Opening Letters

Playing Pick Up

trash reflects a throwaway society obsessed with upgrades

Kinzy Janssen, illustrated by Ryan Carpentier |

I was footloose and mitten-free, picking my way over puddles and practically cackling with glee as I snapped photos of shrunken-headed snowmen. Things were blooming. Not tulips, perhaps, but pockets of water under planes of sidewalk-ice. Bulging and blooming and groaning with their melting efforts. Most noticeable of all, the Chippewa’s window of moving water was widening.

My boyfriend and I were going for a walk, as we are wont to do in periods of nicer weather. As I fussed over camera angles near the “Revolution carrot” on First Avenue, Zack was being his observant self. I stopped to watch as he dislodged something from the snow. It was a mint-green iPod, smeared with gritty sand in all its essential crevices. Hopeful, Zack wiped it off as best he could and pocketed it for tinkering later on.

When it comes to finding quirky things on the ground, Zack is effortlessly observant, and lucky, too. He should be an agent for Found magazine. As for me, I can squint all day and remain unlucky. Somehow, though, the pre-spring thaw inspired me, so I ran along ahead to scout out newly exposed sidewalk. I spotted the following items: a crumpled McDonald’s cup, tin of chewing tobacco, and a Menards receipt for Clorox wipes. Dismal. I also found about five paper plates in a row along Fifth Avenue. It appeared as if someone’s picnic had been spontaneously dispersed by the snow.

But the discoveries didn’t end there. On the sidewalk in front of the YMCA, Zack found a set of car keys, which we tucked back into the snow after discovering the “unlock” button actually unlocked the nearest car. On Summit Street he found the back half of a phone. On Fifth Avenue, a whole one. Yes, that’s right – in half an hour’s time we had amassed three wireless devices – essentially two cell phones and an iPod.

I am familiar with most of the detritus exposed by melting snow – the fast food papers, the sodden cigarettes, the unidentifiable shreds of cardboard. They are part and parcel of the coming of spring. I prefer to think people are not more litterbuggish in winter than any other month – it’s just that it accumulates beyond anyone’s control, hidden in hardened, immovable layers of snow.

But it is a different kind of world, indeed, when run-of-the-mill spring trash includes cell phones and iPods. I am sure the owners of these items did not intend to lose them. Perhaps the phone-losers even went looking for them. The point is, to a greater extent each year we see these items as replaceable, if not disposable. Cell phone companies no longer make parts to fix “old” phones. Instead, they encourage upgrades. The average lifespan of a cell phone is debated to be between 18 months and four years. Either way, my shoes last longer than that.

    Now, I am not suggesting we return to the days of curly-phone-cords-attached-to-the-wall, but how often did we lose or break these trusty items? How often did we need to upgrade?

I never liked seeing that fast food trash on the sidewalk, but I hate seeing “wireless waste” even more. As layers of snow melt all at once, they reveal a concentration of our cultural habits – a visual summary that is hard to overlook.

So here’s my environmental tirade, short and sweet. When these devices become part of our waste, they create problems. When burned in incinerators, as most trash is, they give off carcinogens, as well as lead, arsenic, and mercury. Recycle your wireless devices (most cell phone companies have programs for this), don’t get a new one if you don’t have to, and try to keep track of them. Also beware of a sharp-eyed guy named Zack who may find your lost iPod and tinker it to death.

But the best “find” of the day? Just before we crossed the Water Street bridge, we found a patch of grass, wan and matted, but still springy to the touch. Take that, Punxatawney Phil!

P. S. If you tried to visualize our route, you may be confused. That’s because I didn’t report the streets in sequential order. Instead, I ordered them in a way best suited to my narrative structure. And to trick you.

P.P.S. If the aforementioned iPod was yours, I’m sorry to report that the moisture defeated it. We had it playing Arctic Monkeys for about a minute before the screen started looking like an etch-a-sketch gone wrong. Then a mini screwdriver got involved, and it died for good. I apologize.