The Litter Guys

On a number of Saturday mornings, when I’m heading back home from the Starbucks stool (that I’m sitting on as I write this), I pass a man and a woman, mid-fifties, who are walking along the curbs of Austin Bluffs Boulevard. Austin Bluffs is a four-lane street that borders the east-side of our sub-division. It is heavily traveled Monday through Friday. dead-ending a few blocks away at a hospital and just a block west of Liberty High School.

Both the man and the woman carry trash bags and are wearing gloves. One of them also has one of those grasping devices that picks up objects without the person having to bend down. They make their way down the street, spotting what passing motorists have discarded. I’m not sure how much of Austin Bluffs they cover. It could be a couple of blocks or a mile, but sometimes when I pass them by their bags are taking on that puffed-out look that indicates the amount of trash they’ve collected.

A couple of times I’ve lowered my car window and shouted a “Thank you” to the couple. They look up, give a “You’re welcome” reply, and then immediately place their attention back on the asphalt for what needs to be picked up.

I don’t know the names of the couple. I’m assuming they are married to one another, but they could be siblings or next-door neighbors. I’m assuming they don’t do this on Saturday mornings because they’re bored, but rather because they see a need, and a negligence. Instead of responding, like most of us would, with a question that points fingers at who did this and who’s going to take care of this, they felt the nudge to be the litter guys for a small patch of a very large city. It isn’t about compensation or recognition. The only compensation they receive is getting their steps in and having a nice workout. The only recognition that comes their way is an occasional car horn from a speeding car, warning them to watch out. For this nameless couple, it’s about seeing a need and knowing that they can help meet it. It’s about being willing to clean up other people’s messes.

Cleaning up messes that other people make is a calling. At the middle school where I teach and coach, we have an incredible custodial crew. They each have unique personalities that I enjoy bantering back and forth with. Each school day they go about the never-ending task of cleaning up after careless kids and getting the building looking good for the next day, when the same sweeping, mopping, scrubbing, wiping, and vacuuming will happen again. I admire their resolve, their grit, and their dedication. They don’t do it for the recognition. Most of what they do happens after the students have let the building, but, like The Peanuts’ Pig Pen, their dust trails linger behind them.

I launched into one of my students one day when he started to leave the classroom without picking up a couple of pieces of trash that he had left behind. When I asked him if he expected the custodians to pick up his mess, his response hinted at his entitled personality. He said, “That’s what they get paid for.” I did not respond well!

The world has enough mess makers. What we need is more “litter guys” who are committed to making our surroundings a bit more tolerable, even though they don’t have to.

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