Cirrhosis of the river
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and here are mine: I planned to participate in the annual Great American River Cleanup last Saturday, picking up trash along the parkway. I would then write a mildly self-righteous column about the experience and inspire readers to keep our riparian landscape immaculate.
If hell’s walkway is anything like the stretch of the American River Parkway that meets Midtown at 20th and C streets, I can confidently say my virtuous plans aren’t the only thing littering it. There are baggies, dirty underwear, empty malt-liquor bottles, food wrappers and discarded issues of SN&R.
In fact, the first piece of trash I found on the parkway, after being outfitted with latex gloves and two large plastic bags (one for trash and one for recyclables), was a weathered page of this publication. Mindful of the safety instructions warning volunteers to avoid biohazards like needles, I cautiously picked up the newspaper. Finding no syringe beneath it, I stuffed the page in my bag and continued my urban Easter-egg hunt.
Each object in the weeds was a thrill. Was it something I could send to Found magazine? Something I could dispose of to beautify the landscape? Something that could give me Hepatitis C? Usually, it was a cigarette butt or a bottle cap, but exotic finds included Spanish-language candy wrappers, a French coin and a Weird Al Yankovic CD case. No piece of trash was too small to retrieve. I was proud of the growing heft of my bag and the sparkling-clean path behind me.
Then I got thorns in my jeans that were impossible to shake loose, and my legs began aching from crouching so much. The pain started a litany of resentment in my head that traveled from litterbugs to smokers to the happy bikers whizzing past. I scowled at volunteers who had those trash-picker-upper thingies with claws on the end. “What kind of crazy, anal person actually owns a trash-picker-upper thingy with a claw on the end?” I thought. “And why don’t I?” I moved on.
Tampon (used, ants). I didn’t pick it up, but contemplating it nearly broke my resolve. From that point on, I was more selective. A Capri Sun buried 2 feet deep in a thicket of thorns? Let it go. I stuck to roadside Slim Jim wrappers and enjoyed the scenery. The cattails, golden grass and butterflies were gorgeous. I found little manmade bat houses, one decorated in Sharpie with a bat-winged heart. Sunshine on my shoulders made me happy.
I turned a corner and found myself in a homeless campsite. People sat under trees bickering loudly, sleeping or relaxing with their dogs. I startled, then stared and then felt embarrassed for looking.
“Hey,” one of the volunteers called to me. “You want a real fun job? There’s no end of stuff down there.” He gestured into a small ravine behind the campers where several volunteers worked. I hiked (slid) down the embankment and nearly ran into a large stand of my vegetative arch nemesis, poison oak. The sight of the sadistic little plant accomplished what discarded tampons and thorny pants could not; it overrode my desire to help my community.
I forced myself to stay in the ravine until my trash bag was full of razors, underwear, straws, baggies, candy wrappers and cans. Then I quit. I was embarrassed to be the first person to do so, but I’d reached my limit. I hustled back down the trail, mumbling something about a “brunch commitment.” At home, I put all my clothes in the washing machine and jumped in the shower to cleanse any potential poison-oak residue.
I wish I could tell you that cleaning our riverbanks left me with a sense of pride. Mostly, I feel guilty about wimping out and panic whenever I feel an itch. I’m in awe of the hearty trash-detail volunteers and humbled to admit I’m better suited to clerical tasks. Perhaps I can help organize the first Great American Road to Hell Cleanup?