Back before my knees began to ache, I ran in my neighborhood park, a 585-acre swath of meadows streaked through and bounded by mostly deciduous forest. Unlike most urban runners, I avoided the paved ring road and stuck to the interior, seeking out sketchy paths and abandoned viaducts, crumbling stone staircases and piney glades. I was looking for soft footing, and I was looking for that experience of exploration, of seeing-for-the-first-time, that every devoted woodland visitor wants. I chose my routes by impulse, never deciding which way to turn until a decision, like a fallen branch, rose up to smack me in the face. In this manner, I became familiar with parts of the park that most visitors never see.
Now that my running days are over, I shuffle through a tract of the park’s interior, called the Midwood, with eyes cast down, mostly oblivious to the solitary men who stroll past with backpacks slung casually over one shoulder. This is a special area, dimly lit and damp. It contains the park’s oldest trees—mostly tulips and oaks—and its highest canopy. In the summer, white flowering goutweed, a showy invasive, brightens the forest floor. In the fall, it’s blue wood asters. Birders come through during the migratory season in search of flycatchers and other transients, but my quarry is more prosaic.
In my right hand is a yellow-shafted grabbing tool and in my left a large plastic bag, which I slowly but steadily fill with things that aren’t supposed to be in the woods: malt liquor bottles, crack baggies, chip wrappers. But those items are ancillary to my main target, the specialized detritus of sexual congress: lube tubes, soiled tissues, amyl nitrate poppers, and, of course, used condoms. I had often seen men—young and middle-aged, white, brown, and black—loitering on these forest paths, some of which are paved in mulch and some of which are informal, like deer trails. In my running days, I assumed that the men, who held cell phones and carried small bags, were selling drugs. Only later did I realize their business was almost exclusively sexual; the drug sellers stuck closer to the ring road.
For as long as people living in close quarters have had access to public space with secluded nooks, they have been having sex in those places. I never gave it much thought. It was only when I quit running and directed my gaze to the ground that I learned that my own park, which receives nine million visitors a year, is a renowned mecca for men seeking anonymous sexual encounters with other men (MSM, in the lingo of the social media that facilitate such meetups). Evidence of this activity is everywhere. I’m referring not to scattered bits of trash, but to great middens of condoms and their associated paraphernalia.
Bent on eradication, I burrow into these piles with my grabber. But I don’t clean up the woods on my own. That wouldn’t be any fun, and I’m not that good a do-gooder. I clean the woods every two weeks with the litter mob, a voluntary detachment desultorily supported by the New York City Parks Department. My usual companion is Marie, a garden designer and avocational wild-plant forager who founded the group. A native of South Africa, Marie is statuesque and improbably chic, with glowing skin, high cheekbones, and a slash of red lipstick. She wears her thick ginger hair in complicated layers and usually dresses in white: pants, T-shirt, sweater. Unknowingly, she’s adopted the dress code of the White Wings, New York City’s first-ever sanitation force, organized by Colonel George E. Waring in 1895 to sweep the streets of horse manure, ash, and other foul debris.
Compared to Marie, the rest of the litter mob looks random and drab. Who are these people? I hardly know. The freelance copy editor, in her twenties, keeps silent under her ear buds. She takes her grabber, trash bag, and nitrile gloves from the parks department truck, then slips into the woods alone. The tall, out-of-work banker, a father of two, volunteers frequently on other park cleanup crews and distinguishes himself by carrying staggering loads of waste up and down the hillsides. The artist, in a ponytail and goatee, is the most gregarious of the litter-mob regulars. He grows flowers in his apartment’s tiny side yard, which the local dogs and prostitutes use as an outdoor toilet, and farms a larger vegetable plot in a community garden. He joined the litter mob, he says, for camaraderie—to talk about gardening and mushrooms and soil health, topics that are intrinsically interesting to Marie and, for the most part, to me.
Picking up after anyone, whether a toddler with Legos or an adult with dirty socks, can turn even the mildest soul into a scold. But strangely, plucking disgusting things from the underbrush—soiled underpants or tissues smeared with what we had taken to calling santorum—didn’t faze us. Sure, there was the occasional “Eww!” But mostly we chattered and joked as we filled our bags. We floated suggestions for effecting change: could condom packaging be made from biodegradable material? Would planting poison ivy discourage off-trail use? How about a public education campaign, with some sort of Crying Indian PSA as its centerpiece?
It was, upon reflection, hard to imagine. Public shame didn’t seem to be an operative force for people who had sex in parks. In fact, conforming to the norms of society by packing out small bits of litter may even have been seen, by more politicized users of the Midwood, as a form of collusion with social conservatism—a betrayal of one’s outlaw persona.
