The Litterbug Dilemma

Photo by Monica Buck

Yesterday morning I had a strange experience, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I was on my regular commuter train from my little suburban town into Grand Central Terminal. It’s an 8:30 train, generally filled with men and women in “business attire,” whatever that means anymore.

I was minding my own business, trying to be cheerful about two grim realities: 1) It was Monday and 2) I no longer seem to be able to comprehend the newspaper without reading glasses. When we pulled into Grand Central, my husband—who was sitting across from me, facing the other way—sort of rolled his eyes and looked at the woman sitting behind me. As she rose from her seat, I saw that she left a sizable pile of envelopes, papers, bill inserts, and other miscellaneous torn bits of clearly personal household mail on the floor beside her seat.

Now, we are a fairly civilized train. Every once in a while someone will mistakenly leave a half-full coffee cup on the floor, which will eventually spill, covering unsuspecting shoes and bags and making everyone hate his fellow man for a brief period. But that is rare. We are, by and large, a clean and considerate bunch.

I took a good look at the litterer, trying to figure out if she was crazy. She was wearing a blue dress and espadrilles, with hair up in a barrette. Carrying an oversized bag (that could definitely accommodate lots of mail, both opened and unopened—just saying). Her look projected “suburban mom,” not “lunatic who commutes with a hunting knife in her bag.” Which made her behavior even more perplexing. And because I am a cranky middle-aged working mother whose belief in considerate public behavior has evolved at the exact same rate that my fear of confronting unpredictable strangers has diminished, I took the plunge.

“Excuse me,” I said in a friendly-but-passive-aggressive voice. “I think you dropped something.”

She stared at me for a second. “Thanks,” she said, and turned away.

Did she pick up the garbage? Of course not. Did I think she would? Not really. Am I glad I said something? I’m not sure. I walked off the train, watching her as she exited in front of me, trying to think of why a person would leave their garbage on the train:

  • Hates Monday
  • Has sick child and doesn’t care about anything else
  • Going through a terrible divorce
  • Caring for sick parent and has no room in head/life to be considerate to total strangers
  • Is just, at the most basic level, a selfish jerk

Whatever the reason, lady in the blue dress, if you are reading this: I forgive you for your garbage. But I do wish I had picked it all up when your back was turned and snuck it into your bag.