Years ago — ever noticed how many of my columns begin with these two words? — I pulled up into a big shopping mall parking lot that was almost completely deserted. Maybe it was early — the stores hadn’t opened — or maybe they were observing some federal holiday that I hadn’t remembered.
Anyhow, as I left my car a driver zoomed in and braked for a minute to rid hers of what looked like the remnants of about five Happy Meals.
“Heeey!” I cried out in reactive and spontaneous protest as the napkins, cups, straws, paper bags and plastic-foam containers with food remnants (mercifully biodegradable) spilling from them bounced and blew over an otherwise tidy area.
The litterer heard it, and from her still-open car window reviled me, my mother and my father in a way wholly uncalled for in light of my relatively modest comment (which in these times I would stifle entirely, fearing to risk being shot at. Just sayin‘).
But this wasn’t the worst case of “dumping” I’ve seen around our town. My husband and I were in our car preparing to leave a fast-food place when a spiffily dressed couple, both carrying toddlers, arrived at the vehicle parked next to ours, opened the two back doors, put their babies on the seat, and proceeded to change their diapers. When they finally drove off, both pairs of disposable pants, each filled with poop, remained on the asphalt.
I got to thinking about all this the other day, winding up a road trip to see a friend in Chattanooga and stopping by Moundville, Ala., to visit with my sister and brother-in-law. She told me that one of the members of her women’s club had just gotten back from a first and long-planned trip to New Orleans vowing that she will never return.
“It was the filthiest place I’ve ever seen!” groused the woman, who undoubtedly hasn’t traveled much at all and was struck harder by our trashy habits than the city’s undeniable and much-heralded charms.
Still — I am reminded anew each time I journey north — or east or west for that matter — of how much tidier other towns can be. Granted, there isn’t the rampant sub-tropical weedy growth seen here, but if the inhabitants were so inclined, they could just as well litter their carefully planted and maintained landscapes.
This reminded me of our first trip to Europe and a bus ride from Paris to Lucerne to a car park in Lugano, Italy, our last stop before catching a water taxi to Venice. Foil and plastic foam and paper clung to bushes and the grassy verges to a degree that we hadn’t seen in two weeks. In German-speaking Switzerland there had been no trashy behavior.
Which got me to wondering: Is a propensity for making a dump of your surroundings genetic? Is it nature or nurture? Would I be a litterer if my parents hadn’t said, “DON’T throw that on the ground,” every time I did?
I’m not sure exactly what my sister’s friend was commenting on when she said New Orleans is “filthy.” Was she talking about the paper trash alongside our streets that our grass cutters don’t bother to pick up before they mow there and on the neutral grounds, thus changing three pieces of trash into thirty? Or mysterious and possibly noxious stuff in the cracks of an old city that could certainly use a good pressure washing? Did she perhaps wander innocently and unaware into a French Quarter nightspot and see or hear something she found offensive?
When I go back to Moundville I’d like to talk to that lady. We’re in no position to gross out any of our visitors; New Orleans needs to clean up its act!
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at email@example.com.