I Thought I Was Alone

Over the years, I’ve been called odd, and sometimes strange. Perhaps peculiar. Of course, to me, nothing really seems out of the ordinary.

I’m a middle-aged guy, living in New York City. I grew up in the suburbs. I have an office job. I like to exercise and travel. I like photography.

Maybe my office job isn’t exactly common— I work in a field called knowledge management; you’ve probably never heard of it. Perhaps my preferred form of exercise — Brazilian Jiu Jitsu — isn’t as common as jogging or Soul Cycle. But, all in all, pretty normal.

Maybe it’s the photography

I’m not a professional photographer. I hesitate to even use that word. Photography. It sounds important. Serious.

Photography. It sounds important. Serious.

I don’t own a real camera — just an iPhone. But for several years, probably since around the time the first iPhone came out, I started taking pictures of trash.

That’s right, trash. Garbage; litter; debris; refuse; detritus.

OK, I’ll admit it’s a little strange. But it started out innocently enough — with pictures of bicycles. Living in New York City, you see lots of bikes. Many of them are just pieces and parts of bikes. Once intact, locked to a pole, bike rack, or a railing. Little by little they get stripped down to their frames. You never see anyone removing the parts. They mysteriously deteriorate over time, silently. Always on the lookout for a new bicycle carcass, I became more aware of other stuff on the streets and sidewalks, namely trash.

Not just any garbage, mind you. Not the mountains of bags piled high on sidewalks everyday. I noticed ineffably interesting debris. Maybe things that weren’t purposefully discarded or tossed wherever someone felt a whim; sometimes items were obviously lost or misplaced.

But one of the first that I captured was intentional: a paper cup jammed into the lower branches of a small sidewalk tree. “Aren’t people wonderful,” I thought to myself as I snapped the picture and later shared it on Facebook.

This started what some of my friends consider an obsession. It also started a website (now defunct) and an associated Facebook Group called “The Wonderful People.” Members of the The Wonderful People group share their pictures of random detritus with captions like, “The wonderful people are done with their coffee break” (e.g., depicting a Starbucks cup in the street) or “The wonderful people have no sole” (e.g., depicting a discarded pair of shoes). That went on for a while, and the group will still get a new photo with a clever caption now and again. You can join us, if you wish.

The whole thing morphed, however, and the real fun was when I simply posted photos — dozens of them over the months and years — to my Facebook wall and asked my friends to caption them for me. Each trying to be more clever than the others. Sometimes I rank them, Olympics-style, or award non-existent prizes, or bestow grand, meaningless titles for the best captions.

Winning caption from a Facebook “Caption this photo” contest : “I hereby christen thee, SS Crosswalk.”

It was a lot of fun. And it still is. But then I found the next level — the natural progression in trash photography: Instagram.

Instagram’s simple interface and photo editing features makes snapping and sharing pictures of debris practically effortless. You can also cross-share Instagram pictures to Facebook very easily.

My obsession grew to new heights (or depths, depending on your perspective) and I was often posting several shots of trash a day, using my detritus_of_ny Instagram handle. My friends were amused, and a little worried. Mostly worried. “Why are you doing this?” they would ask. “What’s up with these pictures?” they would ask. “Are you O.K.?”

It’s fine. I’m fine.

I just like the pictures. It’s OK. Really. Everything’s good.

But I wasn’t alone.

Instagram satisfied a need. It helped me (encouraged me?) to post pictures of detritus with reckless abandon. A lost baseball cap. A losing scratch-off lottery ticket. Some discarded playing cards (a pair of 3s). A pile of combination locks discarded on the sidewalk outside a school. A neck tie tossed in the street (did this guy just quit his job?). It goes on and on.

Instagram also kept me feeling sane in a world where my Facebook friends (and some of my real friends) expressed concern. Was I crazy? Did this hobby cross the line into obsession? Did I have a problem?

