Essay: About the garbage

It seems that I owe this country an apology. It's a pleasure.

hillel halkin 88 (photo credit: )
hillel halkin 88
(photo credit: )
It seems that I owe this country an apology. It's a pleasure. A while back, you may remember, before Succot, I wrote a column in these pages about garbage. Lots of it. Garbage everywhere: in our streets, along our roads, in our fields, on our beaches. A national disgrace. Israelis littered to their hearts' content and nothing was done about it. The filth mounted and was never cleaned up. Sure, there were laws, but no one took them seriously, least of all the police. Who, I asked, had ever gotten, or heard of anyone getting, a summons for littering in Israel? And part of the reason for the problem, I pointed out, was that the authorities did not provide proper waste disposal facilities. My own town of Zichron Ya'akov, for example, did not have a garbage dump. I even made a personal confession. The day before writing my column, I wrote, I had cleaned up my yard. I then took what I had collected - useless tools, old sacks, broken planters, punctured pails, all the flotsam and jetsam of a garden - loaded it into my old station wagon, and drove off like a good Israeli to find an appropriate spot to dump it. For good measure I took along some old cartons and a plastic garbage bag full of paper waste, even though the town does have a bin for such stuff. I have said that we do not have a dump, but we used to. It was on the east side of the Zichron-Binyamina road, at the bottom of the hill coming down from Zichron. Although it was shut down years ago, people still throw their trash there. There's always a pile of it visible from the road as you drive by. And in fact, there was lots of it when I got there. I parked near several cartons of rotting food and emptied my load beside them. At least, I told myself, I wasn't making anything look worse. You couldn't have made this particular spot look worse if you tried. THE FOLLOWING night - I had sent in my column that morning - the telephone rang. "It's for you," my wife said. "Halkin?" "Yes?" It was not the kind of voice that's usually at the end of the line in such situations - the smooth voice of the man wanting to know if he can ask you a few questions about your favorite shaving cream, the smarmy voice of the woman hitting you for another charity. It was a rough-hewn voice, hoarse around the edges. "I'm an enforcement agent from the Nature Authority. You can guess why I'm calling." I certainly could. "I have no idea," I said. "Listen," said the voice, "you may as well cut that out. I've got you dead to rights. You're the stupidest litterer I've ever seen. Your name and address were on a dozen envelopes in that bag of papers." "That just goes to show I didn't think I did anything wrong," I said. "I dumped my stuff where everyone does." "The others weren't as stupid," said the voice. "Do you know the fine you'll pay if I give you a summons? It's people like you who ruin Nature for everyone." "What Nature? It was a refuse heap." "It was out-of-doors in an interurban area. That's Nature. But look, I'm a soft-hearted Jew. I don't want to ruin your holiday. Go back tomorrow morning, clean up the mess you made, and I'll let you off this time." "I'll be glad to if you just tell me what to do with it," I said. "Where am I supposed to throw it?" "That's isn't my problem," the voice replied. "I'm Nature. Ask your town. And I want that spot clean tomorrow morning." "I'll take back what I dumped." "You'll take everything." "What?" I WOULD have needed a small truck to haul it all away. We did what's always done in Israel: We negotiated. In the end my sentence was reduced to what I had dumped plus some cartons of rotten vegetables. I loaded it all into the station wagon, called the mayor's office, and asked what to do with it. "Just leave it in the street near your house," I was told. "But that's littering!" "Yes, we know. But don't worry. We'll clean it up eventually." I left it in the street near my house - tools, sacks, planters, pails, rotten vegetables, and all - and after a couple of days, during which the only noticeable interest taken in it was by the flies and cats, it indeed disappeared. Kol hakavod! It may not be the way it's done in California, but had I wanted to live in California, I wouldn't have built a house in Zichron. But wait. That's not the end. Last week a friend from France happened to be visiting. It was one of those gorgeous days we've been having and he suggested taking a walk along the cliffs and beaches north of Nahsholim. I had written about that stretch of coastline in my column, too. It was, I said there, the most beautiful seacoast in Israel - or would be if it weren't for the garbage strewn all over it. The garbage was awful. "Are you sure that's what you want to do?" I asked. It's always embarrassing to take visitors to such places. He was sure. We drove down to the beach. Dear readers, what can I tell you? As if by a magic wand, the garbage was gone. There wasn't a trace of it. We walked on the cliffs and we walked on the beaches, and there was nothing but sea and sky and land the way God had made them - if one excepts, that is, the impressive excavations at Dor, which get bigger every year, as if they were being built, stone by stone, not up into the air but down into the ground. A day or two later I read in the papers that a massive clean-up campaign was being carried out along our coast. Tons of garbage had already being hauled away. Israel, I apologize. At least until the next time.