Friday, November 30, 2012

The Kindness of Strangers

This post is also appearing at The Kindness Project Blog.

The email shot through the local web-o-sphere... from Adrian and Elana to Matt and Katie, who forwarded it to Daniel and Amy, Jeff and Izzi, and finally to me and Mike.

The subject line read: Chicken Bridge Mystery...

Now, in your neighborhood, this kind of an email subject line might give pause. In my neighborhood, it led to immediate recognition, because for weeks we HAD been experiencing a real, true, honest to goodness MYSTERY.  And it involved not only a BRIDGE but also a CHICKEN.

The North End neighborhood is not typical. Urban (for Connecticut), with mixed use housing and many socio-economic groups living on smallish lots (by American standards). Some streets include grand old Victorians in various states of repair. Others have less architecturally interesting hundred-year-old houses that are falling apart. We're squashed between the Connecticut River, the Coginchaug River, and Wesleyan University. It's a great neighborhood.

There's just this one thing. The littering.

Our front yard is the bus stop, and on a weekly basis we find Capri-sun containers and other food packaging that's been left on our driveway by the kids. When I walk the dogs it's clear that we have a lot of lottery players, cigarette smokers, and soda drinkers in our neck of the woods. And I may be one of a very few people who actually cleans up after their dog. It feels that way at least.

But when a whole chicken appeared on the bridge, still encased in plastic, that was odd even for this neighborhood.

Imagine for a moment finding a whole chicken on the sidewalk. Then imagine that no one does anything about it. And it sits outside in the August heat. Then through the September days. Still it sits.
Imagine the scents and sights... and you'll have some idea of the Chicken on the Bridge Mystery.

The email had only this video attached:
trash patrol chicken from stephanie lavon trotter on Vimeo.

So, watch it. And then let's talk.

(Did you watch it?)

Here's the thing.

I'm really into the environment. I routinely pick up trash while walking the dogs. I advocate at my University for better litter management, take part in annual neighborhood clean-ups, I even volunteer with a program every year to make sure students' belongings aren't thrown away when they graduate and move out. I know about trash. I care about trash.

And yet it NEVER occurred to me to take one for the team and pick up this chicken. In retrospect, I can't believe it, but it's true. So, I HAD to meet and speak with my neighborhood HERO, the mysterious Chicken Girl. She has a name, Stephanie, and I was able to track her down for an interview. And the story behind the story is much more than a chicken on a bridge.

I invited Stephanie for tea and a chat, only to find that this whole chicken thing was not her first foray into the world of sidewalk garbage (though she admits this IS the most bizarre thing she's ever picked up). When she moved to CT a little over a year ago from Seattle she said she immediately noticed the quantity of trash being left street-side in our little community. So, she began to document it on this website.

In the Pacific Northwest, she explained, free stuff left outside was clearly labeled. Here, she found herself asking-- was that chair free? broken? infested with bedbugs? She started the Trash Patrol blog as a conversation-- to show her friends and family what things were like here-- how different Middletown was.

But from this initial conversation-- she found herself asking bigger questions. We both noticed that sometimes what looks like a whole house's furnishings will appear outside, and that it's often at the beginning of the month. Are these evictions? Foreclosures?  Is this a snapshot of what might be happening around the country as people struggle with the economic downturn? She noted how sad she was to see that in a time when many people visit the local food bank, a whole chicken could be left out to rot.

When she saw the chicken, she vowed to remove it, and she is, as she says, "a woman of her word". So she stuck it out, though you can see it's beyond disgusting.

(Stephanie is, as an aside, a trained Opera singer who is interested in the idea of VOICE, working on projects intent on helping people find their voice. Amazing, huh?)

I write this post in dedication to THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS and to WOMEN OF THEIR WORD and the often disgusting, thankless, unrecognized tasks that they do.

Now, I ask you --in the comments-- give me a compelling reason for why a WHOLE chicken could be left on a sidewalk! Was it a robbery gone wrong? A dramatic gesture toward vegetarianism? I always imagine a domestic squabble...

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