I often look out my three-storey window at the city life below at the various people passing by: the gaggle of school girls chattering on their way home from school and the dejected-looking university students tramping to the local grocery store to stock up on some food supplies or the busy workaholics, eternally pressed for time in a city that really never sleeps.
I do this early in the morning, as I walk about my room, deciding what I’ll need for the day and pulling clothes out of my cupboard or otherwise, sometimes late in the afternoon or early evening, when it’s time for most people to head home and I like to admire the sun set from my ‘room with a view’, and I can tell you, it’s not too often that I see things that make me smile or feel better about the world but lately, that’s been changing.
It started a few weeks ago with the young, stocky father who playfully walks to the shop with his tiny daughter on a regular basis now and makes me grin at his unexpected tenderness and open affection for his child – but last week, well, I saw something that, at first, quietly annoyed me.
You see, in my city – and many other places besides – people seem to think that it’s okay to leave their rubbish lying around because you have garbage removal services or street-sweepers, so if they toss the odd, empty chip packet down several steps away from the nearest green rubbish bin (or the ‘Zappit in the Zippy’ bin, if you’re South African…), what does it really matter?
Or, if a beggar comes along to rummage through said bins (which they often do and sometimes, through a recycling process, it’s the only means of income open to them), strewing the week’s trash across the pavement or down into the gutters, is it really the end of the world? (Well, no, not quite but keep it up and let’s see how much longer we have a hospitable and beautiful planet to enjoy… Just saying.)
Okay, so I better fess up and tell you that I’m the kind of person who has, in the past, lunged across to a driver’s seat to retrieve, wait for it, wait for it, a wooden ice-cream stick from someone who was about to subtly chuck it out an open car window, as I fiercely exclaimed with no small amount of feeling, “No! Give me that, you can’t litter!”, so I am, admittedly, a little hyper-sensitive when it comes to overtly discarded rubbish and/or any kind of littering.
It’s the most serious L-word I know, if I’m completely honest, and if you try it around me, I will either reward you with a potent death stare or force you to pick whatever it is you dropped back up and find a rubbish bin if you know what’s good for you – or occasionally, if all else fails, I’ll do it myself.
So I can’t quite fathom how someone – and a ‘respectable-looking’ someone at that – can be out on their morning run and literally five metres past a rubbish bin, they can actually have the nerve to throw a crumpled energy drink can down into the gutter. All I do know is that this particular fellow was mighty lucky he was running away from my window and not towards it… because I have a pretty good aim and enough missiles to propel out my window if need be. (Again, just saying.)
Things like that boggle my mind and make me feel temporarily annoyed. I mean, seriously, it’s not like it would have killed him to jog on with that can and throw it into the next rubbish bin immediately available to him (and in Cape Town, I can attest to their being placed quite plentifully throughout the city and its many side streets) – but I digress.
This piece is not about the kind of lazy or selfish person who does that sort of thing, even when they supposedly should ‘know better’ or who has the pleasure of enjoying all of life’s comforts. No, it’s about the beggar who came along on a chilly morning last week and started rifling through a black bin standing on the street directly below my window.
I saw this when I paused in front of the window to drink a glass of water and happened to momentarily glance downwards at the street, attracted by the sound of clanging and clattering drifting in through my open window.
I stiffened as I watched this faceless figure further open the bin’s lid as he began to sift through its contents. As it was, the bin was overfull and half its contents were already lying in an embarrassed heap at its, uh, wheels, waiting to be put right by the waste removal truck, which was due to come along any minute, as it was the weekly ‘rubbish collection day’, so to speak.
I started to feel indignant and I must confess my sin: I considered tipping the remainder of my water out the window, if only to shock the person and cause them to think twice about doing this.
Now, please try not to misunderstand because I am sympathetic towards the city’s vagrants and I, more than most others, have seen the heart-wrenching lengths they must go to find bits of rubbish to use as additions to their makeshift shelters or even searching for someone else’s half-eaten meal to subsist on. I also know that if they go about it right, they can recycle the rubbish and receive small payment in return for this unpleasant but vital job, as I mentioned above.
So don’t think I was out to be a cold-hearted cow or spitefully ruin some poor unfortunate human’s ‘treasure hunt’ (this gives a whole new meaning to the ‘one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure’ expression) but I also didn’t want to see the city streets choking underneath any more rubbish either.
The beer bottles and bottle caps, the chip packets and shopping bags and all things besides… after a while, I get tired of all the mess and feel sad because of the irreparable damage that is being done to a world, which is already clogged up with rubbish and waste.
Still, I don’t suppose I would have had the heart to have actually thrown water near that poor soul (though if Mr Jogger Dude ever comes back again, well, he’ll get, at the bare minimum, an unexpected shower from above…), who was carefully selecting certain items from the bin and placing them into a packet, so instead, I shook my head, sighed slightly and moved away from the window, as I tried to block out the sounds of him tipping the rubbish bin over and spilling all its contents out onto the street.
Here we go again… the same old, same old scenario. ‘Refuse raiders’ often do this so it’s a sight I am now sadly well-acquainted with and one I don’t often expect to end any differently.
That said, the world is full of all kinds of good people and that innate goodness is not limited to any one race, religion, culture, gender or sexual orientation, despite what the infamous and mysterious ‘they’ would have you believe. (So maybe I should have been less quick to expect the worst.)
That proved to be the case on this particular morning when, some ten minutes later, I braced myself and went back to the window to peer out at the sight I expected to see: discarded rubbish and a street gone to pot – but what I saw instead literally and unexpectedly moved me to tears and made me feel like the most horrid person imaginable for the thoughts I had been harbouring about this man who came to raid that bin.
For you see, he hadn’t only righted the bin again and packed away all the rubbish that he had emptied out onto the granite road but he’d cleaned all the other pieces up too, and had oh-so-neatly arranged them inside the bin and carefully secured the lid over all before he must have headed on his way to wherever it was that he was going to with, what most people see as a bagful of rubbish , but to him, it is his bagful of hope.
It made me feel ashamed to think that I had thought badly of an unknown and openly destitute man who, despite having nothing more in the world left to lose and truthfully, nothing to gain by doing right either, did something greater than maybe half the city combined on that particular May morning.
It was a thankless task and he’ll never know that there was anyone there to see it… but I’m grateful to him for that great, big act of goodness and for the simple reminder of humanity’s potential in spite of all the odds. For once, goodness came begging – and left the greatest possible gift behind in its wake.
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