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The Lincolnville Blog

Keeping the Beach Clean

Diane O'brien - Monday, June 29, 2015

When our youngest son was about 13 he needed a job; the town needed someone to pick up Lincolnville Beach. It seemed a perfect match, with me the go-between — the contractor I was called — since our son was too young for the town to hire. But as his mother, I could hire him to work for me, the contractor. It was a cozy arrangement, and one that worked for a couple of years. Until, that is, he started to hate the job, the early morning nature of it (6:30 a.m.), the humiliation of it (carrying a little bucket for cigarette butts), and the relentlessness of it (every day).

Before that second August, his father and I had taken over and have picked up the Beach every summer since, some 23 years. That’s a lot of cigarette butts, trash bags, and miles walked. That’s also a lot of time thinking, because the work isn’t particularly challenging. We cover the same territory for 151 days each year. If you’re ever down there at 6:30 on a summer morning, you see we have a routine. Wally empties the five trash cans that line the seawalls, while I walk the parking area, sidewalks and the Beach itself, picking up litter.

Almost none of our “clients”, the folks we’re cleaning up after, are ever on the Beach at 6:30 a.m. Back in the late 1990s and early aughts we used to dodge pickups full of workmen, stopping by for their first cup of coffee at the Beach Store, meeting up with their crew before heading out to the job.  It was the heyday of the MBNA halo, when gravel trucks hauling away rock from Ducktrap Mountain endlessly lumbered up and down our roads. Cement trucks, their drums turning, were on constant call to pour foundations, and every other vehicle was a tool-packed pickup heading out to some job.

Then came the late aughts. The larger economy nearly collapsed, MBNA disappeared, and with it most of the construction jobs. Since then, the Beach parking lot is virtually empty of guys going to work in the early morning hours. Interestingly, an empty house in our neighborhood has become a summer parking lot for workers heading to Islesboro; it’s much cheaper than the $10 fee charged in the state ferry lot.

Could this be our local manifestation of the one percenters versus the 99 percenters? Plenty of work over on that narrow, seven-mile-long island each spring, getting summer houses ready for the season. Ride the ferry any week-day morning and watch all the painters and carpenters and landscapers filling the seats.

Anyway, we generally have the parking lot to ourselves, except for the occasional traveler making a pit stop at our town Porta-potties, or perhaps someone parked facing the sea, starting their day with a few minutes of reflection. Some are so regular we greet each other every day; for several years a middle-aged guy with a ponytail and a bad leg pulled up on a huge motorcycle, to smoke and look at the water for five minutes. We only nodded in all those years of early morning communion before he slowly rode out of the parking lot, off to a day of something else.

I carry the little pail my son once dreaded, starting my rounds at the Porta-potty kiosk/information board, straightening up the community bulletin board, tracking down the pushpins that have blown off with their posters. Back in the day, before there was a kiosk or even a Porta-potty at Lincolnville Beach, there was a pay phone. Remember? When you got off the Concord bus at 10:30 at night, coming back from a week-end in Boston or a semester at college, you headed for the pay phone to tell the folks to come pick you up.

That phone used to be my first stop, checking for quarters. I was excited to find one, then agonized over what was the right thing to do. Stuff it back into the phone so Ma Bell would find it, or stuff it in my own pocket? One year I found three. I was never sure what ethical route to take here, so I pocketed them, and then crowed to my husband. We are unashamedly competitive when it comes to finding money on our rounds. One day I picked up seven pennies in separate spots. Once I found a twenty dollar bill. We go weeks without finding a cent. We find at least one wallet a season, and have managed to locate the owners every time. One year we picked up three paychecks from the wet pavement, all of them sodden, took them home and hung them up over the stove to dry, until their sheepish owners showed up to claim them.

