Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, September 24

Gapers Block

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We watched Breakfast at Tiffany's a few days ago. It had been a while since I had seen that movie, and I only remembered that there was a lot of excellent sixties fashion in it, which I thought would be enjoyable for my daughter. As it turned out, everyone wanted to watch it, so we had Breakfast at Tiffany's family movie night. I sort of forgot about the whole white collar prostitution angle, and also about the scene where Holly and Paul/Fred are getting hammered in the stripper bar. My son was pretty interested in that, and had a few stripper related questions in the post movie wrap up. Aside from the prostitution, mob related criminal activity, stripping, shoplifting, the marriage of doddering Doc Golightly to the fresh and fancy 13-year-old Lula May and the racist portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi by Mickey Rooney, complete with buck teeth and pronouncing r's as l's, it wasn't too bad! The parts of the movie that we all found most shocking were how much everyone smoked and littered. They all smoked like chimneys and flicked their butts to the ground when they were done. And it wasn't just cigarettes being tossed asunder: there were other littering incidents in the movie, all of which caused gasps of disbelief from my kids, and later, laughter at the absurdity of it all.

My kids have never seen an adult family member willfully throw trash on the ground. I can imagine my kids doing plenty of things that will undoubtedly shock even me (please, God, don't let it be voting conservative), but I can say with all certainty that one thing they will never do is intentionally litter. Most of the kids I know wouldn't think of littering; it's just not in their brains as an option. There are many, many kids I know marginally — the ones who walk down my street or who we see at the playground — who think nothing of throwing their trash on the ground. I am perplexed by this. What thought pattern exists in their heads? When they make that decision to drop the Cheetos bag into someone's hosta bed, do they think, "My Cheetos bag is empty. I will throw it on the ground now." Or is there simply no thought at all? It is merely a reflex, a bad habit, one just as ingrained and subconscious as other children's inability to litter.

Last week I was at my neighborhood park with a group of friends and their children of varying ages, many of whom fall into the toddler classification. Every time we turned around a certain toddler had a drinking straw clenched in his fist, with the intention of fitting it into his mouth. A couple of us got up and started collecting the discarded drinking straws. I am not exaggerating: we picked up about 300 straws in about 10 minutes. What in the hell? Did someone bring a pallet of straws to the playground and then strew them around? Were they from some kind of ice cream available from the vulture-esque vendors that circle the playlots, looking to feed upon the weak and weary mothers who fish for change in order to end the screaming fits that the wicked ice-cream bells incite?

The bizarre fact is that most of the kids who litter come from homes that are probably 90 percent cleaner than mine. Maybe 98 percent. "Down with Housework!" is what I say (me and Erma Bombeck, that is). Not so my neighbors. On Saturdays the predominate smell in my neighborhood is a mixture of Pine Sol, Downy and Charcoal starter fluid. And yet, these same fastidiously neat and tidy people think nothing of chucking a bag of McPackaging out of the window, or leaving six empty Pennzoil bottles in a row at the base of the sycamore tree. And the kids do the same. Not a speck of dirt on their immaculate sport suits, but they can't hang onto a Twix wrapper to save their lives.

I can only imagine that for many children growing up in Chicago, it must seem like a lost cause. There is so much trash everywhere, and not a garbage can in sight, for the most part, so why bother? Sure the mean hippy lady on the street gets all uptight about kids throwing wrappers on the ground, but if your own parents don't care, and are big litterbugs too, well, heave ho! Add a little wacky "end times" Christianity to the mix and who cares whether or not we trash the place? We're all going to a better land! Where there are no Cheetos!

I don't remember celebrating Earth Day as a child, not even as part of my Girl Scout troop, notorious for do-gooding and conservation. I do remember Woodsy Owl and the Native American man who wept over the trash-strewn ravine. The Keep America Beautiful campaign was a hugely visible campaign in the 70's, and all the kids were down with the plan. Now there are ad campaigns coming at us left, right and center. You can't even buy gas without reading about how much the oil companies are doing for the poor slobs who inhabit the planet. But, where is Woodsy Owl? Where is the crying Native American man? Because I don't know that the green messages are getting through to the kids. Just because Amoco changed its name to the meaningless BP and redesigned its logo from go-go USA red white and blue to a caring, new-agey green and yellow mandala doesn't mean that the kids are getting it. There's no cartoon owl swooping around and squawking at us to "Give a hoot! Don't pollute!" What the green movement needs is a catchy slogan and some cheap animation.

In the late 20th century my friend Tom was riding his bike to work and some guy threw a bunch of trash out of his car window. Quick thinking Tom shouted "LITTERBUG!" and then the car stopped, and Tom rolled up on his bike. A little kid leaned out the window, yelled "F--k You!" and gave him the finger. Double Whammy!

Do you see how that's different from the '70s? In the '70s, that kid never would have said "F--k You!," especially not in front of his Dad. He would have said, "Up your nose with a rubber hose!" And, "litterbug." Does any kid even know what that means anymore? It's time to bring back the bug.

And now Earth Day has come and gone for another year. Like everyone, we've got our Earth Day plans — lots of biking, some major recycling, going to the Green Festival, cleaning up in the forest preserve, going to the zoo for the Green Apple Music Festival. It's going to be a great weekend — one of those action-packed warm-weather weekends that will seem to us, and to many, like the official start of the non-stop party that is summer in Chicago.

I do believe that every year the Earth Day message gets stronger, and more and more people are getting involved, but when does it move beyond a day? Let's have Earth Year, or Earth Decade. Let's not just have a holiday.

I think I feel cynical about Earth Day because for us, and for a lot of people I know, every day really is Earth Day. Our lives are actually based on a bumper sticker. I do make conscious choices about what I buy and how it's packaged, where it comes from and how it's grown. We recycle, we garden, we bike, we use public transportation and we carpool whenever possible. I Vote For The Environment. We Act Locally, and Think Globally. There, two more bumper stickers we can check off our list.

Chicago is getting internationally hyped as a Green City. I am not sure that I'm willing to jump on that bandwagon yet, because, guess what? We don't have a working recycling program! When I can set my paper, plastic and glass out and believe that they are being recycled, and see that all of my neighbors are actively participating in a recycling program, then I'll believe that we deserve our green label. At some point everyone is going to have to stop acting like there is no tomorrow, so why don't we get on that, Mr. Mayor, today?

A friend of mine just told me she was going to spend Earth Day at her computer, going to a paperless billing system. That's an easy commitment everyone can make. It's about changing they way we all do the little things, like shopping, driving and paying bills, and not just for one day, but for good. So when your kids grow up and have kids, being green won't just be something they only do for a little while in April, but will be a lifestyle so ingrained that there just won't be any other option. Every day will be Earth Day.


Unfortunately, this thrilling episode of "Kids Ride Free" has come out after Earth Day. There was no shortage of fun stuff happening all over the place this weekend, so here are a few ways for all of us and our kids to be involved in the greening of Chicago year round:

Demand a working recycling program in your ward.

Join the Chicago Recycling Coalition.

Adopt a beach.

Volunteer at a nature center.

Buy locally grown produce. Ask where the produce in your grocery store comes from and request that they buy locally. A & G Fresh Market carries Michigan-grown apples almost year round.



Bookmark and visit the City of Chicago Department of the Environment webpage frequently to take advantage of the many programs they offer, but don't seem to advertise very well. For example, did you know that April 28th is household chemicals and computer recycling day at Devry? Me neither!

Recycle all batteries at any Chicago Public Library or Walgreens store. Keep a jar on your counter, and you will be amazed at how quickly it fills up. Get rechargeable batteries.

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About the Author(s)

Lori Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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