They wouldn’t have been the first to use garbage as a political statement. The hero of Edward Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang (1975) protests the despoliation of desert landscapes by tossing empty beer cans out of car windows onto interstates. “Any road I wasn’t consulted about that I don’t like, I litter. It’s my religion.” In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, a locus of cultural clashes, opponents of a new bike lane deposited plastic bags of dog droppings down its spine.
Wandering the Midwood, we discussed potential signage. The Danes offered one model. A poster in a Copenhagen park reads, “SEX in the park is allowed.” But since the park is frequented by children, the poster also requests that fornicators keep away from the playgrounds and “remove semen from the benches after the act. Leave condoms and used napkins in the bin. The City of Copenhagen calls for safe sex. Enjoy!”
A blogger on a New York City cruising site took a tougher stance: “Leaving this place filthy contributes to homophobia and gay-bashing, and it gives the police an excuse to arrest harmless cruisers. So don’t do it!” But this brings me to an important point: no one in the litter mob begrudged park users sex, particularly safe sex. It was only their dregs that we deplored. That, and the creation of informal trails through the understory and the compaction of fragile soils.
I couldn’t say that phrase—the bit about soils—with a straight face, couldn’t imagine a public-education campaign that successfully persuaded city dwellers to avoid stepping on dirt. (And why should we avoid it? Because soil compaction impedes root growth, aeration, and the uptake of nutrients.) But Marie, a gardener to her core, persisted. Preventing this collateral damage to the forest’s undergrowth and its perennials was, she insisted, the reason she started the litter mob in the first place.
As for me, I had a hard time explaining to others why I roamed the woods spearing Coney Island whitefish. If I wanted to help the earth, there were plenty of more effective and less quixotic things I could be doing. Condom-plucking was revolting on many levels, and it may even have been enabling the heedlessness we wished to discourage. Indeed, some garbage theorists view municipal garbage pickup as essentially a subsidy, which encourages manufacturers to market ever more throwaway products and packaging.
Sometimes I told myself these were my woods, my old running grounds, and so I was obliged to clean them. I also enjoyed the element of absurdity. Picking up condoms, without pay, was funny. (Condoms themselves are funny.) And of course we were doing this work to make a point: that leaving this stuff behind wasn’t cool. We were here to bear witness, to show that citizens were watching, and that we cared. With our yellow grabbers and black bags, we were a walking, talking rebuke to the men who cruised, even as we retrieved their freshly dropped tissues.
A bit of my own garbage history may here be in order. Many years ago, I reported a magazine story about a tiny West Virginia town that was slated to become the destination for much of New York City’s then-13,000 daily tons of residential waste. After the story was published, the dump plan was scuttled (not because of me) and the story faded from my mind. A decade passed. I married, had a child, wrote a book about scientists—and then a book about the long and winding roads waste takes after it leaves our city curbs. As part of my research, I picked through my household trash, weighing and logging every piece of it, for nearly a year.
I didn’t enjoy doing that, but I thought it was necessary: I needed data. Soon, I was accused of being obsessed with trash. I denied it. I cared enough about the city’s recycling rules to follow them, of course, but I was bored by conversations about resin codes and injection- versus blow-molded containers. Sometimes, I wickedly flouted the rules by placing magazine blow-in cards in the regular trash, and I bought products that I knew would break in no time at all.
Now and then, I’ve confronted litterers—the guy who drops a napkin from his car window, the teen on the sidewalk who lets her candy wrapper fly—but it’s never gone well. Sometimes, to avoid sounding like a scold, I try to act spontaneously casual: “Say, I think you dropped your candy wrapper!” (Scolds have a prepared spiel, and I want to seem cheerfully helpful.) Other times, I have experimented with a NIMBY tactic. To a man who’d flung a bottle cap onto my street, I exclaimed in a tone of incredulity, “Do you live here? Because I live here, and I hate picking up other people’s trash.” I wasn’t expecting to have a bonding moment with him, but suffice it to say, I got no satisfaction. In fact, he yelled at me. Who did I think I was, and where did I get off bossing him around?
As the years passed, my garbage book continued to sell and people kept writing to me with waste-themed comments and questions. I answered every letter: I couldn’t help myself. I also neglected to cancel my electronic subscriptions to various garbage-related email lists and news feeds.
Maybe I am obsessed with garbage. But not the way that collagists who work with refuse are obsessed with it, or the way anti-garbage zealots—who contort their lives to avoid all single-use plastic and to generate zero waste—are obsessed with it. (That is, as a way to make a point about our wastefulness.) For me, garbage is more of a medium, a portal into other people’s lives: what they consume and discard, of course, but also how they interpret disposal laws and customs, and how they relate to the wider world.
