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Picking Up Trash
On GraffitiA couple of years before I moved to Boulder, a friend of mine was painting his new house, and, seeing a new way to be an industrious ant, I volunteered to help. I'd never painted anything except models, but he didn't mind that; so I went over for maybe half a day and helped, and then promptly forgot all about it. Little did I know that that small decision would one day bear fruit and send me down a strange and unexpected path!
Now we jump forward, to two years after I moved to Boulder. I lived then (and still live now) in a wonderful location, within walking distance of a grocery and other stores, but also near a creek that ran through town, so that I still had an immediate connection to nature. Even better, along the creek there was a bike path, one of the major links in an extensive network of bike paths; so I could walk up and down the path for fun, or ride my bike and go almost anywhere in town quickly.
However … the path, like any such path, had bridges and underpasses; these, like any such things, had large flat concrete surfaces; and these, in turn, had graffiti. There were some city maintenance guys who would come around every so often and paint over it, but they were overworked … the graffiti would sit for months and months, then they'd paint over it, then within a week or two new graffiti would be up in its place. At first the graffiti hadn't bothered me so much, but after two years I was tired of looking at it and frustrated that I couldn't do anything about it.
But then one day, when I was especially frustrated, I put two and two together, and thought, hey, I helped paint a house once … I could paint over that graffiti! At first the idea of just going out and painting on public property was too much for me, but the more I saw the same old graffiti, the more I thought about it, until finally, one day, I was ready. I gathered up the paint and brushes that I'd bought, walked over to the creek path … and promptly ran into one of the city maintenance guys! I'd never seen one at work before, but there he was; so I said hi, and chatted with him a bit, and finally asked him if there were any way I could help as a volunteer. He wasn't sure, but he put me in touch with someone else, and eventually that someone else and I figured out a suitable arrangement: when I found small graffiti, I'd paint over it in the standard way (a rectangle) using paint of the standard color that the maintenance department would provide; and when I found large graffiti, I'd call and report it, so that it could be duly photographed and documented before being painted over.
And, that's where things stand today. The bridges and underpasses are free of graffiti, and whenever I notice new graffiti, I take an hour some morning and go paint over it. Since the paint matches, it's like it was never there at all! (I like to paint in the morning so that the washing up I need to do afterward can be combined with my normal morning routine.) Even large graffiti doesn't bother me too much now … it turns out the city guys can respond quite quickly once they know the graffiti exists, so I don't get frustrated; and as a bonus I get to imagine I'm a spotter calling in an air strike.
Now, here's the funny thing. How often do you think I notice new graffiti? From what I said above, you'd think I'd find some every week or two, but in fact it's more like every few months. I don't have any statistics or anything, but that's how it seems to me … I think I've actually helped reduce the amount of new graffiti! I imagine the quick response is the key. I already walk on the path almost every day, so when new graffiti appears, it only takes me a day or two to notice, plus a day or two to find time to paint, and then it's gone. So, it never has a chance to produce much positive feedback.
When I told this story to my folks, my dad remarked that it was quite similar to the story of how the graffiti was removed from the subway cars in New York. I can't find a definitive reference, but if you want to know more, here are some good keywords to get you started.
Then, as an activity, painting over graffiti is remarkably similar to picking up trash. The three motives I listed at the start of Picking Up Trash are exactly the same, and everything else I said there applies here too, more or less. The one difference I can see is that trash annoys me slightly less, since I know it's not the result of someone intentionally making the world worse. (I used to think most trash was the result of someone being too lazy to find a trash can, but now that I've been picking it up for a while, I'm pretty sure most of it is the result of the wind blowing trash out of dumpsters and garbage cans. That will vary with the city and the location, of course.)
Actually, I can see one other notable difference. The idea of picking up trash may be a good candidate for spreading virally, but the idea of painting over graffiti isn't just a good candidate, it really does spread that way. Several times now, on other parts of the creek path, I've seen graffiti painted over with nonstandard paint, something I never used to see … so who knows, maybe someone saw me painting and thought, hey, I could do that.
I even made up a little theory about why the idea of painting over graffiti might spread better. When I'm picking up trash, I'm unwashed, since I like to wait and wash up afterward, and shoeless, since I might need to wade in the creek, so people tend to give me strange looks, as if I'm a homeless man rooting around for aluminum cans. When I'm painting, though, I have shoes and tools and an orange safety vest, so I look fairly official, and it's fairly clear what I'm doing. On the other hand, maybe the ideas spread equally well, and I just don't notice it because an absence of trash is a hard thing to see.
Sometimes I think it would be fun to get in touch with other like-minded people and set up a system to coordinate our distributed efforts. We could have a web site, say, where people who saw things could report them and people who had some free time could search for nearby things to take care of. However, the city already has a phone line and a web form where people can report things, and we'd want to be integrated with that … and I don't even want to imagine how much bureaucracy that would involve! Not to mention convincing the city to give us standard paint, and permission to paint on public property.
The one thing that's frustrating to me about picking up trash and painting over graffiti is that the names are too long to think with. The latter is at least usable … I can go to bed and think, “OK, tomorrow I'll get up and go painting”. But, what am I supposed to think in the former case? I'm going … picking? Trashing?
Even the name “painting” isn't perfect. One problem is that the meaning is a little bit off. Painting is active, but what I'm doing is reactive, more like unpainting. Another problem is that the meaning isn't general enough. When I'm painting, I might also use graffiti remover (a nasty solvent that works against some marker pens) to remove graffiti, or use a scraper to remove stickers. I might even pick up some trash! In my mind I recognize all these things as one activity, but the activity isn't bound to a name, so in fact what I do is go to bed and think, “OK, tomorrow I'll get up and go … um … do that … that thing that I still don't have a name for”. It's a bit frustrating, yes. The concept is there, but the word isn't.
Anyway, that activity, whatever it's called, is pretty much my one civic activity. I was going to say “my one civic-minded activity”, but on second thought I realized that was wrong. I don't do it out of civic-mindedness, I do it out of pure selfishness, motives as above; it's just a fortunate side effect that it's beneficial to other people too.
Speaking of civic activities, I once wrote a letter to the editor about graffiti.
@ May (2006)