12/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Every Little Bit Hurts -- Figuring Out Trashy Behavior

So the first day I decided to start picking up trash in my neighborhood, I stuffed my pockets with Ralph's grocery bags, (thank God for cargo pants) took my new E-Z Reacher in hand and headed out with the dog. My "route" covered the street where I lived and the one perpendicular to it, punctuated by two dumpsters into which I never tossed less than three bags' worth of trash. I did this third of a mile almost every morning for the better part of 4 years.

I lived in a specific immigrant enclave, but it doesn't matter which. I know of upscale neighborhoods with the same ethnic concentration and their streets and sidewalks are clean. Littering is a question of social class, not race or ethnicity. Wherever people own homes, they want their environs to be a reflection of who they are. The apartment dwellers where I lived didn't seem to have the same sentiment. Even in front of their own buildings, there seemed to be an utter indifference to litter, even a complete willingness to add to it. Picking up after them on a daily basis, it was impossible not to notice who they were and observe them intently.

Some of the worst offenders were the middle-aged men who smoked mountains of Capri cigarettes, tossing so many empty packs onto the street that if I had $5 for every one I eventually picked up, I would now be living in a villa on the real Capri. I would watch groups of 4 or 5 of these men gather in front of the building next door at night, after long shifts driving cabs, delaying their return to cramped apartments with zero privacy from wives, children, in-laws. They would shoot the shit, pass around pints of B&J Brandy or Popov Vodka between them, and drop the finished bottles on the grass or bury them in a large bush from where I'd extract them in the morning.

It would have taken about 60 steps to toss these bottles into a dumpster. Why did these men trash their own neighborhood when it would have been so easy not to?

I eventually came up with a few theories, the first of which was that disposing of the litter properly represented the kind of consideration and attention to detail they considered feminine, and therefore weak. Not that they were remotely conscious of this, but I'm convinced that for many men -- regardless of race or ethnicity -- the willingness to litter has misogyny (or, to be generous, machismo) at its root.

My second theory was more esoteric. I wondered if, having been disabused of the notion that hard work in America guaranteed entree into the middle class, a sense of powerlessness had set in. At some level, littering was a way to say: "I'm here. I'm not invisible." When I shared this idea with my friend Sam, he disagreed with me. "I think it's just the opposite. I think it's because they feel so inconsequential that they don't think their littering has any impact at all."

I couldn't decide which of the theories was sadder. That someone would litter on purpose, or because he didn't feel it made any difference at all.

[Next: What Gets Tossed: Where is all the Litter Coming From?]