There were two good things about my apartment in Virginia:
The rent was only $175 a month, and Brad the landlord never came over. Ever. Or so we thought. This seemed ideal at the time, as I was using the living room as a painting space in addition to training live chickens to play keyboards in the living room. The less company, the better.
But like so much else in the world, the good and bad parts of that situation were horribly entangled.
We’d moved into the place in a hurry in the dead of an unusually cold winter – which served to keep the smell down.
But along with spring rains came this smell. This creeping, gnarly smell would wind its funky hand into the house and right into our nostrils like filthy phantom fingers picking up a bowling ball. It reeked of sloth and despair – powerful and pungent and musty all at once, like manure without any of the fertility or any potential.
You’d think you’d drowned it out or think it went away, but it was just always there, a brown undercoating that informed colors and flavors and wormed its way into your freaking dreams. Sometimes a homeless teenaged kid would sleep on our back porch under the window. One rainy morning I heard him say “Oh GOD it smells bad out here.” It happened whenever the air was especially humid, right after a rain, or on foggy mornings.
Springtime brought something else, too. Dog shit. It was everywhere. People just let their dogs lay cable in our front yard and in that grassy space between the road and the sidewalk all the time. There was none of this plastic bag stuff, either. I figure when it was cold out people didn’t walk their dogs as much or something, or when you stepped on a pile it was frozen stiff.
But I was stepping in the stuff three, maybe four times a week, easy. The whole block was festooned with curly turds, everywhere you looked. It was like a museum exhibit about the life cycle of the dog turd. There were fresh ones glistening in the sun, untouched by even the most eager housefly, half-dried ones with creamy fillings that snapped and squished like Eskimo pies when you stepped on the by accident, and ancient white ones slowly returning to dust.
One pungent evening, my roommate drew a horrible conclusion.
“Hang on,” he said, reaching for a pencil and a calculator. “This place is surrounded by dog shit, right?” He stuck his head out the window and counted. “I count 4 fresh loads out there. Let’s say there’s three logs per load times 4 loads a day times the 2 years we’ve been here.”
He tapped a few numbers and looked up. “According to my calculations, the topsoil around us is more turds than dirt. My guess is that what we’re smelling every time it rains is rehydrated turd dust.”
We tried to complain to Brad, but he just said “what do you want me to do, come clean your yard for you every day? I can’t smell it when I’m over there, anyway. And what are you complaining for? Your rent’s cheap, and you don’t see me making a lot of demands on you guys.”
He had a point, sort of. That’s what happens sometimes – you make a snap decision in some tough circumstances and then things change and you’ve just got to live with it until you can figure something else out. It’s not personal. It’s just life – if you’ll pardon the pun, shit happens.
I was out on the balcony one night, just looking at the street and thinking about my life – about the decisions I’d made to get onto that turd-studded street I called home, and how I was going to get up out of there. And then I saw a shadowy figure with two large dogs stop in front of the house. The dogs hunkered into an awfully familiar position and proceeded to unburden themselves. As soon as they were done, they moved into the light and pulled Brad with them.
There’s no way that Brad could’ve been behind all the poop on the block, but still. It was the “broken window” theory in dog shit form.
Neglect and carelessness is one thing. Brad had been awful before, but that had been accidental. But what do you do when you discover that the one person who controls your life the most, whose grace and understanding you need to live a civilized life, is actively crapping on you?
As a nation, we’ve all asked ourselves this over the course of the last eight years.
I was stepping out of my car after another failed job interview one night and keeping a careful lookout when everything changed. I was looking out for piles in the darkness, being careful not to squish one into the sole of my job interview shoes and actually stepped over a big fresh pile and right into another, more camouflaged pile that was lower to the ground and much darker in color.
I heard a loud crack, like a large dry stick snapping and I knew what had to be done. I ran upstairs and grabbed my roommate and several cans of bright neon highway marking paint that I kept in my studio. And right then, right that minute, we went out into the street and circled every single pile of dogshit with neon spraypaint. We told ourselves that it was motivated self interest, a map to keep our shoes clean. But it felt like more than that.
It felt like our civic duty. It felt like a public service. And when we looked down at our handiwork from our balcony, it was beautiful, all those glowing circles all over the road. It looked like a Keith Haring painting, or an Aboriginal artwork.
We slept the smiling sleep of the righteous that night. And when we woke up, the world outside smelled a little sweeter.
Our neighbors had been laughing and pointing at our handiwork all morning. Someone came by with a dog on a leash and the dog sniffed a circled pile to investigate. “Come on, Stonewall,” the owner said “not here. They’ll all know it was you! Then they went on up the street.
Everyone stepped over the turds on the block, sure. But more importantly, nobody would let their dogs leave any more – they wouldn’t be camouflaged anymore, and everyone would know who was crapping up the neighborhood.
Over time, the original circled turds started to fade. And amazingly, very few appeared to take their place. Sure, a few would crop up, but we’d circle those and gradually, slowly, the turds returned to the earth and the smell faded.
When the highest power in your life shits on you, you can’t just sit there and take it forever. Wishing won’t do it either. It’s hard and it’s scary, but you’ve got to stand right up. And if you channel your outrage and use a little creativity, you can change the world around you.
And man, that just gives me hope.