Philadumpia

Philadelphia is the second major city I’ve lived in as an independent adult. I like living in cities; I like being able to walk to stuff, and the necessity of having to rely on your feet as well as public transit means you almost automatically build a sense of knowing the area you live in, much more intimately (though, ew… I don’t mean that in a sexual way) than you otherwise might. But Philadelphia, despite being only about an hour or so from New York by train, is a very different kind of metropolis than New York, particularly when it comes to one specific phenomenon: street garbage.

Anyone who has been to NYC is likely to have encountered at least one minivan-sized pile of black garbage bags, reeking of chopped-up dead hooker body parts and writhing with rats, piled haphazardly on a sidewalk awaiting collection. Believe it or not, this is not really the norm, as most people in most apartment buildings have specific city-provided recycling and garbage dumpster bin things that are offered in an attempt to contain waste somewhat hygienically. You can actually get a ticket if you don’t properly sort your recyclables (this actually happened to my roommate and me when I lived in Hell’s Kitchen because he didn’t rinse a peanut butter jar or something). But NYC streets have trash cans placed at regular intervals, which most people actually use, and when they don’t, that litter tends to get swept up fairly promptly. In the decade I lived there, it was rare for me to notice, much less feel compelled to complain about, the state of the city’s sanitation in terms of loose refuse.

Philadelphia, on the other hand, is easily one of the most litter-strewn cities I’ve ever seen. New Orleans is pretty damn bad too, but I can let that slide because everyone already knows that people only go to New Orleans to drink too much, expose themselves to other people, and vomit/pee/crap everywhere except for the bathroom. Extra waste just kind of follows right along with that whole schmegegge[1].

But Philadelphia is different; she does not have a reputation as a gin-soaked good-time girl even slightly[2]. In fact I would go so far as to say that most people, especially people who have never been here, probably have a fairly favorable opinion of the place, what with all its historic crap (the Liberty Bell is really boring, by the way–save yourself a trip and just look at a picture of it) and the Rocky staircase and cheesesteaks and things. And yet there is a serious problem here with blight that not even the tourist-y Center City areas can fully shake. There is trash everywhere in this city–loose, bagged, piled up, nailed to walls, you name it. And I don’t mean a few balls of crumpled paper and a soda can or three.

I mean… really?! Come on.
Poplar Street near North 16th Street, Philadelphia
May 1, 2020

Here now is only a partial list of objects that I encountered lying on the sidewalk or against buildings within a three-block radius of my apartment while simply walking my dog during a single week-long period in April. I must emphasize, by the way, that (1) this is a real list–I took pictures of many of these things for science reasons–and (2) these were not items that were waiting to be picked up by the sanitation department. Rather, they were all just strewn about haphazardly, as if an unsecured dumpster suspended from a helicopter had just flown by.

Here we go:

  • A Dunkin’ Donuts employee visor
  • The ceramic inside part of a Crock-Pot where the food goes
  • Half a traffic cone with the tip ripped off
  • One solitary caster wheel from who-knows-what
  • A 10-pound kettle bell
  • A discarded tube of something called “Epsom salt foot gel”
  • A “Blessings at Easter” greeting card signed “Donna”
  • The cardboard label from a 6-foot stepladder
  • The handle only of an Oral-B battery-operated toothbrush
  • A full-sized, new-looking bed pillow
  • A Tampax Actives tampon box with a Post-It note that said “Julie”
  • Unopened dipping cups of Popeyes BBQ sauce and mustard
  • A toilet plunger
  • Lottery scratch-off tickets from other states
  • A single right-hand utility work glove
  • A paper bag labeled “purple potatoes”
  • A chalkboard eraser that seemed fine[3]
  • A smashed carton of butternut squash soup
  • A Ring doorbell box
  • A Swiss Miss box with an empty bag of Hanover frozen broccoli inside it
  • One men’s left work boot, laces removed
  • An entire twin mattress
  • A green plastic grocery store produce bag filled with what I choose to believe was ketchup
  • A condom filled with what I really choose to believe was ketchup
  • The front of a drawer with the handle still attached
  • One single poker chip from a home set (i.e., no casino markings)
  • The lid (by itself) from a plastic shoebox-sized storage box
  • A discarded FedEx Pak whose recipient was identified as “Cindy Pert” from Norristown
  • Several new-looking law books on torts and jury science
  • An orthodontic retainer with a pink-and-black zebra pattern

