What I’ve Learned as a Volunteer Trash Collector

When I worked in the television industry, I read a great comedy script by veteran writer Greg Garcia, the creator of My Name Is Earl and several other successful TV shows. It was called Super Clyde.

It was about a young man who inherits a lot of money and decides to use it to perform anonymous acts of kindness for people in his community. He payed parking tickets for people, picked up grocery tabs and performed other small but significant acts of generosity. While it wasn’t the funniest premise (probably why it never got made), it always stuck with me as a good idea for a show.

While I was procrastina– I mean “working” — a few weeks ago, I decided to do some Googling to learn more about that show. That’s when I read something that blew me away. Greg Garcia got his idea to write Super Clyde, in part, from what he learned while working at a Burger King during the Hollywood writers’ strike of 2007-08. That’s right. A multimillionaire, A-List writer flipped burgers for a month. He says he had “gotten spoiled” and wanted to see if he could still handle tough jobs like the ones he had growing up. 

This was presumably an experience he would write about at some point, and he admitted to wanting to make an Undercover Boss-type TV show about rich people working low-paying jobs. So his motives were not entirely altruistic. But that doesn’t change the fact that he actually went through with his plan. Despite there being no cameras, no press, no entourage making him Instagram-famous, he went ahead and worked at the Burger King for a month. At the end, he chose a co-worker to present with a $10,000 check. If that’s not a good reason to smile at that shy person in your office every once in awhile, I don’t know what is.

I was pondering the sheer awesomeness of this unprovoked act of anonymous kindness as I was on a walk recently. I was walking through a local middle school’s athletic field when I noticed some trash that had been left behind from a weekend soccer game. I thought, “Man, littering is lame. It’s too bad there are chip bags all over this beautiful field.” And I kept walking.

Then, I stopped. I wondered, “What would Greg Garcia do?” While it’s likely that Greg Garcia would have kept walking past the trash right back to his mega-mansion and enjoyed a glass of $700-per-shot tequila, I got it in my mind that he just might pick up that trash. Inspired, I turned around and picked up the chip bags.

I marched them over to the trash can and felt a warm sense of contentment. I know, it’s not like I’d just decided to volunteer for Doctors Without Borders or anything, but for me, this was a big step. I am not the kind of person to pick up other people’s trash. In fact, I’m a low-key litterer myself. I say “low-key” because I would never eat a bag of chips and throw the bag right on the ground. But, a piece of gum or tiny gum wrapper? An apple core? I’ve been known to litter those types of things if there isn’t a trash can nearby.

But, in that moment, I was reformed. It felt so good to throw that trash away that I marched over the entire field and picked up all the trash I could find. When I was done, I had filled a bag to the brim with trash and my soul to the brim with satisfaction. I’ve cleaned that school’s field five nights a week since that first outing, and I’ve discovered that the process has helped magnify and put into perspective many different life lessons.

Anonymous Acts of Kindness Are Therapeutic

I’m a fan of traditional therapy. If you have serious issues, please see a professional. But for someone like me, who is mostly happy but also prone to periods of great existential angst, walking around a quiet field at night picking up trash works wonders to calm the mind.

The simple act of giving myself over to a pursuit that has no intrinsic monetary value is tremendously freeing. There are no goals, no deadlines, no watcher. It is freeing. I can do as much or as little as I want. But, curiously, that brings me to my next point.

You Won’t Feel Your Best Unless You Try Your Best

The first couple of nights, I was full of purpose. I walked the field top to bottom and cleaned every nook and cranny. But, once the whole thing became routine, I found myself not wanting to clean certain areas.

Ugh, that corner is where I found a dirty bandage.

The bottom of the stairs is always gross, I’ll skip that part.

My feet hurt, I don’t want to walk on the asphalt basketball courts.

And on and on. Yet every time I would resolve not to clean a certain part, I’d end up sucking it up and doing it anyway. I felt like I was letting someone down if I didn’t.

Once something goes from novel to rote, it gets a little less exciting. But if you push past that initial dissatisfaction, you’ll find that there is something intrinsically pleasing about doing your best, every time.

