Birth of a Trash Whisperer

11/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I got out of prison, I was very lucky to have just enough money to get a small studio apartment in Hollywood. Once I got my dog back (my brother had taken care of him during my time "away") I was grateful to have Griffith Park about ½ mile away to serve as a giant backyard.
The only downside with the park was how much litter marred the trails. The contrast between the beautiful views of the city below and so much preventable ugliness on the hikes up to the Observatory was depressing.

I quickly tired of wringing my hands and feeling superior. I couldn't afford to be angry either, so I tried prayer. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." I had to accept that people littered. I got that. The "change" part was harder. I mean, what was I going to do? Pick it up?

That was my eureka moment. Why, after all, not?

So one day I just brought an extra Ralph's bag with me on the hike. It filled up distressingly fast, but the experience was definitely satisfying. So the next day I did it again, and the next, sometimes filling up several bags on one walk. Within a week I was hooked. I'd found an addiction with a very gentle high but no hangover.

If there was a downside it was the sense that there was no end to it. All I had to do was skip a few days for there to be enough new litter to fill up a bag. Where was it all coming from? I found it hard to imagine that the jogger who passed me with the bottle of water in his hand would toss it before reaching a receptacle at the base of the trail, but it surely had to have happened. Of course no one was going to offend in front of me, even if they never seemed to notice what I was doing. If they addressed me it was almost always to ask me what breed my dog was. I told them he was a pointer/mix, but I thought it was downright odd, like asking a panhandler for directions without scrounging up a quarter for him.

At OSH one day, my eyes fell upon a device called an E-Z Reacher, which I bought immediately. I no longer had to bend over or get my hands dirty. It was a lot more fun, and people now knew what I was doing--or so I thought. One guy asked me if I was using it to catch snakes. It struck me that it seemed to him a more likely explanation for the device than me picking up trash. (Ironically, I did have a close encounter with a rattlesnake soon after. I didn't get bitten, but I almost died of a heart attack. I learned to stop going off-trail to pick up that errant can.)

That is not to say that occasionally someone didn't offer support and acknowledgment. This was motivating, but not my motivation. I had discovered that when I questioned the premise that there was nothing to do about littering, there was a subtle but crucial shift in my thinking. If I could do something about this, what were the other areas in my life that I could change? And what things were I trying to change that I needed to accept?

As satisfying as my little hobby was, cleaning Griffith Park had no effect on the trash that carpeted the streets around my apartment. My neighborhood was filled mostly with working-class immigrants who seemed devoid of any sense that there was even anything wrong with littering. When they finished, for example, a pack of cigarettes, they tossed it where they stood, end of story.

Eventually my simple desire to see a clean street for a few hours a day outweighed my reservations about picking up after people who I saw on a daily basis. I decided to look at it as a grand experiment, an adventure even.

I was about to become far more foreign to my neighbors than they had ever been to me.

[Next: Tackling the Mean Streets of Litte Armenia]