Saturday night in Center City Philly after the bars close, the Wawa on Broad Street is poppin. This past Saturday was as lively as ever, but something was different. I’ve been in there a bunch around that time so either it was different or I was, but what I saw disturbed me so much I lost my late night munchies.
This is NOT a tone deaf complaint about panhandlers à la Ed Rendell. If you want to read some disgustingly privileged complaints about how annoyed he and some Philly Mag guy are by the inconvenience of other peoples’ homelessness, see here: http://www.phillymag.com/news/2017/09/13/rendell-broad-walnut-wawa/
So what, pray tell, could possibly deter me from 3 a.m. Phish Food? Trash. All kinds of it. There were piles of trash all around the store. Not just a couple of napkins or cups that had just been swept near a wastebasket; there were heaps of trash in loose piles everywhere and scattered throughout the store.
At first I thought it was just one heap near the door. I walked away from it down an aisle, picked a cup off the floor and huffed to myself “fucking slobs,” then as I looked up for a trash can, I noticed there was fucking trash everywhere. You had to hopscotch over trash.
I looked around for staff people: all busy with customers, line to the register at least 10 deep. The more I looked around, the more disturbed I got. How hard is it to put your trash in a bin? People were either stumbling around clueless or laughing, searching for something super clever like, “was there a hurricane in here or something?” (Fail. Too soon.)
When I realized the trash cans weren’t full, my head started swirling:
People are okay with this. This says something about us, like the death of accountability or self-respect or that nihilism has taken hold. I don’t know what, but Something Ugly. We were an Idiocracy 6 months ago, now we are THIS.
I tried to shake off the icks, but I couldn’t. There was just so much trash everywhere and it was too bizarre. Prior to that moment, I had been operating under the assumption that we had an unspoken social contract that we would keep our trash out of view. Either my assumption was incorrect, or the contract had been breached beyond repair. That I was the only one shaken made it worse.
I had to leave ALL this trash. Empty handed, I went for the door, visibly disgusted (anyone who knows me knows I have no poker face whatsoever), shaking my head like “WTF,” I pushed through the first door before the outside. Two men entering together noticed my expression and sort of gave me half a raised eyebrow (like “what’s your problem?”). I nodded my head and eyes toward the inside.
They looked inside, whirled around back to me, bug eyed, “WHAT THE FUCK?”
“Right?!” I exclaimed. “I was too disturbed to get something to eat.”
I walked back in like the Vanna White of trash heaps, spreading my hands out towards the disarray.
They looked around and saw what I saw. “What is going on? Why is all this trash everywhere? Did someone trash the place?”
“I don’t know. It’s so weird, but I am honestly relieved you are disturbed by it too.” I was so relieved in fact, I nearly began to cry. It was like I was being gaslighted by the after bar Wawa crowd and these two were like, “no girl, that dickhead has been playing with the lights, you are alright.”
The three of us lined up, arms crossed as we took in the scene. One of the guys pointed out a drunk guy bending over to snap a selfie in front of the mess. I pointed to the big empty trash bin that was a few feet from one of the piles “Why are we the only ones appalled by this? Isn’t THAT weird that this is somehow normal?”
They were still shocked, mouths open. “How is nobody cleaning up anything?” The shorter guy asked.
The taller guy said “Nobody gives a shit. This is fucked up.”
I joined in “I think this signals that something is deeply sick within us. Like society is broken.”
The taller guy was deflated, “I think people just threw their shit on the floor.”
The other one began to get fired up, “This isn’t okay.”
I said, “No, this is disgusting. Nobody gives a fuck about anything.”
The shorter one asked, “Do you think people are just that drunk?”
I asked, “Maybe, but then why is everyone getting that fucked up? Why do they NEED to get so fucked up?”
The shorter one got excited, “I feel like we’re activists right now.” His friend chuckled and nodded.
I said, “No. We’re not. We’re TALKavists. We’re sitting here complaining about the trash, but we aren’t doing anything about it.”
The tall guy shrugged and said, “You know what, you’re right” AND HE STARTED TO CLEAN UP THE TRASH.
His friend hopped into action. I shook off a bit of shock and rolled the big yellow trash can closer to us and started tossing in trash. “Now we’re activists,” the shorter guy said, as we were both bent over, smiling.
An employee ran up, “It’s okay, okay, I got it. I got it.”
“I’m sorry,” I told him, “I just got worried. What happened?”
He threw his hands up. “It’s like this every weekend. We’re the only place open after the bars close. They all come in here. Look, that guy just threw his cup on the floor.” He shook his head as he began to fill the garbage can with the trash heap.
We all looked as the large empty soda cup rolled on the floor away from a trash can. My eyes found the culprit, a drunk bro walking towards his crew. I reflexively called out, “You dropped your cup on the floor!” Nothing. “Hey, bro, pick up your trash. Don’t just leave it on the floor for someone else to pick it up.” He quickly glanced in my direction and dropped his gaze. His friends started to look. He stood still, and I projected loudly, “PICK UP YOUR TRASH, SON!”
One of his friends picked it up and put it in the trash.
“Thank you.” I said to the guy who cleaned up after his friend.
I exhaled, fully depleted. “Okay,” I said to my fellow volunteers as I hugged them, “thank you for what you did, for who you are, and for sharing this experience with me. Good night.”
They said goodbye and went to order their shorties.
I have been wrestling with what happened since Saturday. Yes, a lot of it is indulgent over-thinking and trying to find meaning out of experiences. On the other hand, it was so odd that I had a fleeting thought that me, the two guys and the employee were the only “real” people and everyone else were cyborgs or something.
Body-snatchers are almost more palatable than the totality of what it was: a perfect reflection of us. Drunk bros in their early twenties were blind to a mess of their own making. The ones that noticed played along as if they hadn’t. We could induce action, but not on the part of the real culprit, and only upon shaming their peers. Then people who had nothing to do with it, apparently incapable of pretending everything was normal, bitched and pointed fingers, which made us feel a little better (at least we weren’t like THOSE people) until we finally realized that bitching was no better than not noticing it. In fact, seeing it happen, knowing it’s wrong, and failing to do something about it when you can is arguably worse. It took the unprompted action of one man to jolt us into helping. At least there were helpers, right? (RIP Mister Rogers). I am so grateful for those two guys.
I also thought about what else can be done so we don’t normalize this shit? Wawa should do more to solve that problem. It’s unsanitary and they shouldn’t allow people to litter in their store. They need at least 2 more staff members, one more for the register (which would decrease the amount of time in the store so less bumping into stuff and knocking it over) plus another to restock, empty trash and move people along. I’ve contacted Wawa about it through their website. Hopefully, they fix the problem and keep the store open. I like going in there for a late night snack, too.
Can we at least all agree to do better about leaving places as good or better than we found them? If we all do it, it’s easy.