This Mess Belongs to All of Us

I was disappointed to be on the side-facing bench, facing the blur of buildings and bushes that rushed past the back door rather than seeing what’s coming through the front window. As I settled in, I heard a percolating chorus of quips and giggles among a group of young teenagers in the seats in the back of the bus. Per standard bus courtesy, I pretended I wasn’t aware, doing my best stealth to absorb the surroundings without looking at anyone directly: one chuckling teen on the bench next to me; two senior women on the front-facing seat adjacent to the back door; a construction worker and an office drone in the front-facing bench to my left, both connected to the ubiquitous audio umbilicals that give the illusion that the bus ride is a more private affair.

My eyes went back to the two senior women because the closer of the two seemed to be making repeated backward glances in my direction. I assured myself she wasn’t looking at me (I hadn’t been there long enough to offend,) set my gaze on the window and listened. The cackles and comments from the teens grew louder, occasionally punctuated with fingers pointing at the floor. I followed the direction of the pointing and saw a translucent condom laying flaccid on the bus floor.

For teenagers who seemed old enough to know what a condom is yet too young to have used one, this was the holy grail of bus-ride comedy. The children’s jokes were mediocre at best, yet they earned guffaws from the gang and encouraged others to blurt increasingly louder and cruder comments, including the names of classmates who might have owned the condom when it was still in its unwrapped form.

The senior woman continued to make her backward glances, whispering to her seatmate after every turn. Seeing her face, hearing the names of strangers being mocked in absentia, I summoned my powers as both a son and a father to put an end to the silliness: I removed the half-finished newspaper crossword from my work bag, opened it, and tossed it on the offending presence. I used the newspaper as tongs to pick up the condom, crumbled it all into a ball, and walked the ball to the trash can at the front of the bus. I could hear groans of disappointment from the teens (knowing the topic of conversation after my deboarding would be, “remember when that guy picked up the condom?”) and when I got back to my seat, I noticed the boy next to me looking quizzical before asking, “Why did you pick that up?”

I turned my head and said simply, “Because it’s trash. It doesn’t belong on the floor of the bus.”

“I know,” he said, “but why did YOU pick it up?”

I turned to face him more directly, and his expression revealed the genuineness of his question. What seemed to get him wasn’t that I ruined the fun, but that I picked it up when it wasn’t my mess: it wasn’t my condom, and I obviously didn’t want to touch it, so why didn’t I just leave it there?

“I picked it up because it belongs in the trash.”

“But they clean the buses at night.”

And there was the crux. There are other people who pick up trash. I imagined him in the classroom, on the sidewalk, wherever – if he didn’t make the mess, he wasn’t going to help clean it up. He shook his head once and turned away, as if there was no logical explanation for my behavior.

I returned my gaze to the blur of buildings and bushes that rushed past the back door, wondering how many kids his age have that same attitude – and how much the people who clean the buses will appreciate their growing job security.


(This originally appeared on the excellent 

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