The mess stretched for more than a block. It looked as if the entire contents of a high school sophomore's locker had exploded across the street and down the sidewalk. I came across this littrocity in the second mile of my run. I wasn't in my neighborhood proper, but it was still an area of my concern. I slowed down and began picking up paper as I continued to move forward: a looseleaf page here, a photocopied worksheet there. In front of me there were hundreds more.
Also in front of me, fifty yards away, was a woman with a broom and dust pan. She was busily doing the same kind of gathering I was, only just a tad more efficiently. She was carrying an armload of debris to a Hefty bag that was already showing signs of bulging, and there was still plenty of waste to be collected.
By the time I reached her, I had my own armload of refuse. I pulled the earbud out of my right ear to be sociable. "Wow," I said winding up for an understatement, "This is quite the mess."
"Yes," she smiled. She could have been somebody's mom, but the purple hair made me think that might not be the case. I stuffed what I had carried into the bag and held it open for hers. I wasn't running anymore. I was exercising in another way. I was being sociable.
"It makes you wonder how something like this happens," I offered.
She paused, then, "I just looked out the window this morning and here it was. I live right over there." She nodded in the direction from whence I came, across the street.
"Looks like someone finished school," I ventured.
"Or got fed up with it," Ms. Purple Hair countered.
We continued to make piles of paper as we conjectured.
"Maybe they didn't get into the school they wanted."
"Or maybe this was whatever was in the car when somebody got mad and threw it out."
"Maybe it wasn't their car in the first place."
"Whatever the reason, it's a shame," I was starting to feel the weight of trying to carry on the conversation as I shoveled another pile into the bag. There was still another half hour of gathering left, and I was feeling awkward and wanted to get back to my run. "Thank you for what you're doing," I was unburdening myself.
"Thank you for helping."
As I turned to run away from this project, I remembered the paper drop at my high school, an annual tradition that saw seniors flinging a year's worth of assignments and memos and reminders into the courtyard. There were those who simply emptied their binders into the mix, while others collected confetti from other sources for months in advance. The result was a blizzard of litter that spelled tradition for some and overtime for custodians. It was socially acceptable.
As I ran past broken desks and mattresses abandoned on the next few corners, it occurred to me where I live. Everyday is paper toss day in Oakland. Not for everyone. Someone will pick it up, eventually. They have purple hair and probably won't be getting paid overtime. They get to bend over a couple hundred times and carry the garbage to the proper receptacle, making up stories about how it got there in the first place. Hopefully it's a good story. That would make it worthwhile.