Recycling Police

Wednesdays are always a whirlwind. Mondays are expected to be busy, being the start of a workweek. Fridays are busy with the work that needs finishing. Tuesdays and Thursdays fall somewhere in between the two, but Wednesdays? Wednesdays have no good reason to be busy, which is what makes them busiest of all.

It was on such a Wednesday that Janice found herself on the Eastbound train, downtown. She liked to check her pockets when the trains were running on time. Phone, wallet, keys, bagel (if she got hungry), gum (for bagel-breath), coffee (for waking up), Nyquil (for settling down) and a book (if things got dull). She was prepared for anything from long delays to medical emergencies. She took great care to be extra aware of her surroundings. Not two days ago she saw a blunder of the worst sort – a careless one.

A passenger, reading a book, and thus unaware, had almost missed their stop. They charged the doors as they were closing and then forced them open so they could exit. Janice would have sympathized had they not held up the Westbound train for nearly ten extra seconds. But Janice was kind. Some people were blind to transit procedures. The passenger might not have known that while they only wasted three seconds forcing the doors open, the doors took an additional six seconds to open and close safely. Not everyone was aware how dearly a ten-second delay could affect the entirety of the Toronto transit system, the lifeblood of civilized society.

When she had first been forced to take a bus in the eighth grade, she was a mess. She’d get in people’s way, forget her fare and drop her belongings at every stop. Her first attempt at participation in adult society had been a disaster. But she’d taken measures since then. She’d dart out of the way of people who didn’t even know they were headed toward her, pick up fallen objects – newspapers, books, children – and get them back to their owners before they even noticed. Once, she even prevented an elderly woman from getting her dress stuck in an escalator – the pride she felt telling her to take the stairs or take off her dress was a strong memory, even now.

Lost in the memories of her triumphs, Janice almost didn’t notice the water bottle that had rolled to a stop at her feet. It was Néstle, five hundred millilitres; standard issue. Janice swore in her head. A bottle could roll underfoot, disrupt the delicate balance of train schedules, and bring an orderly city to a screaming halt. With a grimace, she picked up the offending article, half-full and still warm where a hapless passenger had clutched it, and marched out the open doors.

* * *

Shanique watched in horror as her water bottle rolled down the length of the train car. She always got clumsy when she was anxious, and she always got anxious on the subway, where people were crammed silently into lurching rooms, ignoring outbursts from children and addicts alike. She shrunk down into her coat as the eyes snapped to look at her. Should she get up and chase the bottle down the subway, even though she might trip? Or ignore it and be judged for being the only thing worse than a clumsy person – a litterer.

Her breath caught in her throat as the bottle stopped at the boot of a particularly intense-looking girl. Oh no, she thought, a college-student. Of all the people to catch me littering. The girl zeroed in on the bottle, then snapped her head up to scan the passengers for the offender. Shanique pretended to look for something in her purse. The girl looked confused, but got a grim look of determination and waited at the doors.

Shanique had to admire her. The conviction! This girl was going to get off before her stop just to throw out this piece of litter. No evil got past her. Then Shanique looked inward, and was disappointed in herself. Where was her sense of justice? Her rebellious nature? All that dressing up in torn jeans and black eyeliner in high school had done nothing to make her more assertive. Well, no longer. Today she would seize the day, today she would become someone greater than herself, no matter what people thought of her.

She stood up, hands shaking, and began picking up the pieces of trash on the subway. Wrappers, bits of paper, magazines, nothing got past her. And for once she didn’t care about the stares of the other passengers, for once, she was doing the right thing. To her surprise, other people began getting up. She expected people to judge her, to glance at her from the side and ignore the strange woman picking up trash. Instead they followed her example and began picking up trash with her.

Young, old, children, dogs, everyone was swept up in civic pride. Soon, every single passenger on the train was picking up pieces of trash, wiping down the seats, and swapping litter-destroying tips. One person even wiped down the inside of the windows with their coat. The subway car was full of laughter and chatter as only a true revolution can. The power! Shanique’s heart raced. People believed in what she was doing. She saw herself as the head of a movement, a great tear in the fabric of society. She stood in the centre of the car and spoke.

“We are the people!” she said, the words greater than her body could hold.

We are the people! The crowd echoed.

“We deserve clean subways!” she shouted, raising her voice above the tumult.

We deserve clean subways! The crowd answered, louder than she thought possible.

“We will not stop until litter is gone, forever!” she cried. The crowd roared in agreement and streamed out of the subway, picking up every piece of litter along the way.

* * *

Janice marched past people streaming into the open doors. People gave her looks as she walked against the flow of traffic. She ignored them. Littering was a blight on the transit network, and if wiping it out meant turning some heads, then so be it.

She was interrupted by a commotion behind her. People were streaming out of the subway by the dozen: arm in arm and singing the songs of the old country; picking up garbage everywhere they went. They flooded the platform, bumping into each other, dropping things, and obscuring crucial subway safety signs. Janice watched in horror as more and more people joined the riot, filling the station to capacity. The next train was coming, and there was nothing to prevent someone from getting hurt, not with all these people. A girl with gleaming eyes approached her.

“Look around you,” she said, “what do you see?” Janice looked around and recognized the terrible danger. She’d never faced a transit crisis this big before.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, and thought: all this order, and you’re going to tear it to pieces.

“We did it for you. If not for you, none of this could ever have happened,” the girl replied, and disappeared into the crowd.

At once she knew the girl was right. Whatever it was that caused this, it had started when she let the bottle roll all the way down the subway car without noticing. Such a small act had inspired such dissent. She always took her civic duty seriously, but even she wasn’t prepared to learn that the barely maintained order of the subway was that close to collapse.

She knew what she had to do, and she would not fail.

She forced her way through the crowd, pushing aside a gentleman listening to music without headphones. Already discipline was beginning to dissolve. She ran for the outer wall. She could hear the deep rumble of the train approaching. She fought harder, flinging a child aside as her coat got caught on a turnstile. She was stuck, but so close. She couldn’t quite pull the fire alarm. If only she had some stray object to pull it with. She darted to the floor, but to her dismay it was spotless. No litter. Then she remembered the bottle. She reached out to the fire alarm, stretching her arm as far as it would go, and pulled the alarm.

It rung and startled the crowd out of its rapture. Panic erupted at once as people scrambled to exit, dropping all the trash they’d picked up onto the floor. Soon the subway was empty. Janice slumped against the wall. It would take the trains hours to get back on schedule.

The girl who talked to Janice earlier was sitting on the floor, crying. She, too, must have been upset by the chaos and disorder.

“Fear not,” Janice said, consoling her, “after this, it doesn’t matter how much litter is on the floor. No one will stop to pick it up, and the trains will always run on time.”