By: Doron Levine  | 

Consider Dirt

The average mile of US highway is dotted with sixteen thousand pieces of trash. Each of these discarded items costs about thirty cents to pick up and dispose of. The cents quickly add up: in 2013, litter removal cost American taxpayers more than eleven billion dollars. The average New Yorker generates 2.9 pounds of garbage every day, and the city expels over twenty-eight billion pounds of waste annually.

When it comes to litter, New York City has a particularly colorful history. New York City’s Rikers Island prison, which sits in the east river alongside the runways of LaGuardia Airport, is built on a massive landfill. After the City acquired the property in 1884, it artificially quintupled the island’s size by loading solid waste onto garbage scows, shipping it out into the river, and dumping it onto the island.

In the early 1900s, legions of rats began to invade the putrid island. The prison’s superintendent brought in dogs to fight the vermin, and among these dogs was a large hungry Irish terrier named Battle-axe Bill which had, according to the New York Times a “hatred for the Island’s invaders” and a “proper fighting spirit.” But Bill met a gruesome end; in 1915, the savage rodents, born and bred on mounds of New York’s noxious waste, banded together, cornered Battle-axe Bill, and devoured him.

But even as New York City’s Department of Sanitation, which now boasts over two thousand collection trucks, over seven thousand uniformed workers, and four hundred fifty mechanical street cleaners, has taken great pains to improve its treatment and disposal of waste, the recalcitrant citizenry does not always comply; pervasive littering still sullies many city streets.

Littering in New York is punishable by a fine of up to three hundred fifty dollars for the first offense and up to seven hundred dollars for subsequent offences. But despite this monetary disincentive, and despite the twenty five thousand trashcans that line the city’s avenues and streets, NYC has always had trouble combatting the litterati. In 1880, the year before the Department of Street Cleaning was established, around fifteen thousand discarded dead horses were removed from New York City’s gutters and alleyways. In 1895, Civil War officer Colonel George Waring took over as commissioner of the Department of Street Cleaning (Theodore Roosevelt was offered the position, but he turned it down) and he began a process of sanitation reform that has served as a model for many other cities and, to this day, continues to inspire new strategies to combat littering. Here’s a counterintuitive example: the MTA recently announced that it will be removing garbage cans from subway stations as a measure to combat rampant littering. Go figure.

YU suffers from a similar surplus of rubbish. Abandoned half-drunk cups of lukewarm Dunkin’ Donuts coffee sulk in the shadowy corners of the Heights Lounge. Rectangular tins encrusted with the congealed residue of Saturday-night Golan greet the drowsy attendees of Sunday’s 8:30am shacharit. Plates covered in stale crumbs and drenched in Lake Como pizza oil decorate the metal tables in Nagels, the sad remnants of a cheerful meal. And many a desk in Furst is marked with a sticky ring of dried Snapple, permanently branded as the location of a mid-class quaff.

But YU’s filth transcends discarded wrappers and neglected pizza plates. Even the furniture in YU has a certain disordered fluidity to it. Students and professors freely rearrange desks into fancy classroom conformations, and drag chairs in and out of rooms without bothering to return them. There is no sense of reverence for the ordered arrangement of the university’s furniture.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Heights Lounge. The lounge began as a space with distinct boundaries: square rugs divided the main floor area into ten equivalent sections with a proper portion of couch-space delicately distributed onto each carpet. Sofas and plush single-seaters were appropriately arrayed in a mathematically balanced layout designed for geometric socializing and studying. But this delicate harmony soon fell into disarray; students now freely rearrange the seating to optimize it for their personal use. A group of students will often usurp three or even four sofas, dragging them onto a single carpet for a group study session and neglecting to return them afterwards.

Sitting amidst this anarchy, I recently had the embarrassing experience of watching an exceptionally muscular member of the janitorial staff struggle to return the lounge to its original state. He sweated as he hoisted chairs and hauled sofas with a look of grim resignation, knowing that his efforts would soon be undone by the insuperable forces of chaos.

This disorder is problematic, and not just because of its aesthetic distastefulness.

Consider dirt.

When we say that something is dirty, what do we mean? We do not merely mean to say that a given object or space is coated with particles of brown soil. A dirty room is cluttered with clothes, toiletries, and trinkets, but not necessarily with soil per se. The floor of a dirty van is covered in crumpled papers, scratched CD’s, and unfinished lollipops. Are we misspeaking when we call these spaces dirty?

