An idea, once planted in the soil of the mind, can remain dormant for years before suddenly germinating and sprawling into something you can hardly control.
The idea of which I write was planted in late 2009, shortly after I wrote a story headlined "Litter vigilante cited by city for -- uh -- debris."
The story focused on a Greenfield man named Paul McCarthy, who was so upset by the flotsam in the section of the neighborhood called Down the Run that he started gathering it in mounds and demanding that the Department of Public Works clean it up. The department wanted him to put it in bags, which he declined to do. When his mound building persisted, Public Works Director Robert Kaczorowski had him cited for creating heaps of debris.
Mr. Kaczorowski hated my story. He said that I portrayed him as being indifferent to litter, when the opposite is true. In fact, on his nightly walks, he told me, he brings along a bag and picks up the litter he finds along the way.
Just days after that conversation, our neighbor died and we took in his dog, Rodger. That meant a lot more walks for me. For years, almost every time I walked the dog, I thought: Rob Kaczorowski would be picking up trash right now.
Finally, this spring, I started occasionally picking up bottles, cans and cups as I strolled.
I told my wife what I was doing. She said that my methods were ... unsound. People should clean up their own litter, she noted, and if I do it for them, they will only be emboldened.
I countered that the world could be divided into three kinds of people: those who don't care about litter, those who care but don't do anything about it, and those who care and act on it. I hate when people oversimplify things like that. But from that moment on, I was determined to prove to myself that I was part of the third group.
So in May, I set a goal: My family and I would remove 1,000 bottles, cans and cups from the streets of Brookline by Labor Day.
I started bringing blue bags on my walks and collecting sometimes 15, 20, 30 and occasionally as many as 50 bottles, cans and cups per stroll. My wife and sons sometimes joined in the harvest.
I especially liked finding cans or bottles that had been smashed flat by a hundred car tires, bleached by the sun or partially obscured by dirt. It seemed they'd been there for a while, and would have been there much longer were it not for Mr. Kaczorowski's seed.
I winced as I bagged impromptu spittoons discarded by tobacco chewers. But I reveled in the odd bottles, like those that once contained salad dressing, vodka or shampoo. My wife got used to me coming home smelling faintly of the stale beer that had drizzled from cans on to my sandaled feet.
I quickly realized that a street on which I found, say, 20 bottles would only offer, maybe, five new ones a week or two later. So I printed out a map of Brookline and began planning my walks in loops that worked their way clockwise around the maze extending from my house, so I would not repeat a street.
Pursuit of the 1,000-bottle target added value to walks that had, before that, been driven solely by a desire to placate Rodger. But goals can be tyrants. They can pervert the good intentions from which they spring.
I ceased to pay attention to anything above street level. I scanned the sidewalks, gutters and sewer grates hungrily, muttering whatever one- or two-digit number reflected the bottle count in my bags.
Occasionally I'd hear a parent urge their child to come back to the porch. I tried to convince myself that they were just being cautious about Rodger.
My distaste for litterbugs turned inside-out. I found myself wanting people to discard whatever bottle, can or cup they were carrying, so I could snatch it up and add it to my tally.
That's right: I wanted people to litter.
In between the city's every-other-week recycling pick-up days, the sacks of drinking vessels accumulated in my driveway. They piled up to the extent that my wife feared the environmental services men would refuse them. I knew they wouldn't -- the city's refuse collectors are diligent professionals. I worried, though, that Mr. Kaczorowski would find out, and cite me for debris.
As I write this, I am beyond the 900 bottle, can and cup mark. I know, though, that I will get no joy from reaching my target. After all, what will I do after I land bottle 1,000? I can't just quit. Will I set a new, higher goal? Is that the path to addiction?
Maybe I'll work my way down to a maintenance dose -- perhaps 10, 15 bottles per walk, max. After all, there aren't as many out there as there were in early May.
Or are there? As I eye the summer foliage, I can't help but wonder: When the plants die back, will that expose a hidden crop of bottles, cans and cups?
I hate to admit it, but I'm looking forward to finding out.opinion_commentary
Rich Lord is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1542, Twitter: @richelord).