Saturday, March 30, 2024

Refuse Refuse

…is the name of a community organization my wife has done some work with as a volunteer. The clever title uses our difficult English language by pairing the verb with the accent on the second syllable with the noun on the first. Their mission is simple: “Clean up our trashy city.”


I still am loyal to my love of San Francisco, but whenever I come back home from Salzburg or Taiwan, I always wonder, “Why is our city so damn dirty?”

Homelessness and the wind certainly don’t help, but still. Might we hire the homeless to pick up trash and perhaps begin to earn enough money to possibly afford housing? Somehow, they have this down in the two cities mentioned above and probably hundreds more. What is our problem? And what is the solution?


Well, one is to do what Refuse Refuse is doing—gather volunteers to do the dirty work. Which is not so dirty when you use those nifty grabber reacher tools and a plastic glove if need be. They really are quite amazing, able to pick up something as slender as a cigarette butt. In the other hand, you have a plastic bag clipped to a ring and if you wave it in the air, it’s like a giant bubble maker as the wind gets inside. It’s lightweight and easy to grab, release into the bag and move on to the next piece of litter. Plus you get to wear these nifty orange vests.


How do I know this? Because inspired by Refuse Refuse, my wife single-handedly organized her own neighborhood trash pick-up and got some 25 plus people to show up! And I was one of them. 

May I testify that it was supremely satisfying? The rhythm of grab and release, the trail behind me of a super-clean sidewalk, the people who passed me by and said hello and many thanked me for my service. Not to mention the chance to meet many neighbors, some of whom I recognized from our once-a-year- Christmas caroling, but many new to me. Also happy to meet some high school kids fulfilling their school’s Community Service requirements. Not exactly volunteer, but close enough. 

It all reminded me that despite the daily onslaught of turning the camera on all the despicable people doing horrible things without an ounce of shame or remorse— you know who I'm talking about— people much prefer to do good and to see people doing good and to thank them for it. Imagine a month in which people doing all sorts of good things got as much camera time as the mean-spirited, ignorant and greedy. Can you feel how it would buoy up our hope and inspire us to aspire to our better selves? 


It made me think that every neighborhood should have mandatory once-a-month meetings to do caretaking like this and discuss any issues each neighborhood might have. Of course, this is America and responsibility to others can’t, God forbid, be mandated, but must be wholly volunteer. But it is to our loss. Imagine if we structured our neighborhoods so there was a certain level of commitment to the common good. Not only from an ethical place, but from the pleasure of getting to know our neighborhoods and feel our collective responsibility to our little spot on a planet. If this was New Orleans or Rio or Ghana or Bali, we would also have a neighborhood music and dance and costume sewing gathering alongside taking care of the streets, the plants and each other. 


Until such time, may the volunteer trash pick-ups, neighborhood sings, caroling parties and more continue. And thanks to my wife Karen for her initiative in making this happen!

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