Well, I quickly learned that if I have a problem, if I’m obsessed with snapshots of detritus, then I’m in good company. Thanks to Instagram hashtags like #detritus and #streetart and #lostglove, I found a community of like-minded picture takers.

A support group?

“Hi, my name is Patrick, and I’m an addict.” Some are like me — taking random pictures of detritus — not discriminating among the type. Similar to my pics (but typically at a different angle), an Instagramer called zachpowersauthor tends toward the mundane, everyday items that he finds laying around, mainly in the Savannah, GA area, it seems (see his pics of a melting lollipop or a single lens from a pair of sunglasses).

“Hi, my name is Patrick, and I’m an addict.”

Another detritus photographer — known as haircut_party has a similar vibe (e.g., an old printer with a paper coffee cup on top).

A fellow New Yorker, known as trash_nyc on Instagram, has apparently been at this game for a while, posting close to 600 pics of…you guessed it, trash around the City That Never Sleeps. Among them are this broken record, and this broken record and this apple with a plastic spork stuck in it.

There are plenty of us out there, including oncelovednownot, heyyoudroppedthis, junk_on_the_ground, socotrash, and trash.oddities, just to name a few.

Other Instagramers have themes. Someone who goes by the name hoarsethief posts pictures — almost exclusively — of single gloves (probably lost — who knows?) on the street. Tom Hanks (yes, the Hollywood superstar) has also been known to post pics of single lost gloves. Shockingly, nobody thinks he’s crazy for it. Single-glove photog, lost_gloves_and_stuff does the same.

If you’d rather see single shoes, you can explore the hashtag #oneshoe for a bunch of them.

Another Instagramer, who aptly goes by listsleftbehind, has amassed almost a hundred pics of other people’s scraps of paper with shopping lists, reminders, and notes scribbled and scrawled. A couple of others, like other_peoples_lists and stumblist do the same (stumblist also has some good old-fashioned non-list detritus mixed in with her collection).

While apparently new to Instagram (based on the number of pics) funeralflora likes to snaps shots of what appear to be dead flowers and other vegetation on the street.

One of my personal favorites, chewingscum, has posted over 2,000 closeup pictures of used, discarded chewing gum stuck to sidewalks and streets.

If you really go deep down the detritus picture rabbit hole, you might come across some dark stuff, like holyshi7, who posts pictures — almost exclusively — of feces, perhaps left by irresponsible dog owners. But he (my guess is it’s a man) will throw in the occasional pic of vomit, a dead bird or mouse, or a discarded toilet on the sidewalk, maybe to change things up a bit. Contrary to the IG handle, shitonmysidewalk does not feature feces, but rather snaps photos of “Random trash on the sidewalks of Glendale, CA where the median home price is $780K,” according to the profile.

Then, there are the do-gooders. The Instagramers with a purpose. They don’t post pics of trash for some reason that may very well be buried deep in my subconscious. These folks clearly have a purpose. There’s a motivation here — usually with a “save-the-planet” environmental bent.

There’s the woman, known as who_cares_out_there, who, according to her profile shares “images of slovenliness with a dash of sarcasm.” She’ll often add arrows to her pictures, pointing out trash, or text to her photos:

“My favorite thing in life is to see a pile of cigarette butts…. NOT!!”
Why aren’t cigarette butts considered litter?

Others, like trash_walking_chico chronicle their local clean-up efforts. Then there is 5pieces_a_day who envisions a cleaner world and wonders, “What if every1 picked up 1–5 pcs or more of trash a day?” A similar effort by 2minutebeachclean encourages Instagramers to “Take just 2 minutes to pick up litter at the beach,” sharing pics of what they have found and tidied up.

You’re never alone.

With all of its flaws, at least the Internet is good for something: making you feel a little less alone. And if you’re out there, on the streets, taking pictures of some random stuff, remember you’ve got a support system, right there on Instagram. You don’t have to go through this all by yourself. And, who knows, maybe this group of trashy picture takers will help make the world a better place — one photo at a time.

Follow me on Instagram: detritus_of_ny.