Frank Davis, an excellent craftsman, was working with me on a roof leak on our house when he asked, “How does one get to be a columnist for the newspaper?” I reassured him that because they’d accepted me, the bar is not very high, and then said, “Why do you ask?”
“I’ve got a real bone to pick with people who throw their cigarette butts on the ground,” he explained, “as if it’s normal and acceptable, when it’s really just littering.”
A column dedicated to inch-long cigarette butts, I thought? With a health-care crisis, possible school closings and a renegade sheriff, can we dedicate precious column inches to such a tiny topic?
Frank elaborated. “Imagine you’re standing next to someone in Old Town waiting to cross the street and he finishes slurping a soda and pitches his cup on the sidewalk next to your feet. Is that right?” I shake my head.
“So why is it OK for that same guy to toss a butt to the ground and walk away? Because it’s small? Never mind that it’s on fire!”
Frank was getting animated. “Is there a cutoff point based on the size of the garbage? So I guess gum wrappers are OK, closer to the size of a butt, but candy wrappers – say, Butterfinger – are no good because they’re bigger?” This is a passionate man, I thought.
“Of course not,” he says. “It’s all litter, making our town look trashy, costing big bucks for cleanup, and all because smokers …” I interrupt to remind him that some smokers have better habits. He continues, ” – OK, some smokers are slobs.”
I thought about that classic movie scene where the hero deliberates whether to fight or run, and then, his spine stiffening, takes his last drag, eyes squinting, throws the butt to the dust and grinds it into oblivion, foreshadowing his rival’s fate.
“Don’t they just biodegrade?” I asked, certain I was stepping into my zone of ignorance.
“Common misperception,” he replied instantly. “They’re made of spun plastic. Takes decades for them to break down. We’ve got Nixon administration butts in City Park.”
I recalled long nighttime drives across the country. My brain, half numb and lost in a memory, would switch on when the driver ahead flips a burning butt out the window, and the ashes burst brilliantly on the pavement and then fade away, surely a metaphor for something deep.
Frank brings me back to reality. “The Texas Department of Transportation figured that 130 million butts litter that state annually.” I imagined DOT employees trudging along the highway with those hand-held clickers, counting butt after butt.
“Texas? We community columnists are encouraged to cover local topics,” I said, thinking maybe smokers have been persecuted enough, banished from public places as if feverish and sniffling.
He was ready for me. “The National Fire Protection Agency says 90,000 fires every year in the U.S. are caused by cigarettes. Are you telling me Colorado is exempt?”
By this point I’m sold. We have a serious butt problem. I resolve that a column will be dedicated to the problem of inconsiderate smokers flinging their butts around our beautiful town and endangering our lovely Colorado forests. Maybe next time.
But for today’s column, let’s talk about our schools…