also interesting to note how the city, in the early 2000s, made all this noise about an energetic, enthusiastic, grassroots attack on trashed streets that would involve a passionate and longterm pitch to little children in the schools, an attempt to involve kids at a young age in the idea of embracing the beauty of their own communities … and it went nowhere. zilch. wonderful press conferences, then nothing. classic.

    because – in the words of richard shatten – change like this involves stamina over five and 10 and 15 years. and stamina involves a kind of quiet courage, once the news stories stop. but we seem to have no government stamina for anything except lobbying for more donations.


  4. Ellen Post author

    Well, for what it’s worth, I’ll try to check in periodically on this blog about my personal mini experiment to keep after this bathroom and what measurable effect, if any, that it has on my mental and spiritual health. (Though I’m not sure if it counts as “stamina,” if by chance I begin to find that picking up wads of trash is actually the least aggravating, or – God forbid – most enjoyable part of my day…)

  5. sean

    well, maybe you’re hitting something there. it’s early sunday morning right now, and i’m wandering around the house doing all the things that are no fun to do but have to be done … cleaning bathrooms, putting away laundry, scrubbing floors. it’s no fun, but it is nice when you are done and those things are done and you feel a sense of things being straight, especially for someone like me, who is profoundly disordered. does that count as stamina? or just as living? and if it does, does it mean in many ways, in many places, we’ve stopped living as a community when we abdicate on the simplest steps toward organization?


  6. Ellen Post author

    I think sometimes there is the illusion of community – or at least, we assume a community is bigger than it really is at present – and unfortunately increased disorder and mess (of all kinds) makes itself apparent because the broader community is in some ways an empty shell. (I even think this principle has something to do with the mess in my building’s bathroom…) But I believe there is never NOT some form of ACTUAL community, even if it is disappointingly small and is charged with evolving in some new and more vital form, and in more creative ways. It IS a shock when one first grasps this, and the shock can persist for years, decades even? I think your Friday column on crossing borders (this one) speaks to that too and to the necessity of thinking beyond current boundaries.

  7. sean

    and in that sense, the artificial borders – the invisible line through a neighborhood that shouldn’t be biologically divided – become so jarring to maintain because they make no sense; two berlins with a wall of perception as real as the barbed-wire fence. that takes a lot of energy that could better be expended somewhere else.


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