The Leaf-Blower Man and America's contempt for public spaces

Leaf-Blower Man is the king of his castle, and if he blows his yard waste into the street, that is somebody else’s problem. “Not My Problem” — translate that into Latin and inscribe it on the Capitol Rotunda. If Leaf-Blower Man blows his trash into the faces of passing pedestrians or bicyclists, well, walking is for poor people and bicycles are for hippies, anyway. Missing Persons had it right back in 1982’s “Walking in L.A.” — if you’re on foot, you’re nobody, “a shopping-cart pusher” or “maybe somebody who just ran out of gas.” You see him, sometimes, that guy who runs out of gas, trudging down I-20, buffeted by the backdraft of 18-wheelers, somewhere behind him (or in front of him, if he’s carrying a jerry can full of gasoline) a worn-out 1994 Ford Taurus. How did things go so wrong for him? Who is he? “Maybe someone groovy / One thing’s for sure, he isn’t starring in the movies.” Not that I stop to ask. Not in these days of violence and infection. I don’t even slow down.

Leaf-Blower Man never runs out of gas.

If our contempt for public spaces is not necessarily something that is learned, it surely is something that can be unlearned. There’s a scene in The Wire where a young woman on the edges of the Baltimore drug trade is walking across the street to her car while finishing a bag of chips, and she just tosses the empty bag onto the asphalt, right there on the streets of Baltimore. There’s a murder every six minutes in that show, but that scene stands out. If somebody walking down my block tossed an empty potato-chip bag onto the street — and, let’s be clear here, these would be quinoa chips or crispy baked kale chips or something — we’d be reading about it on Nextdoor for years. But that attitude is new. When I was growing up in the 1970s, throwing trash on the streets was what you did — you threw that Styrofoam McDonald’s container right out the window of your wood-paneled station-wagon, along with your cigarette butts and an empty can of Coors with the pop-top tab jingling around in it like a clapper in a bell. And that went on and on until that famous commercial with the fake Indian and the single tear, when we all stopped. Until then, we just whooshed on down the road, unless there was gasoline rationing because of the Arab oil embargo.