I have become something that all reasonable sane and aspiring-to-be-cool teenagers everywhere dread and despise - no, not a social studies teacher, a public litter collecter. Or is it picker-upperer? Socially-aware Scavenger? Trash Tracker?
.....Loser? Well, I prefer the term 'Litter Ninja'. Whatever the title, my mother is proud that her genes actually have started to make themselves known in my own mix of cells and synapses as she's been a regular power-walking litter-picking mini-skip at the picnic reserve near her house for many years.
Mum's habit finally awoke in me after too long trying to resolutely ignore the rubbish everywhere I went, saying 'I didn't do it, so I'm not taking care of it,' and pretending that the pathway leading into the kiddie's playground was lined with barkchips instead of cigarette butts and the twinkles in the hedges were fairy lights and not the ring-top pulls from beer cans.
Every single home we've owned - even after moving cities four different times - have always found us within walking distance of a McDonalds. Under-utilised Physics undergrads could be invited to determine the factors that influence the distance from a take-away establishment and the time taken to eat the food whilst walking drunkenly home and dumping the bag, wrappers and soft drink bucket-with-lid directly in front of our gate.
In Adelaide we only had the local Maccas to deal with but being sandwiched here in Melbourne with Red Rooster and Pizza Hut on Mt Alexander Road and Subway, KFC and the Golden Arches on Racecourse Road, our little street resembles the inner-city equivalent of a waving field of Edelweiss if cruelly replaced by half-squished sauce packets, straws and paper napkins. Throw in at least two kidnapped trolleys from Safeway, abandoned sofa cushions wet by rain and beer cans dumped by late night punters walking back to the drying out centre and you'll get some idea of the lovely urban ambience we've been enjoying in our little corner of the world.
It was high time to take a stand, be a member of my community and take some pride in my surroundings. Unlike my mother, my de-littering occurs under the cover of darkness (oh OK close to tea time because it's dark by 6pm) or on the weekends when the school yard is deserted.
Sometimes Sapphire - who at ten is beyond her teens in terms of insight but is still mostly willing to hang around with her mum - will accompany me, but usually it's just Milly the dog; in mad passionate love with anyone holding her lead and saying 'Wanna go for a walk?'
Cold Sunday afternoons/evenings just before tea sees Sapph zooming around the bitumen triangle on her scooter or trying her hardest to throw an adult-sized basketball through the adult-sized basket at our local high school. Milly gleefully trots around sniffing the bushes, finding ancient sandwiches wedged into the gaps of the plank seats or rolling in the sticky patches left from crushed Red Bull cans lingering only two metres away from empty rubbish bins.
Another father arrives with his young sons and he throws a basketball to them and involves Sapphire in their game. The 'dong-dong-dong' sound of duelling basketballs reassures me that she's happy and I can continue my embarassing quest for cleanliness.
I'm a pitiable sight - bent over like an old crone with a plastic shopping bag in one hand and an old pair of BBQ tongs in the other with my snot green eyes focussed solely on the ground, quadrangle, indigenous garden and canteen queue-space for anything like chewie wrappers, fruit boxes, clear plastic straw covers, egg sandwiches, styrofoam coffee cups, coke bottles, chip bags and meusli bars half-eaten and rejected for Mars Bars.....
....and sneakily-squashed cigarette butts, broken lighters, socks, ripped-up assignments, Chinese take-away containers, alfoil balls, clingwrap strands, shoelaces, condom wrappers* and mandarin peels.
An hour later, my work is done. During that time, a group of bored teens walk past, with one who looks like a chubby Zac Efron calling out, "Hey you missed a can over there," as the others snigger; Milly takes offence at the friendly overtures made by a Spaniel puppy ("Sorry about that, she loves people but considers her fellow species as slobbering evil incarnate"); get hit in the back of the scone by one of Sapphire's stray basketball shots and, for some reason, a bloke in a commodore yells out, "GET A JOB" as he's idling at the Mt Alexander Road traffic lights.
As I clip Milly's lead back on and signal to Sapph that it's time to leave, the father smiles and says, "It's a nice thing you're doing."
My back cracks as I stand up and accept the compliment gratefully. "Thanks. Well, it's our neighbourhood and it's going to be the high school that our kids will end up at isn't it?"
"Oh no," he shoots back instantly, pursing his lips in distaste. "No way." He turns his back towards his children and their game again, instantly dismissing me. I guess they'll have paid ground staff to do this kind of dirty work at the college he'll be sending his kids to.
* I suspect that even in these groovy times, most teens use condoms to inflate like obscene party balloons at school than the slightly-more-fun and adult purpose they were originally intended for.