The Magazine


Christopher Caldwell on neighborliness.

Sep 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 02 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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It must be hard for people under 35 to imagine how large dog mess (as I am constrained to call it) once loomed in the day-to-day life of the nation. Not the metaphorical kind, which retains its privileged position in the fine arts and political oratory, but the actual stuff, as dropped by real canines.

Thirty years ago, dogs did run free. Evidence of their freedom steamed on every lawn and sidewalk. Any stroll was an obstacle course. Most families kept something sharp and disposable around the house--like old Popsicle sticks--for scraping shoes clean. As a nine-year-old racing around with the soundtrack of This Week in Pro Football pulsing in my head, I ended a lot of my imaginary touchdown dives covered in something other than glory. People really did make out a lot in public parks in the 1970s. But they had a good look around first.

With New York State's landmark Canine Waste Law of 1978, soon imitated across the country, things changed. Those so-called pooper-scooper laws were conceived as "ecological," because environmentalism back then was obstinately commonsensical. Clean and green were synonyms. Rivers, forests, and fields could be rescued through the same kind of tidying up that we were enjoined to lavish on our living rooms. Reasoning by blockheaded syllogism, authorities asked: Why would you let your dog do anything on the sidewalk that you wouldn't do on the carpet in front of your TV?

Clean and green, of course, are not always synonyms. Sometimes they are opposites. Assuming each of the 61 million dogs in the country makes two bathroom trips a day, the main effect of making their owners scoop up after them has been to create the need for 1.5 trillion extra plastic bags.

And just because lawns suddenly became places you could gambol on barefoot did not mean the argument ended. Au contraire. The problem was that the law changed dog mess from something dropped at random by dogs into something distributed purposefully by humans. To no one's surprise, the stuff turns out to be even less pleasant when you are holding a hot baggy of it than when you are contemplating it on your neighbor's lawn. So, with Yankee ingenuity, dog-walkers devised a practical solution: heaving the whole mess into someone else's garbage and forgetting about it.

You have to get up pretty early to catch a dog-walker in the act. One moment, they're stooping behind Rover with a plastic bag, as the law requires. The next moment, they've gone all furtive. They glance up at the windows of the surrounding houses and move towards one that has no lights on. They crane around the side of the house, to see if there's a bin, bucket, or flower pot not too embarrassingly far down the driveway.

Every gesture betrays a bad conscience. They approach with the bag-hand held stiffly on their hip, like a quarterback on a bootleg. If you surprise them they will say they were admiring your rhododendrons, even if you don't have rhododendrons. Sometimes they leave their present on top of the trash-can lid, presumably for fear that the sound of opening it might wake someone. Would any of them, I wonder, stop the car after a family trip to Popeye's, and dump all the half-finished tubs of coleslaw and red beans, all the dripping drumsticks and stained wet-naps, into your trash can?

Maybe they would. Garbage is a funny kind of property. Its owner has renounced his claim to it, but it has neither disappeared nor become the property of somebody else. In the hands of rogue politicians, secret police, and common criminals, this is the rationalization for sinister invasions of privacy. The dog-owner's rationalization is more like a smelly version of the "paradox of the heap" described by the philosopher Eubulides: How many grains of sand do you have to remove from a heap before what remains is a heap no longer? Just as it doesn't change the nature of a pile of garbage to remove a beat-up toaster, they reason, it won't change its nature to lob in a few of Fido's turds.

But on humid summer weekends, when the hum from all the dog mess our neighbors have secreted in our driveway over the past week wafts up to the porch where I'm having lunch, I confess it does strike me that the nature of my garbage has changed. I mean that only in an olfactory sense, though, and maybe I'm wrong. Maybe if we could get over our scruples about garbage cans being no place for waste, we could strike a real blow for the environment. We might even use the toilet less and save on the water bill. Remind me which driveway is yours again?