Not to pat myself on the back, but I recently took time out of my hectic schedule to make downtown Dallas a more beautiful place for us all, including orphans and cancer patients and mistreated puppy dogs with floppy, soft ears. News had come to me of an ugly problem that plagues our fair city. This past summer, agents of the Downtown Dallas organization studied cigarette butt litter. In a six-block area, on a single day, they counted 2,500 butts thrown onto our streets and sidewalks. Cigarette filters, you’ll be interested to learn, are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic that can take 10 years to decompose. Ick. So Downtown Dallas took part in a national pilot program. During the month of September, the outfit handed out 2,000 pocket ashtrays and set up 20 butt receptacles downtown.
All well and fine. But it seemed to me that this program missed the mark. The thing is, people don’t litter butts because they can’t find an ashtray—or at least not primarily for that reason. People litter butts because they have no shame. They’re numb to the feeling of disgrace. They do it for the same reason they behave like jackasses at the movies, carrying on a conversation while the picture is running.
So I developed my own pilot program. I secured an industrial-strength bullhorn and headed downtown to save the city. (Watch the video at www.dmagazine.com/video.)
On a sunny afternoon, I launched Operation Shame on Pacific Avenue, near DART headquarters. The first two smoking pedestrians I tailed turned out to be ashtray-using model citizens. Then I spotted a smoking man seated at the Akard stop, waiting for a train. With the bullhorn strapped over my shoulder, I surveilled him from a safe distance. He was large and bore a cleanly shaved head. And he was a litterbug.
When he flicked his butt onto the tracks, I said into the bullhorn’s handheld mic, "LITTERBUG." I walked toward him and said it again: "LITTERBUG." I am not using an exclamation point because I did not yell "litterbug." But understand: the bullhorn was loud. "SIR, YOU DROPPED SOMETHING."
"What did I drop?" he said. It wasn’t a question. It was a challenge.
"THAT RIGHT THERE." I pointed to the butt. People were now staring. "LITTERBUG. THAT’S AGAINST THE RULES."
He said he’d thrown it on the ground because he didn’t want to start a fire in a trash can. I reminded him of the existence of ashtrays. By now he refused to look at me, but not out of shame. More like he was scanning the area to see if there were any cops before he kicked me in the throat.
"NEXT TIME, JUST THINK ABOUT IT," I said. "THAT’S ALL I’M ASKING. ’PRECIATE IT."
I moved on to a smoker who looked less menacing. She, too, was waiting for a train. Redhead, late 20s. I pretended to read an Observer, until I saw her casually drop her butt. Again, I sprang into action. "LITTERBUG. YOU DROPPED SOMETHING." But this exchange ended differently. The woman claimed she’d "set the cigarette down" and planned to pick it up. "PUT YOUR HAND OVER YOUR HEART AND PROMISE," I ordered. When she did, I said, "I LOVE YOU," which sounded strange. So I added: "THANK YOU."
My mouth was nervous. But no one ever said that defending the city would be easy.
I figured Operation Shame needed one more encounter to be considered a success. A smoker standing on the corner of Field and Elm appeared an ideal target. Five feet tall. Maybe 70 years old. She looked shameless.
I followed her across Field Street. Just as she turned to enter Renaissance Tower, she threw her butt—more like half a cigarette—into Elm Street.
"MA’AM?" I said politely. She turned. "LITTERBUG."
She said there weren’t any ashtrays nearby. So I picked up her still-smoking butt and marched up to the entrance to prove her wrong. You know what, though? She was right. And I had to schlep her Marlboro to the nearest test receptacle, back across the street.
Really, I don’t expect any special recognition, like a certificate from the mayor that I can hang in my office. Just knowing I’ve made a difference is reward enough. You’re welcome, you filthy smokers.