I see her each day. Stooping to pick up a stray candy wrapper and putting it in her bulging bag of trash. This is a busy road, 2 lanes of traffic with frazzled people zooming by in fancy cars, windows rolled up. No sidewalk or even a safe shoulder for pedestrians. So she walks in the ditch, eyes scanning, for more trash to pick up.
A few months ago she started wearing an orange safety vest, which made me feel a little better, but I still worry about her, clinging so closely to the edge of this windy road, even in the rain. In seven years, I have never seen another person walking on this road.
Again and again, I wonder about her story. This is not an “Adopt a Highway” zone. The vast area she covers surely stretches far beyond whichever weedy, gravely strip adjoins her own property.
Maybe she’s just a concerned citizen. She looks like a soccer mom. My grandpa would have done something like this-- taken a strip of earth and made it his responsibility, day after day, year after year. But he was an old man, a man of earlier times. He also amassed large balls of twine and saved tin foil. He had a vice-grip handshake and looked you straight in the eye when he spoke to you.
In today’s warp-speed culture, the trash-picking lady, who looks to be just a few years older than I am, strikes an odd cord. When I invent her story in my brain, which I have the chance to do every day as the kids and I whiz past on the way home from school, I imagine a woman who is broken, but who finds a way to put things back together by walking, and searching, and making something ugly a little bit more beautiful. I imagine her task as a gift to the world, as a prayer, a meditation, and yes, a compulsion.
Her task of cleaning will never be complete, because there’s always another beer bottle or plastic bag out there. I don’t know how long she works each day, but I have driven by 2, even 3 hours after school pick-up time and she’s still there, further down the road, leaning and picking and walking. Her daily experience seems far different from those of us who zoom by on the way to this and that.
I guess it’s a sad commentary that when I see someone doing good for the world, I imagine she must be wrestling with inner demons, something much bigger than an old newspaper caught in the branches of a tree. I imagine that she's putting something back together, with every piece of trash she picks up.
Today is the last day of school for my kids. But I know the trash lady will be there, through the heat of the summer, doing what she needs to do.