Ever since we moved to Forest Park in 1982, litter has been a problem. When we lived on Beloit, there was fresh layer of litter on our lawn every morning. Lately though, the litter problem has gotten much worse.

This prompted Kristen Lyons to organize a clean-up for April 8. I was planning to attend but wimped out because of the rain. When Kristen organized a second clean-up for April 18 at Madison and Harlem, I came with mask, gloves and garbage bag. The volunteers who showed up were an ethnically diverse bunch, ranging from toddler to senior citizen.

I joined a group policing the north side of Madison Street. I planned to work for an hour, or until we reached Desplaines Avenue, but it took me a half hour just to get to Circle. That’s because there were so many cigarette butts on the pavement. They were especially plentiful in front of bars. Can there be a connection between drinking and smoking?

People are using our tree planters as ashtrays. They’re also using planters and manhole covers. These are all round and made of metal, but we have other round metal containers that are more suitable. Many trash containers appeared to be overflowing but we learned to simply push the garbage down.

I also learned that bending over to pick up litter is exhausting. It was the closest I’ve ever come to doing yoga. I envied the young kids who were helping. They barely had to stoop to snag garbage. Jeremiah Manzanares reported finding three chicken bones and his sister, Rosabella, reported that “cigarette sticks are gross.”

Rosabella (left) and Jeremiah Manzanares

I didn’t mind picking up butts but, unlike Elf, I avoided wads of gum. I also took Kristen’s advice and steered clear of sharp objects. While we cleaned Madison, other groups picked up along Harlem Avenue. One group headed north from Madison and filled five bags before they reached the Green Line. Altogether, the volunteers packed 16 bags with trash.

People on the street were surprised to see us picking up trash. Business owners thanked us. I almost made it to Desplaines before my hour was up. Afterward, I felt great. After months of inactivity, it was good to get some vigorous exercise.

Kristen felt the same way and said it was getting her in shape for gardening. She talked about the litter problem on her 1000 block of Lathrop. She believes the culprits are passing motorists, as she recently found three full fast food meals that had been tossed into the middle of the street.

Littering is a breakdown of values, Kristen said. She sees it as another sign of the erosion of dignity in our society. It reflects a growing lack of respect for people as well as property. She believes littering is learned behavior and children are following the poor example of the adults around them. Adults can also set good examples, like Commissioner Joe Byrnes who picks up trash every morning.

When Kristen was growing up in a close-knit South Side neighborhood, she would help her dad pick up trash. So organizing clean-ups comes naturally to her. She is planning her next pick-up for Sunday, May 2 at 1 p.m. Volunteers will gather at Circle and Randolph. Students, she noted, can use clean-ups for community service hours. Scouts can use them to earn badges.

She is planning five additional pick-ups, but she pointed out that we don’t have to join group efforts to make a difference.

Just grab a bag and gloves and go for a walk.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.