Some things may surprise you: People rarely leave large, obvious trash on the Beach, such as cups from Dunkin Donuts or Happy Meal containers or even pizza boxes from the store across the street that sells them. I can go days without finding anything bigger than the palm of my hand. Rarely do I find napkins, paper plates, cans, or bottles on the Beach. Almost never anything nasty; in 23 years maybe two dirty diapers, a couple of condoms at the most, no hypodermic needles, although last week I found a thong. I do pick up dog poop every once in a while, scooping it into my little pail with a stick, a testament, I think to the efficacy of public opinion. These days people expect dog owners to carry a little plastic bag and pick up the poop; it would be socially unacceptable to leave it there, unless of course, no one is looking.

 But what I do pick up tells me something about the folks I never see, the people who use “our” Beach. Lots of food stuff — gum wrappers crumpled into tiny balls, the spat-out gum (which I pry up from the pavement several times each day), sticky lumps of hard candy also spat-out and which I also pry up, sliced tomatoes and onions presumably discarded from Italian sandwiches, shreds of candy wrappers and potato chip bags which have been cleverly buried in the sand, but which are revealed when the wind blows away the sand, credit card register slips, the remains of a lobster feed, banana peels, great drifts of peanut or pistachio shells (another moral dilemma: do I really have to pick up every one? They’re biodegradable after all). I’m pretty sure people think the seagulls will eat the leavings of their feast, much as I toss an apple core out of the car window, because I convince myself the deer will eat it.

Band aids are a big item, and I find one nearly every day. They’re usually curled into a circle. They come off someone’s toe, I suppose. Little girl shoes are another common find; they used to be those jelly shoes children wore into the water. Then we found tiny crocs, all their holes carefully filled with charms. Today, fancy flip flops are popular. How do these kids get from the beach to the car without someone noticing they don’t have their shoes on? We always set them carefully on the top of the trash containers, hopeful the parents will come back looking for them. They almost never do, and after a few days we pitch them. Camera cases (never a camera inside), beach towels, T-shirts, underwear, glasses — we find them all, and give them their chance on top of the trash containers before throwing them away.

Beer caps (and the bottles and cans Wally finds in the trash cans), cigarette butts and the ends of joints are left by different clients, I imagine. Sometimes I decide to count the butts as I pick them up, but always lose track somewhere around 20 or 25, and I haven’t even left the parking lot. I find them everywhere. They’re confetti under the benches, testament to a really long, soulful gaze-at-the-sea; they’re stubbed out in the sand, carelessly tossed off the seawall to burn down to an ash, or cunningly hidden in the rock wall. The filters eventually turn to a fiberous mass, but they never completely decompose! At least once a summer I find a marathon smoke-out, 15 or 20 (a whole pack!) of the same brand, all sticking out of the sand in a neat little group. What terrible problem, broken heart, or perhaps bad bender was worked out on this spot I wonder the next morning as I count the butts into my pail. And what do those lungs feel like today?

  I actually don’t resent the cigarette butts that I bend over to pick up dozens of times a morning. It’s my karma, I say, for the thousands of butts I carelessly tossed during my 11 years of binge smoking, starting at age 15. I smoked in the house, in the office, at restaurants, in the teachers’ room, in cars full of people, at my own wedding, and never gave it a thought. Everything I owned must have reeked of cigarettes. So now, as I clean up after other smokers, I feel sorry for their addiction, and grateful for my release from it.

One morning I spotted something metallic sticking out of the sand; I have good, practiced eyes for what doesn’t belong here amongst the pearly mussel shells, bright white clam shell fragments and flotsam of the sea. I picked it up, a dog tag-like disk printed with the name of a local crematorium and an ID number. I turned it over and over, wondering, as I often do, how such a thing got there, until I realized, oh, of  course. The Beach plays an important role in people’s lives. It is the edge of the sea, the home to birds and creatures we barely understand. Stuff washes in from who-knows-where with no story clinging to it. The Beach is a natural place to say a final good-bye to a loved one. And then to leave a small memento behind for me to pick up.

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