Riding the Red Line to my class this morning, I watched a woman get on at the Central Square stop. She was in her late 60’s, perhaps older, and she wore an embroidered jacket, tan slacks, and rather sporty tennis shoes. Her curly auburn hair was too short to be considered long, but long enough to suggest that she was not fully embracing her age. She carried two bags; a plastic tote emblazoned with a pink ribbon for breast cancer, and an oversized purse covered in a busy pattern. I mentally filed her under Cambridge liberal.
Once seated, diagonally across from me, she unzipped her handbag and took out a piece of candy. She unwrapped it, popped it into her mouth, and closed her fingers around the cellophane wrapper. She then slowly lowered her hand to the edge of her seat and, looking studiously into the distance, opened her fingers and dropped the wrapper on the floor. The charade of nonchalance, meant to deflect attention, did not work. I witnessed the whole thing.
I was immediately reminded of a story my sister-in-law told me about the time she was walking on the sidewalk and a car, stopped at a red light, tossed a bag of garbage out of the window. Without hesitation, she grabbed the bag and tossed it right back in! Could I be as brave?
I stared at the woman until I caught her eye and then I deliberately looked down at the wrapper and back up at her while my eyebrows communicated that she should pick up her litter. I am convinced she understood, but there was no sign that she was the least bit discomfited. Between Kendall and Park Street I stared at her. Periodically, she would check to see if I was still staring, and each time I repeated the performance.
Why was I so invested in this silent battle? Was it because her furtive behavior made her seem even guiltier to me? If she had just slid the wrapper into one of her bags, I could have spent the ride observing other people, rather than fixating on her. Why didn’t she do that?
As the train approached Park Street, I struggled to decide what to do. I thought about picking up the wrapper myself before the train stopped, but I was afraid if it did I would land on my face. Also, I thought she might kick me while I was bent over in front of her.
When the train pulled into Park Street station, I got up from my seat. As I walked past her I said, as brightly as I could, “Don’t forget to take your litter before you leave.”
She didn’t even look at me.
Did she pick it up once I was gone? Was she embarrassed enough to think twice about littering next time? Was she even from Cambridge? I’ll never know.
When I got to my class I discovered I had the wrong day and I had to turn right around and get back on the T to go home. Was that karmic retribution for not minding my own business?
I invite you to leap into my business and tell me what you think. But no littering, please.