Working on my garbage book, I learned that sanitation workers are adept at retrodiction, able quickly to discern who, on any given block, had died, who had given birth, who was cross-dressing, and who had gotten divorced. Every trashcan tells a story. So it went with litter in the woods.
Like most humans, I’m drawn to narrative — the farther from my frame of reference, the better: “What left these peculiar marks at the base of this London plane tree?” But my interest never extended to the present tense: I was terrified of interrupting the drama as it unfolded (though I suspect the possibility of getting caught was part of the thrill for many of the Midwood actors). What did that make me, then? A half-assed voyeur, a passive collector of data only partially understood.
After Marie started a website about the litter mob, the New York Times reported on her activities and posted some of her woodland photographs, which featured languid, glistening condoms. Heated reaction to the story—both for and against cruising—spurred me to contact Marie and offer my help. I felt that she’d done something brave, and I admired her combative spirit. As she continued to blog, people wrote in to thank her, to denounce her—and, if they had a graduate degree, to express opinions dotted with phrases like “financial agency” and “sense of problematization.” With every posting, Marie pleaded for more volunteers.
One fall morning, we waited with a new recruit, Stephanie, for a parks department truck to collect our six bags of sex trash. A felled tulip tree made a tempting place to rest, but no one who understood how horizontal surfaces were used in this precinct of the park would ever actually sit here. Stephanie, it turned out, had been working for years with another park crew—planting flowers and painting benches. She appeared to be in her sixties, with close-cropped gray hair.
“How’d you do today?” she asked me.
“I got the weirdest thing,” I said.
“Oh? What?” Marie asked. I didn’t think anything could surprise her at this point.
“I’m not really sure,” I said. “A male dildo?”
“Well, let’s see it,” Stephanie said, peremptorily.
The item was no longer at the top of my bag, but the ladies insisted I dig for it with my grabber. It took a while, but eventually I located the object and laid it on the paved path.
“Eww,” Marie said, instantly reaching for her camera.
“What is it?” I said.
“It looks like a stick,” Stephanie said, “inside a cigar tube, and covered with a condom.” The condom was blue.
“It’s an improvised sex toy,” Marie announced. “You use a condom so you can reuse it.”
“I guess it’s more sanitary that way,” Stephanie said.
I was, by now, wondering if our interest in these objects revealed more about us than they revealed about their users. Certainly these artifacts, and the scenarios they brought to mind, kindled in me no sexual excitement. I preferred to think of my interest as anthropological: who wasn’t curious about the folkways of cruising? At heart, though, the most salient question, for me, was why cruisers thought it was okay to leave behind their litter.
I couldn’t understand what was happening in the Midwood without talking to the men who cruised here, but I was doubtful they’d speak to me. At night the men were furtive and busy. When I addressed them during the day, they usually hurried away. One man—drinking water and texting from atop a log, surrounded by food wrappers and dozens of empty bottles—seemed to rue the mess. Picking up around him while he worked his smartphone, I said, in what I hoped was a non-confrontational tone, “You’ll take that bottle when you leave, right?”
“I can’t believe this mess,” I muttered as I collected the trash around his feet.
“Yeah, it’s bad. Musta been a party.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Weird how they just leave this stuff.”
I wrote to some academics focused on Discard Studies, a field that considers definitions of, attitudes toward, and behaviors around waste. Might they want to do some research in the park? I didn’t hear back. I dipped into a few books about cruising in public places, but they didn’t cover littering patterns. Between the men who dropped their tissues and the folks who picked them up there was, and probably always would be, a formidable divide. Breaching it might have unintended consequences. It could lead to physical confrontations, or it could set off a discussion that would ultimately exclude all park visitors from the inner woods.
I took one final glance at the blue condom on the cigar tube, then returned it to my trash bag. For now, I’d have to let the mystery be.
That doesn’t mean the litter mob didn’t attempt some behavior modification. Guided by an ecologist from the parks department’s natural-resources division, we leaned logs and branches against large trees in clearings, which were magnets for the amorous. We placed big, brushy limbs across social paths and desire lines. Once, we planted thorn-covered blackberry stalks in the soil around a popular meeting spot, then fertilized them with stinky dead fish scooped from the lake. The ecologist moved three litter baskets from elsewhere in the park into the Midwood, hoping they’d be filled with sex trash. (We never found out: they were soon stolen.) Another morning, we spent a couple hours stretching fifty feet of fencing across a steep slope to impede the progress of bikers, birders, blowjobs, whatever. None of these measures seemed to work for long: eventually the fences were knocked over, and logs, brush, and prickly shoots were cleared. Or cruisers simply moved on to more copacetic terrain.
