Photo by Nima NamdarBy the time I arrived (late) to the Simple Green booth in the shadow of Huntington Beach Pier for April 23's Earth Day cleanup, organizers were so short on rubber gloves I could only have one. No problem, I reckoned; I'd just pick up trash with solo gloved Righty while clutching my Hefty bag in bare-skinned Lefty. But going after stuff that has no business being in the ocean turns out to be such detailed work that in no time I was pulling up stuff with both hands. And my ocean-blue rubber hand condom eventually broke anyway.
The other kind of condom—soiled—turned out to be the grossest item to wind up among my booty. Despite Huntington Beach's smoking ban, the city beach sands sure host a lot of cigarette butts. I'd guess I plucked about a hundred in two hours. I don't smoke ciggy butts but do indulge regularly in cigars, and I am proud to report that—based on my own unscientific Earth Day research—my team is far more considerate than our cancer-stick cousins. I found nary a stogie stub, band or wrapper.
The most omnipresent—and offending—substance I encountered was Styrofoam, which apparently does quite a number on the digestive systems of sea life that mistake it for food. From large pieces of Styrofoam cups to BB-sized Styrofoam balls, the stuff's everywhere. One relatively small grassy area was filled with so much that everyone on the beach could have spent the whole day there pinching between the blades of grass and still not gotten it all. Several yards away, I pulled up a section of plants that'd spread to the sand from a nearby motel and saw pieces of Styrofoam resembling a double helix in the small twisting vines. It was as if the foam had become part of the plant's DNA.
You go to a beach cleanup with the best intentions. You're honoring Ma Earth and saving the planet and protecting the fishies and all that. But pretty soon it occurs to you how mind-numbing this work is, how—like at the post office—it never ends. I'd look at my watch, go back to picking up for what seemed like an hour, look back at my watch and see that less than 10 minutes had passed. And then you get angry. And racist. "Why aren't immigrants or the incarcerated down here doing this for me?"
Actually, it's quite appropriate to bring up immigrants because, like a maid or a gardener, a volunteer beachcomber quickly becomes invisible. This became quite apparent along a stretch of that aforementioned grassy area, up against the paved path that runs parallel to the shoreline. As I stood there hunched over, pretending to be concentrating solely on the crap I was collecting, this is what I overheard from passersby:
* ". . . She's going to prison and she's also really in trouble with the law, like she's going to have to pay something . . ." a young woman jogging with her friend.
* ". . . I am trying really hard but you're always gone and when you come home you're always busy, and I just feel like I'm all alone . . ." the female half of a svelte, freshly saloned, designer workout-geared yuppie couple.
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* ". . . I'm studying to become a counselor, but I haven't decided if I want to counsel people or high school students . . ." a chunky young woman to her equally chunky friend.
* ". . . If you fire him, I don't think he's smart enough to do anything about it . . ." a business convention type power-walking with his junior executive. A couple of seconds later, Mr. Big made a crack about my volunteer toiling, snidely telling his employee, "Like thatis going to accomplish anything."
* ". . . I always had a problem with my ex-boyfriend's parents," a mid-twentysomething woman said. "I'm Italian and Armenian, so I'm a minority." "Exactly, exactly," her friend replied knowingly.
Sweat pouring from my forehead, I looked up from the latest piece of Styrofoam I was trying to unwedge. The sympathetic friend was a black woman.