Let me be clear: I've never been much of a litterer. But it wasn't until a pair of strangers were lowering me headfirst into an open sewer in Queen Village that I swore I would never scorn a trash can again.
It's a long story. I'll explain in a minute. But it's what came to mind when I read a report by my colleagues Michael Boren, Julia Terruso, and Michele Tranquilli on the state of trash in Philadelphia. It's never been good in the city, but complaints are surging, and my coworkers are forcing a conversation about what got us here, why some neighborhoods suffer more than others, and what we all need to do to fix it. What struck a chord for me were the residents in the story who readily owned up to their dumping and littering sins.
Our trash problem is far too big for us to solve individually (there were more than 50,000 trash-related complaints last year alone, my colleagues reported). But while we have to hold the city accountable — and give it credit for efforts to respond to complaints faster and zero in on the worst dumping spots — we can at least start collectively thinking about the ways we move through our city, and how thoughtless littering drags us down.
That's what landed me in the muck that night in 2015, a lapse in judgment I am confessing now in the same spirit of civic penitence my fellow dumpers displayed in our pages this week.
It was the night before Pope Francis arrived in Philadelphia, three autumns ago. Like any good Catholic, I'd spent most of the day weeping at videos of the pontiff blessing small children. And then I went to happy hour. When I came home, the Beast, my 30-pound cattle dog, was waiting by the door. We perambulated. The Beast went about her business. I collected her ordure (the Beast is a modest gal). There was not a trash can in sight.
And so I did something that, to this day, churns my conscience and my stomach. I threw the bag of poop into a nearby sewer grate.
With it slid my company cellphone.
The Holy Father was landing in 10 hours. I was supposed to cover the celebration. Via Twitter. On my phone.
There on the still, dark street, alone in my shame, the Beast fixing me with stink eye, I considered my options. The phone shone in the muck below. I was going in.
I had lifted the heavy lid off when a young couple ambled by — if memory serves, they were on their first date, or close to it. Shame kept me from telling them why my phone was in the sewer, but perhaps the pontiff's impending arrival had kindled within them a spirit of charity.
I tried going in feet first, but I couldn't touch bottom and visions of the next day's headlines danced in my head: "Firefighters free local columnist trapped in sewer." So, I decided to go in headfirst.
Each of my compatriots grabbed a leg. I found myself crab-walking into the stench, arms scrabbling into the blackness.
I wasn't thinking, at that point, about my own shameful contribution to Philadelphia's ongoing litter problem. About how litter complaints, as my colleagues would report nearly three years later, are more than triple what they were in 2010 (partly because more people are using 311), and those living on trash-strewn blocks speak of a lack of street sweeping. Or how, like with so many other issues in this city, people in poor communities of color wait longer for their trash complaints to be resolved.
No. What I was thinking about was the sewer water splashing up onto my face. A new truth was setting in: You never appreciate just how bad a sewer smells into you're dangling in one headfirst. The lovebirds could tell from my screams that I had enough.
Breathing hard now, the couple grilled me – still, mind you, phoneless. A simple question: Why?
They deserved to know.
"Gross, dude," the guy said, when he learned of the bag I'd thrown down there along with my phone.
I could only stand in my shame. Just like the shame we face as a city if we don't work to solve this — one at a time, and by pressing our leaders for action.
These days, I make sure to sweep the gutters outside my new house in South Philly. Especially near the sewer grate. Every time I catch a whiff from below, I get in a few extra sweeps. Penance.