Sure, no one is grading my performance or yelling at me if I slack off, but those extrinsic motivations pale in comparison to what you can accomplish when you simply decide to expect more from yourself.

If You Only Look in Well-Lit Places, You’re Not Seeing Everything

I always do my cleaning at night. There are certain areas of the school that are well lit, and it is tempting to do those areas first, give a cursory glance to the rest of the field, and call it a night. I mean, it’s so easy to spot the popsicle sticks when they are right under a halogen bulb!

But no matter how clean the darker areas look, there is inevitably just as much trash in those places. It can be a slog to march around the dark perimeter, straining my eyes to see the moonlight glinting off pieces of plastic, but it’s important. Kids leave wrappers everywhere. They don’t discriminate. I’d be missing out on a massive portion of the trash if I limited my search to where it was convenient.

Similarly, it’s easy to take only the classes in subjects where you already excel. It’s easy to stay with the same cable provider, insurance provider and bank instead of searching for better options. It’s easy to stay in your house instead of going to that networking event. After all, it’s so bright and cozy in there!

But if you don’t push yourself to get out of your comfort zone, you might miss the opportunity to learn a new skill that could get you a raise, considerably lower your monthly bills, or meet that person who could give you a great job down the road. Doing my nightly cleaning rounds helped me realize that.

It’s Easier to Achieve Fitness Goals When You’re Doing Something With Purpose

For about a year now, I’ve had a goal to walk 10,000 steps per day. Sometimes I get there, sometimes I don’t. Pretty much the only foolproof way to get my steps in, even when I don’t feel like walking, is to go clean the field. It doesn’t feel like work when you’re immersed in an activity that you feel benefits the greater good.

I’ve Judged Way Too Many Books by Their Covers

I’m trying to learn Hebrew at the moment, so I often take my phone with me while I clean so I can practice. That leads to moments like I had the other night.

I was hunched over, picking up trash, in the dark, mumbling Hebrew verbs to myself. I looked up and saw a kid who was probably 12 years old riding his bike right past me. He looked at me the way a horror movie director wants his extras to look when the monster walks past. This kid was weirded out and scared. I’ve never seen someone pedal so fast to get out of there.

I probably would have been spooked, too, if I saw a grown man mumbling to himself on a school field in the middle of the night. I’ve been on the other side of situations like that, and my thought is always, “I wonder what that freakazoid is doing.” I would never think that someone in my situation was just a local guy cleaning up garbage, just for the heck of it. Now, I take care to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Janitors Do Not Get Enough Respect

So far, I’ve made out cleaning trash to be rather glamorous, but that’s easy for me to say when I do it out of my own volition. I have a newfound respect for those men and women who clean up after us each and every day. It can be gross, tiring, and even a little disheartening.

I mean, why would someone just dump a bag of chips, a glass bottle, a juice box and a pack of cigarettes right down on the field? There’s a trash can 20 feet away! And also, isn’t going to the middle school to smoke cigarettes something that only happens in movies? I guess not.

Kudos to everyone working this thankless job.

Wealth Is About Way More than Money

I could be improving my net worth if I spent my nights picking up a side hustle instead of cleaning. Or I could work on my current job at night. I could even go to the school district and be like, “Hey, I clean your school every night, would you ever pay me for it?”

But it’s not about that. I like doing it for free. I like the idea of a janitor having a bad day, heading outside to clean the field, and seeing that it’s spotless. I like feeling like I am clearing up some of the bad karma I created by littering all those years. Those kinds of things may not have monetary value, but they improve my life, and I wouldn’t want to give them up for a few extra bucks.

And while cleaning trash on a regular basis might not be your cup of tea, I can guarantee you’ll feel a twinge of satisfaction if you bend down and pick up the next piece of litter you see. If not that, try doing some other anonymous act of kindness. Pay the toll for the car behind you. Buy a coffee for the person in line behind you.

I’m not preaching that we can achieve some “kumbaya” utopia just by doing nice things every once in a while. I’m just telling you what I’ve gleaned as a former cynic who is trying to do a tiny bit of good in the world. Not everything is about wealth accumulation, and small acts matter more than you think.

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