As unusual as many of these objects may seem, particularly when you remove any actual context from their existence, I have a relatively straightforward theory about why drifts of random trash end up containing an assortment of items that would confuse even the most stalwart of hoarders. The answer, I believe, has to do with Philadelphia’s rather crude trash collection process–residents are told to leave their garbage and recyclables out by the curb on some particular night of the week, depending upon where they live specifically (our trash night is Sunday, for example), and at some point within the next 24 hours, sanitation workers will come and take it all away. There are no bins or cans provided (apparently people are told “just use… something”), so everyone basically just throws everything out on the street. Most people secure their waste in garbage bags, but other people aren’t so considerate. The wind ends up picking out whichever random pieces of ephemera it likes best from the piles that are literally all over the city, it carries those things elsewhere, deposits them willy-nilly–and voilà, you have embankments of indiscriminate detritus ready to confuse and bewilder anyone who looks too closely (i.e., me).

* * *

You would think that Philadelphia would know better than to just dump crap (literal and figurative) on its streets, given its prominent role in history, but I guess the people running this place are too busy being corrupt or inept to bother taking a lesson from 18th century European cities. Be glad you weren’t around in those days; indeed, it’s a miracle anyone survived at all, considering that it was apparently the norm for people to jettison the contents of their chamber pots (pre-toilet urn-type things used to collect substances that are most certainly not “collectible” in the Beanie Baby or baseball card sense of the word) out the window onto the streets below, passersby-be-damned. Apparently the French (…it’s always the French…) used to shout “Prenez garde à l’eau!” before flinging their excrement at whoever happened to be passing by. That phrase, by the way, translates into a euphemism that also happens to work in English: “Beware of the water!” Though I seriously doubt the “water” component of the pot contents was the main thing one needed to be wary of.

The immensely lovable Scottish also used chamber pots and tried to adopt this custom as well, but they apparently had a lot of trouble pronouncing this phrase, which apparently turned into the typical thing one would yell before discarding their doots (though “bombs away!” would have been my choice, I think…), so eventually the five-syllable French warning was reduced to “Gardyloo!” That is what I have to name my next dog.

We of course know how the whole throwing-feces-about-with-abandon thing worked out; I mean, just look at Ke$ha. Also, it contributed significantly to the advent of the Black Plague, carried by rats, which I understand are not opposed to dining on human excrement. (Ratatouille was a lie.) I learned this from my college British literature professor Dr. Allen Michie, who was trying to contextualize a story we were reading that took place during the Plague. He was explaining the whole doody-flinging chamber pot process, and in an effort to not have to spell things out for us in coprophilic detail, he asked us to just think about the interaction between a street rat and a big juicy butt nugget. When no one seemed to quite grasp what he was suggesting, he elaborated, “What’s it going to do? Play with it? Take it home to mommy? No! It’s going to eat it!” That was by far the best English class I have ever taken.

Thankfully the Scots (and others) figured things out before they all died, passing the hilariously-named “Nastiness Act” which contained the dumping of excrement to specific times during the day. Philadelphia would be so wise as to emulate their example–though as bad as random garbage on the streets is, it sure beats being pelted with excrement. Gardyloo!

—2020

  1. Yet another fantastic Yiddish word.[]
  2. Just the opposite, in fact–people who have lived here for a long time will tell you that “BYOB” establishments are pretty much the norm, which I find decidedly weird.[]
  3. I imagine it still retained at least some of its erasing abilities… ?[]