As we walked along our neighborhood’s main street this afternoon, my four-year-old son asked me about a strange-looking contraption on the sidewalk. I explained that it’s for the safe, sanitary disposal of cigarette butts. Sadly, Nicholas knows all about cigarettes, even though nobody in our family smokes them, because in our urban habitat we routinely see people smoking and butts scattered over every outdoor surface. Before he could talk, he was pointing and gasping in shock at smokers dropping burning things on the ground and just walking away.
Today, after completing his inspection of the contraption, Nicholas was about to resume walking when he demanded, “Well, if that’s the place to put cigarettes, then what’s that doing there?!” A butt lay on the sidewalk less than six feet away. I said, “Some people seem to think those just disappear.” Nick grumbled, “They don’t! There’s another…three…four…”
We started counting the cigarette butts on the sidewalk of each block. Within seconds, we became amazed at just how many there are: thirty-nine from where we started to the corner; fifty-six in the next block; eighty-seven in one block!! Eeeuww! Even though we’d been freaked out by smokers’ careless behavior all along, we’d never really looked at just how many of these toxic, germy, ugly things are littering the sidewalks (and curbs and gutters and grates and window ledges and flowerbeds) of our beloved neighborhood. It’s particularly staggering because I know that the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition organizes people to clean the sidewalks regularly, so the butts we see are only the ones they missed and the ones dropped since the last cleaning. How many are dropped every week, every month, every year?
For a young child, this game is pretty exciting and suspenseful, and it’s also great counting practice! Nicholas has reached the stage where he counts easily up to 29, from 30 to 39, from 40 to 49, etc., but he often gets confused about how to roll over the tens digit: “…twenty-eight, twenty-niiine…twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two…” so counting any set of more than 30 objects gives us an opportunity to practice those transitions.
It’s also an opportunity to talk about manners, public health, and fire hazards. I guess smokers in a dampish climate tossing smoldering butts onto concrete aren’t at much risk of starting a fire, but Nicholas has heard enough Laura Ingalls Wilder books to know that fire must be taken seriously. And I can’t help taking it seriously after seeing, when I was 13 years old, many acres of my Girl Scout camp’s forest burned to black stumps because some guy who’d been repairing our oil pumper thought it would be just fine to light a cigarette as he got into his truck, tap some burning ash onto the ground covered in dead leaves and crude oil, and drive away.
I wish the smokers would pick up their damn butts and put them in the several special receptacles in our business district, or in the regular trashcans on every block, or perhaps in their own pockets. But when they don’t, at least it creates an educational experience for my child!