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By Will Walker
I'm standing by the stack of Seventh Generation paper towels in the Real Food Company, listening to James Brown on the store sound system, and trying mightily to restrain myself from dancing. I feel good. I feel so good I'm slip-sliding across the floor, albeit discreetly. Still, the store clerks are probably beginning to wonder whether I'm just happy, or a little bit crazy or drunk. If I can just refrain from flipping my sandwich in the air, maybe they won't get too concerned.
Who would have thought that picking up a little trash in the neighborhood could produce such startling results?
The morning hadn't started that auspiciously. My wife, Valerie, and I and some other "volunteers" showed up at the fire station on Greenwich Street near Fillmore to participate in a citywide cleanup. Perhaps because it was 9 a.m., each of us took some pains to make it clear that we weren't wide-eyed, enthusiastic do-gooders. One young man let on that he had showed up because he felt he might have a better chance at making the Fire Department. Two women told us they were attached to City Hall, so their appearance was essentially mandatory. We had decided to participate at the last minute to show support for my wife's boss at City Hall, where Valerie volunteers as a marriage commissioner.
Enthusiastic or not, we set out around 9:30 to clean up the neighborhood. Valerie and I started out as a team, cleaning west from the intersection of Fillmore and Union for two blocks, then going three blocks south, then east back to Fillmore and north back to Union.
We took opposite sides of the street and lost track of each other almost immediately, but no matter. This was, after all, a clean neighborhood to begin with.
For the next two hours or so, I toured through our six-block territory and tried to make myself useful. At first I felt foolish. As I said, this is a clean neighborhood. On one block of Union Street, I only picked up one cigarette butt. After getting over feeling silly, I settled into a routine where I just pretended that I lived at each of the dwellings I passed and I was picking up whatever trash I spotted. I have become fairly neat in my older years, so I sank into a groove with this approach pretty fast. The occasional beer bottle presented itself -- mostly brands and mixes I've never even tried, exotic beers with additives or beers from local microbreweries. Soft drink cans showed up here and there. Outside the Vedanta Society, someone's formal note stationery had been sprinkled in the bushes.
After getting comfortable with picking up the odd piece of litter, I took a while to come to grips with feeling resentful of those who choose to leave such stuff on the street. Finally I came up with a reason to pick up trash unrelated to correcting the behavior of others. It had to do with my relationship with this city, which has been my home for 25 years. San Francisco has been good to me, and I still love it here. Making a few clean blocks a little cleaner doesn't seem too big a price to pay for the privilege of living here a quarter-century.
I also made a surprising discovery. I noticed that my efforts improved the appearance of the streets. It's true, few people would walk those blocks and be stunned by their neatness. But I knew without a doubt that they looked cleaner. While my efforts were not producing astonishing results in solving major city problems, they still made a difference. I had a bag of trash to prove it.
When we gathered back at the firehouse, I noticed that all the reluctant volunteers, myself included, were a lot chattier than before. We all seemed uplifted by our cleanup duties. We talked, drank coffee, and stood around in the firehouse while our brooms and other materials were loaded into the DPW truck.
Two small children and their grandmother happened by about this time, and they asked one of the firemen if he actually slid down the brass fire pole in the station. He said yes he did, and then he made a couple of trips upstairs to slide down the pole. His spontaneous performance provided the extra body English to my morning that spun me off to Real Foods feeling good enough to dance. Even in the grocery store, with a sandwich.
Will Walker is a writer who has enjoyed living in San Francisco since 1973.