I saw the shard of plastic while walking with my friend Erin. It was on the sidewalk at the corner of Spring Street and 6th Avenue, and with its black background and multi-colored circles it was instantly recognizable: the corner piece of an NYC condom wrapper.
Ah, the telltale corner piece. How many secret trysts have been exposed because the corner piece was accidentally left behind? This particular bit was an odd-shaped strip, long and narrow. Its distinctive silhouette made me start to ponder the nature of trash. It seems so random—pesky, ineradicable, like roaches or rats—but it’s actually very specific. That piece of condom wrapper, now just litter, had been, for a moment, an important object to at least two people.
I wondered who they had been. Were they dating? Strangers? Maybe a new couple, waiting for their test results before they took their commitment to the level of condomless. I imagined the wrapper’s passage from pocket to pavement. What journey it had taken from bedroom, rooftop or bar bathroom to the concrete corner of Spring and 6th. Had it fluttered from a passing garbage truck or been tracked out of a Dumpster by a scurrying rat?
Since the launch of the health department’s blitzkrieg safe sex operation last Valentine’s Day, the city has been immersed in the kitschy, ode-to-public-transportation condoms. The Health Department aimed to distribute 18 million of them in 2007, making them so ubiquitous they may someday prove a key artifact for archaeologists reconstructing the early years of this millennium New York City life.
I can’t argue with readily available condoms, but I’d recently been reading about the problem of plastic. Hundreds of billions of pounds of it are manufactured every year, and it takes thousands of years to biodegrade. Plastic bags collect under our kitchen sinks in never-ending supply, while in Bangladesh they collect in drainage systems, causing floods that devastate villages.
Last month, the City Council passed a bill requiring stores of a certain size to offer plastic bag recycling, and fashionistas have been pounding the Soho pavement sporting “This is Not a Plastic Bag” totes. A blob of plastic debris twice the size of Texas floats out in a low-pressure area of the Pacific Ocean, infiltrating and poisoning the food chain. I imagined the little black, red and yellow strip out there, among Aquafina bottles and My Little Ponies, faded from the sun and about to be gobbled by a dolphin.
Later, Erin and I met our friend for dinner and, after a couple of drinks, David changed the subject: “The funniest thing happened today,” he began. Throughout the day at work, there was something in his shoe, irritating his foot. Finally, when he went out for lunch, he took the shoe off on the sidewalk and dumped it out. “You’ll never guess what fell out,” he said. “A condom wrapper!”
We laughed, imagining David fumbling with his shoe and looking around to see if anyone had noticed. Then he added, “Of course, it wasn’t the entire condom wrapper, just that little corner piece.”
I nearly jumped out of my chair. David works on the corner of Spring and 6th.
“Wait!” I said. “Was it an NYC condom? A weird, narrow, sort of oblong strip?”
“Yeah!” he said.
“I saw that and I thought of you!” Erin interjected. I had no idea she had also noticed the sliver on the street. “I always associate NYC condoms with you, since that time you pocketed a whole bunch at the bar, and I yelled at you for abusing the system.”
“Weird. I had this whole derailed train of thought about it, too,” I admitted. “About how it got there and who had used it, and where it would end up.”
“Well, I can answer the first part of that question,” David said. The last time he’d worn his green slip-on Vans was two weeks prior, when he’d hooked up with a performance artist he’d been going out with at the time but has since kicked to the curb. As he is prone to after a couple of drinks, David then launched into the juicy details.
Now the hypothetical couple I’d wondered about was a little too real. The chance that the sex act I’d been vaguely imagining would include one of my best friends had not occurred to me. Eighteen million plastic possibilities, dispersed into coat pockets and nightstand drawers across five boroughs, and I’d come face to face with one that had a traceable history. If the coincidence weren’t so amazing, I might have preferred this piece of trash remained anonymous—like trash should be.
But I’d first learned this point as a third grader, indignant that my front yard was littered with beer cans and Big Mac wrappers: Trash isn’t anonymous. We shuttle it from can to curb encased in plastic, the nasty reality of it hidden from view. But it doesn’t come from nowhere—it comes from our everyday habits, indulgences and necessities. And it doesn’t go nowhere, either. After all, performance artists may come and go, but plastic is forever.
Jessanne Collins hoards plastic bags in Jersey City and writes odes to the phallic form for a living at Playgirl magazine.