The late-night litter mystery

ALTHOUGH she had lived in the United States for a decade or so, an Englishwoman I knew a few years ago had retained, perhaps in the best traditions of an ex-colonial power, the gracious air -- and also, incidentally, the cosy warmth -- of her national origins without any taint or influence of an Americanizing kind. Furthermore, she carried herself with the imposing presence of an operatic diva and spoke with the fruitful enunciation of a Shakespearean actress. I need hardly add that this lady was not a litterer.

I happen to know that last fact because -- as someone who has even, on occasion, been passionately moved to write to The Local Press about Littering as a Scourge of Urban Environments -- I have a story about her which, in my book, is classical.

One afternoon, she was sailing (she didn't exactly walk) along a sidewalk in Back Bay Boston when out of a vast automobile, slouching by the curb, emerged a large bag of vigorously discarded garbage. It happened to land just at her feet. Her sailing paused in its tracks. She stooped. She lifted up the offending debris. And she popped it neatly back through the still-open car window, where it came to rest, I assume, on the surprised lap of the driver. . . .

She spoke: ``I live round here,'' she said, as if soliloquizing from ``Hamlet,'' ``and we do so like to keep things tidy!'' And with that she swept off accelerato, permitting no Right of Reply.

I have always considered this a triumphant moment in the annals of anti-litter campaigning. I wish I could summon the same calm aplomb on the subject. I tend to get ratty.

I am, however, being awfully good about the Vitozade Bottles, so perhaps I'm improving.

I ought to explain that ``Vitozade'' has been around Britain (I don't know if it exists in other countries) for years now. It claims to be one of those nonstimulating drinks which is ``Good for You.'' I wouldn't be surprised if it is recommended for expectant parents and octogenarian joggers and free-fall parachutists and so forth. It is a sort of off-orange color, and it tastes predominantly of sweetness, which virtues presumably make it unavoidably appealing, but when it was still necessary to advertise it, the slogan was something like: ``Gives You Back Needed Energy.''

On the face of it one would hardly expect the clientele for such a beneficent libation to be litterers (particularly, somehow, in Glasgow). There are surely sloppier liquids on the market far more suitable for tossing regularly into someone's front garden (our front garden). Drinks in cans, for a start, seem more likely equipment for the sport.

But the fact is that for the last two to three weeks, every other day, I have found lying nonchalantly in various flowerbeds, two small glass bottles labeled ``Vitozade.'' They are virtually empty, and the screw-tops have always been carefully twisted back onto their threads before propulsion over our low stone wall has been effected.

I am filled with the mystery of the thing. Right off, certain clues are evident. Litterers are generally secretive, self-effacing people. For this reason I have not yet seen the Vito-drinkers at it and I think it's rather unlikely that I ever will. But I would guess that on this occasion there are two people involved (a person alone would surely buy one large bottle rather than two small ones), so there is probably an element of sociability involved, with conversations like: ``Eh, Jimmy, y' forgeet ti gi' em yer bottle tonate'' -- ``Aye, aye, we mustna' gi' em cause for disappointment!'' -- such cheery bravado definitely being a motive with the urban litterer. I believe they may be on foot, though I suppose it is just possible they might slow their vehicle at precisely this point every time to toss out the unwanted ballast.

But beyond such Holmesian detective work I confess bafflement. It seems they come very late at night: The bottles never appear during the day or evening. But how is it that both bottles are always finished with at exactly the same place? Do the perpetrators come off a bus down on the main road, drink all the way up the hill, and as they turn the corner into our avenue, sigh contentedly, screw the tops back on, and throw? Or are there two pregnant mothers who regularly come this way at 3 in the morning? Or a couple of free-fall parachutists? Seems a trifle unlikely. . . . Octogenarian joggers, of course, are much less predictable. Yes. It could be octogenarian joggers.

Whoever it is, why do they consider our garden so specially apt? Do they live nearby? If so, why don't they take their bottles all the way home with them? Are they ashamed to admit to their kith and kin that they are clandestine, late-night imbibers of Vitozade?

I do feel, though, that there is one very telling aspect to this confusing affair. It supports a contention of mine vis-`a-vis the littering fraternity: that they are without exception, to a man -- to a woman? -- astoundingly, unflaggingly ENERGETIC. They must be. It is so much easier to put your garbage into the black bags provided each week at your back door by the city fathers than it is to get up out of your bed in the small hours, dress, load your car with household wastage, to drive -- under thick cloak of night -- to a remote cul- de-sac hidden from all overlooking windows, and to laboriously unload all your unwanteds into the summer undergrowth burgeoning at the foot of the Council Sign which reads: NO LITTER, PENALTY 100 POUNDS. It is such hard work! Calls for such awkward effort! Requires such dedication! Involves so much trouble!

Perhaps that's why Litterers Like Vitozade.

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