After the constant complaints about the "terrible young people of today", some might think it a refreshing change to encounter sociopathic old ladies. Speaking for myself, however, I found it to be a profoundly depressing experience.
We've spent the last month-and-a-half in Berkeley. It's a town that seems to be populated with an abundance of generous and friendly people. In fact, in numerous ways, it's a truly lovely place. My only real gripes are the poverty (as I've already mentioned here ) -- and, it has to be said, the astonishing amount of litter.
I suppose, to be fair, the actual quantity of litter isn't so appalling. But it's such a shame to see the playgrounds and public gardens of Berkeley made ugly with discarded cigarette packets and take-away wrappers. As a result of our dislike of this uglification, Bob-the-Toddler and I devised our own mini-campaign to clean up the town. Whenever we spotted any litter, we would immediately pick it up -- placing it into a plastic bag for eventual disposal in a proper rubbish bin. Our tidying was, of course, always accompanied by a suitably brain-washing commentary from me: "Look at all these McDonald's wrappers that some untidy person has left behind, Bob", "Imagine spoiling such a lovely park with litter", and so on.
We arrived back in Christchurch yesterday morning, and attempted to ward off our jet-lag with a stroll along the promenade at Sumner. Feeling virtuous after exercising, we then decided to treat ourselves to lunch at a café -- sitting at an outside table where, coincidentally, a car-load of elderly ladies had parked beside the curb.
These were not, I should emphasize, your typical saintly old dears. Each had a cigarette dangling from her mouth, and all three of them were shovelling Moro Bars (or similarly nutritious items) into their gobs as fast as they could. One of them -- who must have been 75 years old at the very least -- finished her food, wound down the window, and tossed the wrapper onto the ground. It lay there, ruffling in the breeze, no more than three metres from a rubbish bin.
I was astonished by her actions -- not only in throwing litter onto the street, but the nerve of doing so in front of a crowd of observers. It occurred to me that perhaps I should say something. But then I thought about the age of the woman, and I wondered if her actions had been simple absentmindedness. Furthermore, it has to be said that I'm a scruffy-looking guy, and I certainly didn't want to frighten or intimidate her.
Unfortunately, however, litter was now blowing around in the gutter -- and I was also mindful of the example that I was setting to Bob-the-Toddler. So in the end, without saying anything at all, I stood up, collected the rubbish, and meekly put it in the bin.
I've read about the 'killer faces' of gangsters and assassins, but I'd never expected to be on the receiving end of a death-stare from three old ladies. Apparently my little rubbish collection hadn't met with their approval. For the rest of our meal they fixed me with their beady little eyes -- clearly willing me to choke on my food and die in front of them. It was an enormous relief when we finally finished our lunch, and I was able to escape their gaze.
As we walked away from the café, I happened to glance back over my shoulder. The old lady litterer was winding down her window -- and she proceeded to toss out a real-estate newspaper. In the Canterbury breeze, the newspaper immediately started to separate into its component pages, and began to blow like tumbleweed down the street.
I handed Bob-the-Toddler to his mother, raced down the footpath, collected the newspaper, and stuffed it into the rubbish bin. Then I went up to the window of the car -- with, might I say, pretty remarkable calmness -- and said to the old lady: "This is a beautiful beach. Why do you want to ruin it with your litter?"
"Fuck off," she shouted at me. And both her evil old lady friends joined in as well -- and screamed a torrent of obscenities out of their respective windows.
It was a surreal situation. Faced with the astonishing scenario of elderly ladies acting like delinquent teenagers, I found myself somehow morphing into a scolding school teacher -- which led me to make the lamest possible proclamation, in title case (like this): "Your Behaviour Is Disgraceful!"
The old lady litterer's eyes bulged, and she opened her mouth even wider, and then she shrieked her rebuttal at me: "You're the one who's disgraceful -- picking up rubbish." And the evil old lady at the wheel gunned her engine, and they all roared off in their car.
I confess to being slightly shocked by the whole incident. For the first time in my life, the phrase: "What is the world coming to" entered my head. When little old ladies start throwing litter on the streets, and swearing like troopers -- you have to ask yourself: what hope is there for our society?
Perhaps -- it occured to me later -- they weren't elderly women at all, but rather space aliens disguised as old ladies on a reconnoitre of Planet Earth. It's true, certainly, that they bore more than a passing resemblance to Jabba The Hutt. But I suspect that real aliens would never be able to master the intricacies of the New Zealand vowel system; not to mention the more recondite forms of obscenity.
I'm aware that littering is hardly the worst crime on the statute books. Even so, I think you should have the grace to feel ashamed when you're caught doing it. And, alas, I feel that this encounter will hardly have made these people modify their behaviour in future.
Which leaves me with the question: what could I have done differently? How could I have communicated to them (and have them listen and understand) that it isn't okay to throw your rubbish in the street? Or am I just being ridiculously uptight about the whole thing? Even perhaps -- as they seemed to be implying -- depriving them of their right to litter.
If you have any suggestions, let me know...
Note: Yes, the author does realize that this is the second time in as many weeks that total strangers have screamed abuse at him.