Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Littered Streets

It's easy to forget what "urban" means when you spend enough time in a place like Honolulu.  Sure, it's a city, and sure, it has a downtown complete with massive office and apartment buildings, littered streets and homeless and/or crazy people wandering aimlessly asking for change.  Indeed, I would argue that there is very much an urban part of Honolulu.  It's just not very big.

Compare that with San Francisco, a city that is no New York or Los Angeles, but is a city nonetheless.  Living in Honolulu it is easy to forget that, in cities there is little grass, few bushes, and trees only where they are planted along the side of the street.  It's a far cry from the greenery (and, let's not forget, blue-ry) of even the most urban parts of Hawaii.  That San Francisco is one of the more environmental, progressive cities in the country just goes to show.

Perhaps the most stunning thing about being in a "real" city, however, is the trash.  There's trash everywhere, to a degree that is unthinkable in Honolulu.  Oh sure, the streets of Waikiki are often littered with cigarette butts and advertisements, but not like in San Francisco.  In Honolulu those dirty denizens of the gutters and alleyways appear as guilty children, just removing their hands from the cookie jar.  They don't mean to be there, and they'll be picked up (or, sadly, washed into the ocean) soon enough.  In San Francisco, by contrast, the garbage is at home on the street, daring you to ask it what it's doing there.  Instead of menehune, the trash is the ali'i, unapproachable and in charge.

I think, perhaps, that's because people are so much less personable in big cities.  Oh, they're friendly enough once you get them in a restaurant or cafe, or if they deliver your pizza.  On the street, though, it's a different story.  One must avert one's eyes at all times, and the friendly nod and "Howzit" that is an accepted and expected part of being a Honolulu pedestrian is noticeably absent.  Instead, walking the streets of San Francisco - or any city, I suspect - is a time to worship the trash gods littering the streets, eyes cast downward, darting from tattered magazine to used bus pass to empty plastic cup in reverence.

Don't get me wrong, San Francisco is a wonderful place.  Where Honolulu couldn't be bothered to pay for its symphony, San Francisco boasts one of the finest in the world, with multiple art museums and science museums, an amazing ballpark, and an embarrassment of great cafes and restaurants.  San Francisco, in many ways, is the cultural center of the whole Western United States, a city with quirky personality, where just about anything is allowed and freedom is not just a concept, but a reality.  Honolulu is stuffy and, ironically considering its electoral history, deeply conservative by comparison, so stuck up on its own multiculturalism that half the time it ends up being more bigoted because of it.

I do wonder, though, if maybe we've gotten too used to city life.  It's easy, in the city, to forget where food comes from, to lose track of the long pathway from farm to the dinner plate.  It's easy, also, to settle for processed, preserved, never-goes-bad stuff that eats you more than you eat it.  It's easy to ignore that the trash on the streets here, just like the trash in Honolulu, ends up in the ocean (it just takes a little longer), and becomes a part of the great pacific trash island that is perhaps the most honest symbol for humanity that we have.  Our most monumental achievement.

Again, I don't mean to sound pessimistic.  Though I don't fully know what I mean.  The truth of the matter is, it's easy to see why this place - while the rain falls on a Tuesday evening - is a place of would-be poets and idealistic politicos, a place where men and women and men and men and women and women (and anyone in between) believe in love for real.  And yet, behind all that striving and ambition of the young idealist, behind the desperation and hope of the homeless man, behind the green-washing of the grocery store and behind the bedazzled faces of the tourists (like me) there's still all that trash on the ground.  I still wonder, walking the streets of a great city - which is exuberant and desperate all at once, and everything in between - when will we learn to take care of the little stuff, much less a city?

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