Our second day in Southeastern Florida was mostly spent volunteering at Horses for the Handicapped. We did a variety of things while there, from painting to picking up rocks to grooming horses, but mostly we cleaned up horse feces. Horses defecate a lot. I was happy to help, but I’ll be happy if I never have to clean up horse crap ever again.
The day was pretty uneventful until our way home. The large van I drove down to Fort Lauderdale didn’t get the greatest gas mileage. On the way home from volunteering we needed to gas up. So I stopped at a gas station near our hostel to get some gas. While I was pumping the gas a car pulled up to the pump opposite mine. In the car were three young, black men. The driver got out and began filling his car. Meanwhile, the young man in the passenger seat seemed busy with something, then he threw something out the window onto the ground.
Enter one of Ryan’s major pet peeves: I HATE it when people litter!!!
I periodically see people through garbage out of their car onto the ground. Whenever I do, my blood boils. I’m not quite sure why I get so irate, but it really, really bothers me. As most of the time I see people do this they are in cars and I can’t really pull them over to chew them out, I usually can’t do anything except honk or give them dirty looks (yep, I get that mad). But this time… Well, the guy was sitting in the car 5 feet from me. So, I put the pump on automatic and walked over to the car. Here’s how the conversation played out to the best of my memory:
Ryan: Um, did you drop something?
Guy in car: Excuse me?
Ryan: I thought I saw something fall out the window. Did you drop something?
Guy in car: Yes, I dropped something. I threw it out the window.
Ryan: Oh, you meant to drop it?
Guy in car: Yeah.
Ryan: Oh, okay. Um, I wasn’t sure if you meant to drop it.
At this point the conversation paused while I considered whether to say what I was thinking. Perhaps stupidly, I said it…
Ryan: You do realize there is a garbage can about 10 feet away, right?
Guy in car: Are you some sort of ecololo-ecolologist? (that’s exactly how he said it)
Ryan: Nope. Just a guy who doesn’t like to see people litter.
Guy in car: Why do you care?
Ryan: I just don’t understand why you’d drop something on the ground when there is a trash can 10 feet away.
Guy in car: I was done with it.
Ryan: Oh. Okay.
The driver of his car has now finished filling up the car and now gets in the driver’s seat and starts the car. As he begins to pull out, the guy with whom I’m sharing this enlightening conversation decides he’s not done.
Guy in car (to the driver): Wait. I’m going to pick this up.
He opens his door, bends down, and picks up one of the two pieces of trash he dropped on the ground. He stands up in front of me and continues our conversation:
Guy formerly in car: There. I picked it up. (pointing over to more trash near the street) But I have a question for you. Why do you care so much about me dropping this when there is trash all over the f*cking place?
Ryan: Because it is littering.
Guy in car: But you’re not going to pick it up, are you?
Ryan: I volunteer picking up trash. (It’s true; part of what we did at Horses and the Handicapped is pick up trash.)
Guy in car: But you’re not going to volunteer to pick up trash right here, are you?
Ryan: I think you’re missing the point…
Guy in car: You’re not, are you?
It’s at this point he draws right up to my face until he’s about 6 inches from me, kind of like this:
He was actually about my height. I think he thought he was going to be taller than me, so he could intimidate me, but he wasn’t any thicker than I am or any taller, so his attempt at intimidation didn’t work. But he sure tried:
Guy formerly in car: Are you my f*cking mother? (feints at me)
Guy formerly in car: Why don’t you mind your own business?!? (feints again)
Ryan: (probably just staring dumbly at the fact that this guy is getting in my face because I called him on littering)
Guy formerly in car: Why don’t you mind your own business?!? Why don’t you mind your own business?!? (feints each time he says this)
Perhaps he thought I would back down or that I would throw a punch, I don’t know. But when I just stood there and stared at him he eventually gave up his feints at me, turned, walked to the trash can, threw his trash in it, walked back to his car, got in, and drove away. All the while I just stared.
After he left, I walked back to the van, removed the gas nozzle, and closed everything up. I then opened the door and looked in to see all the students staring at me in a strange combination of awe and bewilderment. One of the guys said, “I thought we were going to get in a brawl. I was about ready to jump out and back you up.”
I laughed and said, “All that over a piece of trash.”
One of the students then said, “Remind me never to litter around you.”
Right. So, that’s the story. But I have to admit I’m really, really intrigued by this whole event. As noted above, littering is one of my pet peeves. But as a sociologist, I can’t help but wonder why people do it. Almost every single person I’ve ever seen throw trash on the ground has been young, of a lower socioeconomic status, and black. Here’s where I’m intrigued. Clearly there is a cultural difference between myself and the individuals who throw trash on the ground. But I’m not sure which characteristics leads to this behavior. I’m guessing it’s not a youth thing as I have been anal about littering since I was a kid and there are lots of kids who don’t litter. I’m guessing this isn’t a racial cultural difference as I don’t ever see higher socioeconomic status blacks litter and I’ve been in predominantly black, middle-class neighborhoods (in Cincinnati) that were basically trash free. Why it has been mostly blacks I’ve seen this, I don’t know, but it could be due to where I live (in cities where the poorest group tends to black) and the fact that blacks are more likely to be poor. My best guess is that this is a lower socioeconomic status thing as I’ve seen poor white people litter. I’ve also been in poorer, predominantly white neighborhoods that have a lot of trash on the street. So, I’m going to venture a guess here and say that this must be a lower socioeconomic status cultural difference.
This leads me to my question, which I’m really hoping some of my sociology colleagues who read this post will be able to address: First, am I right that this is a class difference? Second, what is it about this socioeconomic group that leads them to litter? I thought the response of the Guy in the car was somewhat telling – “he was done with it.” Is that the mindset of people who litter? They give no consideration to: (1) the environment, or (2) to the people who will have to pick up their trash. Their only thought is: “I’m done with this and don’t want to have it around me anymore, so I’ll just throw it on the ground.”
I happened to catch a science news article a couple days ago after this incident that I thought might help explain it. Apparently young offenders who think they are likely to die young are more likely to engage in criminal activities, which runs counter to common wisdom. Perhaps there is a similar disregard for social order among those who litter? Anyway, I don’t have an answer to this question, but am interested in any thoughts you have. I’d really like to understand the litterer’s mindset.
Oh, and any thoughts on why the Guy in the car got in my face over this? I have my suspicions, but I’m open to ideas on this as well.