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Observed
Palm Coast Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011 7 years ago

Cleaning Palm Coast, Egypt

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by: Brian McMillan Executive Editor

The worst part about going for a walk is the guilt.

For the most part, I look at the trees and the birds, and I enjoy it. But if I see a piece of trash out of the corner of my eye as I walk by, I can’t stop thinking about it.

Rather than fight the guilt, I’ve learned it’s much simpler to just pick up the scrap of paper. So I do. But of course, that’s not the only scrap. There’s a water bottle. There’s a McDonald’s cup lid. After a while, I remind myself that I need to bring a garbage bag with me when I go for a walk so I’m not hauling this stuff around.

One time I brought home a Pepsi bottle that I hadn’t examined carefully enough. It was half-full of dark liquid, and I brought it into the kitchen to empty it before tossing it in the recycling bin. Turns out the liquid wasn’t cola but chunky tobacco juice.

That one didn’t make me very popular around the house.

My sons have picked up on the habit, too. They’ll take the plastic lids off their drinks at McDonald’s before throwing the cups away. Then, we’ll all throw them in the recycling bin on the way into the house. I’ve even brought home plastic ketchup cups and washed them.

My wife rolls her eyes every time, and maybe that’s part of the fun of it. I guess I still haven’t grown up enough to move beyond that little pleasure of tormenting loved ones.

The question that always surfaces when I find a bottle full of tobacco juice is What was going through this litterer’s head? Maybe he squirted out that last bit at a particularly stressful time. Maybe he was taking his wife to the hospital, for example.

We have to stop so I can recycle my ’baccy bottle, he might have said.

No! the wife would yell, feeling another intense contraction. Just throw it in the bushes! Someone else will find it and recycle it for you!

I guess that somebody was me.

Of course, this provides a nice, tidy transition to the revolution in Egypt.

Yes, I was shocked and frightened and inspired by the victory of the protesters who forced Hosni Mubarak to step down. But I was also interested in the emphasis on trash in the streets. Here’s how Hadeel Al-shalchi and Lee Keath, of The Associated Press, described it:

“The protesters’ first act was deeply symbolic of their ambition to build a new Egypt and their determination to do it themselves: Thousands began cleaning up Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, the epicenter of their movement. The sprawling plaza was battered and trashed by 18 days of street battles and rallies by hundreds of thousands.

“Even as thousands flowed in to celebrate, broom brigades fanned out, with smiling young men and women — some in stylish clothes and earrings — sweeping up rubble and garbage. Others repaired sidewalks torn apart for concrete chunks to use as ammunition in fighting with pro-regime gangs. Young veiled girls painted the metal railings of fences along the sidewalk. ‘Sorry for the inconvenience, but we’re building Egypt,’ read placards many wore.

“‘We are cleaning the square now because it is ours,’ said Omar Mohammed, a 20-year-old student. ‘After living here for three weeks, it has become our home … We’re going to leave it better than before.’”

Mohammed’s words still resonate with me. Trash in the streets may be the least of the problems in the Middle East, but I can’t help but make the comparison. We, in the United States, have enjoyed a relatively stable, democratic republic for two centuries. Do we feel like the “square is ours”?

Do we feel like Belle Terre Boulevard is ours? Or Palm Coast Parkway? Do we feel a responsibility to clean it up, to care for our city, even though it might not be our own property, exactly?

Maybe if there is a vacant lot next door, we can keep it free of litter, just because this is our street, our neighborhood, our city, our country, and we want it to look good — just because we’re proud of it, and by extension, we’re proud of our country.

And besides, we want to live in a place with fewer recyclable ketchup cups in the trash and fewer bottles with mysterious brown liquid sloshing around in them, causing all kinds of problems for people prone to a guilty conscience.
 

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