Once upon a time in America we had a simpler way of looking at the world. Our concerns were focused on things like keeping America’s environment clean and the country beautiful.
One of the ads that was designed to raise our individual commitment to this goal featured a Native American. The man had a tear running down his elderly face as he surveyed the landscape, looking at the debris that had been tossed carelessly along a highway by passing motorists. The caption on the ads read, “Please Don’t Litter.”
Growing up in New York City I had gotten accustomed to seeing litter flow freely down the streets and on the sidewalks. Despite the plentiful supply of garbage cans which the city placed on the streets, I regularly saw people toss candy bar wrappers and other refuse on the sidewalk, ten feet before they could have placed them in the appropriate receptacle. This always bothered me as a child – and it still bothers me as an adult.
If people wanted to litter their apartments from floor to ceiling I considered that to be their business. But when they inflicted that same behavior on their fellow citizens – then they had gotten me involved in the conversation.
I never quite understood why we needed an ad campaign sponsored by the Federal Government on this subject. It seemed intuitively obvious to me that putting trash in garbage cans was the right thing to do. That understanding came from the fact that my parents taught me to do that from the earliest moments that “potential trash” came into my little hands and possession.
I remember being in Central Park with dad one Saturday. I had a runny nose and dad was holding a tissue so that I could blow it. After I had finished, dad wadded up the used tissue and gave it to me. We got up from our park bench, dad took my little hand and asked, “Now what do we have to do?” I knew because I had seen my parents do the same thing many times.
“We have to put this in the garbage can.” Dad nodded his assent and we walked to the nearest receptacle where I was allowed to throw the soiled tissue away. I think I was six or seven years old. This scene was repeated many times – to the point where I realized that putting trash in a garbage can wasn’t a choice – it was the only choice.
Although dad lived his entire life in an urban setting, he had an innate sense of the sanctity of the world which provided us what we received to sustain our lives. He had a respect for the fragility of our environment and understood that it was our responsibility to protect it from harm or mis-use.
If he ever met that elderly Native American along the highway, I know that they would have formed a deep bond – and they both would have shed a tear.