One November morning, when the woods blazed with colors rivaling those of condom packaging, I noted a change. There seemed to be fewer condoms and wrappers. Were fewer people having sex in the woods? Had we made some headway in the backlog, or were more people packing out their trash, our message having finally gotten through? Hardly. The leaves were simply hiding the mess. Now, instead of pawing through leaf litter to root out sex litter, I went after the bigger stuff, the bottles and the papers.
And that’s when I felt like giving up. Anyone could collect this kind of litter, I thought. My talents (or at least my willingness to wallow) were being wasted. Picking up Wendy’s hamburger boxes was flat-out boring: it inspired neither the anger nor the intrigue I felt when raking up sex toys.
Disgusted with the futility of my labor and growing increasingly resentful of anyone who defiled the commons—whether cruiser or dog walker or careless consumer of candy and coffee—I vowed to give up the mob. Two weeks passed, though, and I was back in the woods with my grabber, drawn by I know not what. Prurient interest in an alien demimonde? Guilt that Marie would be out here and needed my help? A sense of civic duty? Parks departments and conservation organizations everywhere had better hope for the latter: it’s among the primary rationales for bringing visitors into natural areas — forging connections that will lead to greater levels of commitment and stewardship from a newly enlightened public.
Whatever the reason, I was glad to have returned. Collecting litter remained a grand excuse to be alone in the forest. The tulip, oak, and maple leaves were mostly down now, forming a fluffy layer of yellow, brown, and red. The walking and occasional plucking allowed my mind to wander—one of the great pleasures of manual labor. I thought about forest gaps, over which grandmother trees towered, and the unending competition for light and nutrients on the forest floor. I thought about the Latin names of plants I recognized, the shapes of leaves I wanted to learn. I tried to imagine the joyful, health-conscious couple that left behind that used condom, crumpled napkin, and granola-bar wrapper. The longer I walked, lost in thought, the greater my affection for this moist and shadowy place, which seemed to pulse even now with vitality.
The weather turned cold and Marie added a down vest—white, of course—to her costume. The lack of foliage on trees, vines, and shrubs revealed the park’s bare bones, its knob-and-kettle terrain, its eskers, slopes, and glacial erratics. The park seemed smaller now, too, for sightlines were much lengthened. From some places in the Midwood, one could now see all the way to the park’s East Drive. Had the men inhaling poppers really been this close to nannies pushing strollers?
Obviously, there were fewer places to have daylight sex in private now (unless one wore winter camouflage). But people intent on sex are nothing if not clever: one day I found, in an area the mob had never cleaned, a waist-high blind made of evergreen boughs and sticks. Behind it was a folded set of hospital scrubs and packages of newspaper, neatly wrapped in plastic, shoved under a log. It was homey—clothes, storage, privacy. I appreciated, too, the fantasy element: let’s play doctor!
On another morning, with the hint of snow in the air, I came upon two separate pairs of dingy Y-fronts, each tied tightly around a frozen ball of shit. I dropped them—they were surprisingly heavy—into my sack and suddenly felt de trop. What was the point of wrapping your feces in underwear, then leaving this package behind? And what was the point of me transferring this bundle to a plastic bag, which would then be hauled to a landfill far, far away? The number of things wrong with this picture, and for which I had no explanation, boggled my mind.
The end was near. Marie gave it another month, then threw up her hands in defeat. The litter mob was officially dissolved. I soon missed seeing a secret side of the park, being privy to the backstage machinations of the natural-resources crew, meeting fellow travelers and talking about nature and culture, public and private, us versus them. But what I missed most of all was the cognitive dissonance of reaching a grabber into a pile of leaf litter and coming up with an intimate piece of someone else’s life.
I forgot about the men of Midwood until one summer afternoon, when I risked my knees to run with my then-preteen daughter. We were at the top of the Ravine, a well-traveled path a good distance from the inner woods, when we turned up a flight of stone steps to a slightly less-traveled byway. And there, at the top of the rise, were two men: one bent forward at the waist, the other positioned strategically behind him. At a distance of thirty feet, the activity was unambiguous. Even my daughter, several feet behind me, understood more or less what was going on. We stopped and spun around, shocked and silent.
On the heels of shock came anger. I had wanted to run on that path. How was it that I could so easily be excluded? I trotted on, fuming. Why were these men using such a public spot at 5:30 in the afternoon? Shouldn’t they be deeper in the woods, off trail and hidden?
And then I stopped, laughing at myself. I ought to have been glad they were on a paved path and not compacting the forest’s delicate soils. Immediately, I wanted to let Marie know that the fences, the thorns, and the rotting fish were working. Free love reigned, and the fragile woodlands were safe. Maybe some well-meaning volunteer would come along later and collect the inevitable waste of pleasure interrupted.