It’s funny because it’s sad.
In The Simpsons: Season 7, Episode 3, “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily,” Homer and Marge lose custody of their children and have to attend a parenting class in order to get them back. At one point, the instructor declares, “Garbage goes in the garbage can; I cannot stress this enough, people.” Marge is mortified: “This is so embarrassing.” Cut to Homer, nodding thoughtfully: “Hm. Makes sense!”
A few years ago, I interviewed film director Ben Wheatley about his adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise, which is less a dystopian story than a story of how dystopia happens. One of the early signs: a clogged trash chute. Trash also helps to highlight the protagonist Laing’s character: as things get uglier and more unhinged, he is mostly content to step over the piles of accumulating filth and hide in his hole in the wall. Director Wheatley: “I watch Laing and think, ‘Oh God, I’m Laing. I’m not taking responsibility. I’m not getting involved. I’m cross about things, but I’m not doing anything about it.’ If you don’t have the energy to fix things, everything just kind of slides around you and gets worse and worse.”
Sometimes, virtue is its own reward. Other times, the universe smiles on you.
Which is why I’m on the side of the 94 West this morning, picking up disposable masks, empty chip bags, empty Hennessy bottles, a length of rope, scraps of plastic, bits of Styrofoam, a busted Sir Mix-a-Lot CD, plus scads of other detritus, and stuffing them into a big black garbage bag. I’m sick of myself, driving to work every morning, lamenting the accumulation of garbage, and wondering not only why there are so many Homers out there, but also why someone doesn’t do something about it. (As it happens, someone did, packing maybe 20 Adopt-a-Highway bags in the quarter-mile just before Massachusetts Avenue. But you don’t have to adopt a highway to pick up trash.) First lesson: next time, bring a rake. There are so very many little bits among the brambles, and after you’ve cleaned, the stuff you missed — a shining strip of chewing gum foil, a bright red plastic bottle cap — only sticks out all the more.
I am not happy in my work. I start twisting Scripture for my own purpose: Charm is fleeting and beauty is deceptive, but ugliness is forever. I’ll be able to clean this same stretch of road again in a month; the river of cars will never cease to spew scum along its banks. But I know I’ll be happy tomorrow when I see this trashless patch amid the ruins.
My favorite find: a tattered, grimy page from someone’s psychology paper about how the brain’s use of shortcuts can lead to bias perception. I read about Belief Perseverance — people tend to discount evidence that contradicts their theory of the world. (Everything’s going to hell.) About Negativity Bias — negative stimuli tend to grab our attention. (This highway is disgusting.) And about Status Quo Bias, which causes us to favor entrenched courses of action over alternatives that we would otherwise give greater value. (Just keep driving.)