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Charity’s column: Trash talk

I enjoy a little competition in my life, so after six months with every athletic fundraiser moved online, no 10K, no 5K, and not even a Snapper Derby, I’ve been feeling low.

As I rode my bike down Manhanset Road last Wednesday, I was outrun by a squirrel. He scampered along a fence parallel to the road, was even with me for a few yards, and then he pulled ahead. I leaned on the pedals of my fancy road bike, but the squirrel left me in the dust.

I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt.

It was friendly competition I was looking for when I left the house last Saturday morning. My husband was seated in his favorite chair trying to read in spite of the barking of the dog, and the roar of a lawnmower. Thinking I could use a team, I tried to recruit him, “Want to come along? I’m off to gather garbage.”

Kristina Lange of the Group for the East End and Everest Wein of the No Germ Club organized a crew of 63 volunteers to fan out to Island beaches and pick up trash for a couple of hours on a day that reminded me that September is the most glorious month of the year here, and every minute I spend outdoors is time well spent. Especially if public recognition for gathering the most garbage is dangled before me.

The volunteers signed up for Wades Beach, Crescent, Bootleggers, Shell Beach, Menhaden Beach, the Beach Club and the Ram Island Causeways. Since this was a competitive trash-gathering event, I opted for Wades, figuring it got heavy usage, and I’d have plenty to work with. 

My husband declined to join me in trash collection, but in retrospect I asked the wrong family member. My dog Mabel would have been much more helpful. No creature is more adept at locating garbage than my faithful hound.

Alas, I arrived without a teammate at Wades Beach, and knew I was in trouble when I saw another volunteer working the brushy margins around the bathrooms with a nearly-empty bag. We traded trash talk.

“Looks like you got all the good garbage,” I said.

“Nah, somebody else really cleaned up.”

Farther down the beach, I began to understand the source of this very tough competition when I ran into Cindy Belt, and her husband Mark Cappellino. Cindy’s bag was stuffed, and Mark was carrying an object that appeared to be the rusted chassis of an automobile.

Legendary for her trash-collecting prowess, Cindy has a sixth sense for locating the stuff, and by her own admission is incapable of leaving it behind. If she is outdoors, you can bet she’s got litter in her pockets. She suggested I check out the Ram Island Causeway, and I gratefully accepted what I knew was a gimme from a pro.

According to Everest Wein, the Beach Clean-Up was inspired by the Lion’s Club community clean-up held the past few years, but this spring that event went the way of the Cricket Club match and corn-shucking for the Chicken Barbecue — two other events that combine helping out with athleticism.

Before leaving Wades I assessed the slim pickings in my bag. I had a French fry, a handful of bottlecaps, random plastic thingies, a neatly-bagged dog poop, and part of a vaping device.

In fact, some of my garbage wasn’t even really garbage, such as the rosebuds, wilted, and beginning to decay, but still quite lovely. I imagined they might have washed up from a memorial-at-sea or been scattered after someone’s beach nuptials.

At the Ram Island Causeway, things started to look up. There were volunteers up and down the beach, but there was also garbage! One woman pointed to a thicket of beach stones and low scrub not far from where she was working, “There’s a lot in there.”  My heart leaped with joy.

I found cans, bottles, what seemed like an entire reel of fishing line, a deflated balloon (one turtle life saved!) and plastic of every conceivable shape and color. I saw the glint of a beer can deep in the scrub, and as I lunged for it, the unmistakable leaves of a poison ivy vine appeared before it. I pulled back just in time.

The beach clean-up, like all competitions, required strategic decisions and presented moral dilemmas. For instance, some volunteers used a long-handled trash-picker provided by the organizers. I declined the device when they offered it, figuring it would slow me down, but now I saw it might have enabled me to nab the can protected by the screen of poison ivy. As turn-in time grew near, I still had a paper napkin and cup left from my STARs to-go breakfast. Was it wrong to add personal, non-beach trash to my bag?

Everest reported later that the volunteers collected 290 pounds of trash, including 128 masks.

In the end, I was able to lift all the garbage I had collected and place it on the pile in the school parking lot with one arm. (I did remember to engage my core as I lifted, thanks to Suzette Smith for training me well.) Mine was not the biggest bag, but it was respectable.  

The beaches were a little better off, and so was I.