Well, what is dirt? It is made of rock, clay, and sand. it is made of wood, decomposed plants, and worm excrement, earwax, dead skin, potato chips, plastic, pizza, and infinitesimal particles of everything imaginable. Dirt is the entropy of all physical stuff. If you were to place the earth into a giant blender and run it on high for a few minutes, you would soon be left with a blender full of dirt (or mud). Dirt is the result of everything losing its identity and mushing together into a formless mass.

Hamlet reaches the pinnacle of pessimism when he ironically calls man a “quintessence of dust.” Dust—formless, uniform, and unchanging—has no quintessence. God said to Adam, “To dust you shall return”. You shall die and disintegrate, whereupon you shall become part of that vast brown mulligan of ground up stuff that we call earth. You shall lose your identity. By uniting with that which is composed of everything, you shall become nothing.

Dirt is the final, most extreme stage of the process of deindividuation. If dirt is tiny particles of everything mixed together into one mass, then a cluttered morass of clothes and toiletries on the floor of your room is dirt on a larger scale. Whenever disparate individual things mix together into a larger heap, the individual things begin to lose their identity and the process of degeneration into dirt begins.

Therefore, clean, neat people take great pains to ensure that things stay separate and distinct. They keep their books arranged neatly on shelves, their Risk pieces organized by colors, and their cutlery sorted in separate compartments because they know that clutter is dirt and dirt is entropy and entropy is death.

Boundaries are critical in this struggle against dirt. Items must be kept vivid and separate, lest they conglomerate into a dull brown slop, blurring of the sharp lines of reality. Thus when we use the word “dirty” to describe disorganized clutter, we are speaking quite accurately. This is why I do not like littering, and this is why I want people to respect the layout of the couches in the Heights Lounge. But I do not think that students rearrange the furniture because they do not care about this institution and therefore feel free to sully it.

Here we must make an important distinction between two types of littering. The first is motivated by disregard for a certain environment and the lack of a sense of ownership and responsibility to keep it clean. When a person drops an empty Doritos bag or a cigarette butt in Central Park, he is engaging in this littering of apathy. He is motivated by convenience and the immediate lack of garbage receptacles, and he expects to never see this piece of trash again; someone else will deal with it. This type of litterer fails to internalize Garrett Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. If everyone would imitate this litterer’s behavior, Central Park would soon look like a landfill. He likely prefers Central Park debris-free, so when he litters, he implicitly hopes that someone else will pick up after him. He expects that other people will act more responsibly than he, and this is inexcusable.

But, interestingly enough, there is another type of space that people often leave dirty: personal space. People often leave clutter in their own homes, their own backpacks, and their own rooms. Keeping things distinct and separate is lively and invigorating, but also exhausting. So in places people are familiar with, places where they feel relaxed and “at home,” they are able to take a deep breath and forget about keeping things perfectly individuated. When a person leaves dirty laundry on the floor of his room, he does not expect that someone else will clean it up—quite to the contrary—he can reasonably assume that he is the only person who will ever have occasion to tidy his room. But a person leaves his room messy not out of passive indifference, but because he loves his room, because it is his.

His bedroom is cozier this way – a crisply made bed may be reassuringly clean, but there is something uncomfortably austere about it until you throw back the covers and snuggle. A teenager’s mother scolds him for not cleaning up his room. Maybe he ideally prefers it clean, but he leaves it messy because its clutter is part of its character. This notebook, that baseball hat, this old camp T-shirt—each item in the mess carries a story.

We might question the humanity of a person whose room is too neat. Doesn't he ever just throw off his clothes and jump into bed? Doesn't he ever lose track of his stuff? Must everything always be perfectly in place?

So here we have two paradigms of littering: littering of apathy and littering of love. Littering of apathy is destructive to a society and is also indicative of the breakdown of social responsibility and cohesion. But I suspect that much of the littering in YU is of the second type. Because unlike almost every other university in the United States, YU is the scholastic center of a community. It is largely run, staffed, and attended by members of a relatively insular and tight-knit ideological group. We feel comfortable shifting furniture, napping on public couches, singing loudly in the halls, and leaving behind a mess because, for all its quirks, imperfections, and financial misfortunes, this place is ours.