Monday, January 5, 2009

One Man's Trash

I got really mad on the subway today. Sure, I've had my share of arguments on public transportation in the past, but today was different.

Usually my altercations are with urban high school students, or with some dirty old man who's groping himself, to which I reply, "Try to keep it in your pants." Last week, an old woman refused to get up from her aisle seat while I was trying to get to the window seat, and when my posterior got terrifyingly close to her face, she reached out both hands and put them flat on my right cheek, pushing my bottom away from her. When I finally got into my seat, I looked at her flirtatiously and said, "Well, you got a good grab in there, didn't ya? I wasn't expecting that tonight..." She looked at me, shocked, and said, "What?!" to which I replied, "Yeah, you got a good one in there" and gestured an ass-grab with my hands. That was probably the worst thing I could have done to her because she called me a jerk and got off the bus at the next stop, as I chuckled smugly to myself.

Today, I saw an old guy - not that old, 60? - opening a package of batteries for a flashlight in his seat. I heard the plastic and cardboard packaging drop to the floor in front of him, and as I looked down at his trash, I considered picking it up myself and dropping it in the garbage when I got off at the next stop. But then I noticed the battery packaging had fallen on top of a pile of similar trash, all formed plastic and torn cardboard, some in the shape of batteries, others in the shape of flashlights. How many packages had this guy opened on the train, and just littered the floor with his waste?

I've picked up people's newspapers and other non-food garbage before and thrown them out myself. I'm no militant environmentalist, but I'm certainly aware of the trail that we leave behind ourselves, and I feel bad for the other passengers that have to shove the trash aside just to sit or put their packages down. But there was too much today, too shoved under a seat, too between this guy's legs for me to scoop it up. So I said something.

"Are you going to pick that up?" He said no.

"You're just going to leave it all there?" He said yes.

I asked why. He mumbled something, maybe not in English.

"You're going to throw it all on the floor and you're not going to throw it out?" Yes.

"Because you don't care." Yes.

"Because you're going to die in five years and you don't care." Yes.

"Because you're a piece of trash and you don't care."

I demanded that he tell me why. It wasn't just carelessness; it seemed too intentional. Was it a "fuck you" to the MTA? To the other passengers? And, because I'd actually said something, to me?

But he wouldn't explain himself, so I continued to berate him and call him a piece of shit, and I even told him to lie down on the floor with the trash because that's what he is. I wished I had a drink or some food wrappers or a used feminine hygiene product that I could toss in his face, or that the trash had been reachable enough for me to pick it up and chuck it at him.

As I walked down the W. 4th St platform after exiting the train, I was surprised at how mad I got. I tried to consider where he might be from - a place where litter is more accepted? - or the mores of his generation, whose members would put out a cigarette anywhere, spit anywhere, pee on anything, blatantly, without remorse. I knew no matter how much I degraded him, it wouldn't embarrass him. And for all the things I would try to do to be aware of my carbon footprint, that guy would always be behind me, clipping his nails in public, picking his nose and plugging non-rechargeable batteries into flashlights.