Here we are: a full year after Election Day 2016.
Most of us remember the buildup to that beautiful November 8 showdown like it was yesterday. The grotesque tweets chirping along everyone’s feeds. The blatantly fake news everywhere. And the page-long Facebook diatribes leading strangers into war and inevitably hating each other.
My God, there was so much garbage leading up to Election Day 2016. It continued on Election Day. And, well, it’s still everywhere, in case you hadn't noticed.
We all processed everything surrounding that day differently. For me, it was an odd journey, involving a revelation around, well, garbage.
Somewhere between the king tides in Fort Lauderdale drowning my street in seawater, noticing trash lining our communities and inevitably ending up in our water sources (in South Florida and beyond), and having the epiphany that I sat around entirely too much in the mornings while reading and engaging with garbage online, I had an idea: Rather than reading garbage, what if I took that time and energy to pick up actual garbage instead?
Sure, we all need an ample amount of information to be informed citizens. But is life spent reading Repub4Lyfe777’s novel-length reaction to an abortion article or DonkeyDemYeahhh’s tweet about the president’s hair really that important/healthy/vital to our existence? Not really. So why not put that time and energy elsewhere?
That epiphany became the backbone of my project, "Don’t Read Garbage, Pick It Up.”
Each morning – often on the way to the gym or on my way to work – I looked for a plastic bag floating around on the street. This may sound difficult, but it usually took about 10 seconds to find. There are a lot of plastic bags floating around out there, y’all. Using a $10 picker-upper I bought online (to be sanitary), I picked up enough trash to fill that bag. I then snapped a photo, posted it to Facebook and Instagram, and disposed of its contents, separating recyclables where possible.
At first it was a bit tedious and weird. I often wondered, Why in hell am I now a self-designated garbage man when I have 10,000 other things to do today? But after about a week, it became kind of fun and, actually, a habit. People on Fort Lauderdale Beach began yelling and pointing at me: “The trash dude!” It was strange at first but became endearing.
In the past year, I have made several trashy memories. There’s the 20 bucks I found in a shrub yesterday. There’s the cookie cutter in the shape of an angel I picked up in front of my grandpa’s old house. There are the seemingly endless bottles of aguardiente and Pony Malta I collected in the barrios of Medellín, Colombia, while on vacation. And there are the casino-branded cups and broken stilettos lining the alleys behind Fremont Street during a trip to Las Vegas.
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Among the memories are a few noticeable trends. First, wow, South Floridians drink a lot of Corona from bottles that don’t make it into the trash bin. Also, people need to cover their garbage cans on pick-up day — the wind will blow refuse everywhere, whether you’re in the mountains of North Carolina or on the streets of New York City. And it seems that wherever you go in the world, an empty plastic bottle is watching you from a bush.
In the past year, I took the time and energy I'd previously spent engaging with online garbage and picked up more than 1,800 pounds of real-life garbage instead, visiting more than ten states and 100 zip codes along the way. Some folks across the United States (and even the world) joined me, posting photos of their pick-ups using the hashtag #DontReadGarbagePickItUp.
In terms of our political climate, things don’t feel all that different a year later. But while we can still find and engage with plenty of trash out there in the world today, it feels good to know there can be a little less physical garbage to complement it.