Captain Tidy vs. the Litter People

 
 
Dave Barry is Captain Tidy
Dave Barry is Captain Tidy

Originally published in The Miami Herald March 4, 1990

It's 10:36 on a Thursday morning in downtown Miami. The suspect is standing at a bus stop on Biscayne Boulevard, smoking a cigarette. There's a tough-looking crowd around him. A street crowd. This could get sticky.

We're watching the suspect from a short distance away. We can see his every move, but he can't see us, because our limousine has very dark windows.

The suspect takes another drag on his cigarette. He's getting ready to make his move. We can feel it.

He flicks the cigarette butt onto the sidewalk. This is it.

"Let's do it, " says my sidekick.

We open the limousine door fast and hit the street running. As we race toward the suspect I feel a powerful adrenaline rush. Partly this is because of the feeling of danger, of not knowing what's going to happen next. Partly it's because this is broad daylight in a major metropolitan area and I'm wearing bright red women's tights.

"Hey!" says somebody in the crowd, looking at my uniform. "Captain Tidy!"

That's right, pal. Captain Tidy and his faithful sidekick Neatness Man. Mister Litterbug's worst nightmare. And this is one suspect who picked the wrong time to toss his butt.

The suspect is backing up, watching us. He may be tough, but a person automatically tends to be wary of men wearing tights and masks and capes made from large garbage bags.

"Sir!" says Captain Tidy. (Captain Tidy is always polite; it's Rule One of the Captain Tidy Code.) "Sir, you just threw your cigarette butt on the sidewalk."

The suspect tries to weasel out of it. He shrugs elaborately. "Where did I throw it?" he says, pretending to look around. "You say I threw it, so where is it?"

"Sir, you know you threw it, " says Captain Tidy, firmly.

"You don't want to throw it on the sidewalk, sir, " observes Neatness Man, who is quite large, for a sidekick. "You want to keep Miami clean."

"OK, " says the suspect, cracking. "I threw it." He picks up the cigarette butt. He's smiling now.

"Thank you, sir, " says Neatness Man, who then turns to the crowd and adds, "and thank you all, for keeping our city clean."

A few people actually applaud. This is Miami, a city where homicide is only a misdemeanor, and they're applauding us for chastising a litterer. Neatness Man and Captain Tidy are thrilled. We give super-hero-style wave/salutes to the crowd and leap back into the limousine, which ideally would at this point roar dramatically off, except that the traffic is heavy, so it just sits there for a while.

The crowd continues to stare at it. They are no doubt very impressed. They will probably mention this incident to their families and friends. "It is certainly a bad idea to litter!" they will probably say. Or: "We should all try to keep our city clean!" Or: "How would escaped mental patients get hold of a limousine?"

* * *

If you're like me, which I bet you are, there are certain acts of rudeness that just make you nuts. Telephone rudeness, for example. The phone rings, I drop whatever I'm doing to answer it, and it's a wrong number, which happens all the time in South Florida, where many people apparently operate the phone by dialing numbers at random in hopes of reaching somebody they know. Instead, they reach me, and they often act as though this is my fault.

"I'm sorry, " I'll say, "you have the wrong . . . "

"(Bad word) BANG" goes the phone. Then of course they dial the same number again, and when I have the gall to still be me, they become furious and hang up so hard that little pieces come shooting out of the earphone. I hope that some day I'll be able to avail myself of a convenient new phone-company feature called Caller Electrocution. But for now all I can do is seethe.

Which is also how I react to line-butting. You're in a convenience store, waiting in line for the cashier, and up marches a person who simply cannot be bothered with lines, a person who brushes past the rest of you ordinary civilians as though you were noxious weeds, the implication being that his particular bag of Doritos is needed at the hospital immediately for use in an emergency organ transplant.

But the form of rudeness that really, really frosts my shorts is littering. You're at the beach, and it's a beautiful day, and the world seems peaceful and pure and clean, and suddenly the afternoon stillness is shattered by the arrival of: The Swine Family. You know these people. They have a large nuclear-powered radio and enough food to supply several Canadian provinces, and they immediately transform themselves into a high-output litter machine, cranking out potato-chip bags and beverage cans and sandwich wrappers and chicken bones and critical-mass poopy diapers weighing more than the infant that generated them, all of this forming an ever-expanding Ring of Garbage, some of it blowing festively down the beach. Hey! Here's an empty Bud Light can, skittering, crablike, onto our blanket! And here's a chili-dog wrapper! With some chili still in it! Thank you, Swine Family.

And when it's time to leave, these people simply . . . leave. Just get up and walk away from what looks like the scene of a tragic Dumpster explosion. Oh, sure, there are trash cans around somewhere, but who wants to pick up all this crap? Chicken bones? Used diapers? Yuck! You could get your hands dirty! No, the thing to do, after a fun day at the beach, is to just leave your garbage where you dropped it and head on home, maybe dial some wrong numbers.

And let's talk about all you fastidious motorists out there, the ones who like to keep your cars nice and clean by throwing everything out the window. A lot of you people are so clean that you don't even want to soil your ashtray. Heck no! Why mess up a sharp-looking ashtray interior when you can use the entire planet, right? Or maybe you use your ashtray, but when it gets full, you thoughtfully dispose of the butts by . . . dumping them on the ground. Ha ha! Good thinking, you MORONIC SLIME-EXCRETING PUKEHEADS WHY DON'T YOU TAKE YOUR CIGARETTE BUTTS AND . . .

Forgive me. I get carried away. I realize that there are more serious problems in the world. It's just that littering is so unnecessary, so avoidable, so -- forgive me for waxing philosophical here -- stupid. And it's everywhere you look. Forget the streets and sidewalks. Go anywhere. Go to the most beautiful, most remote spot you know, and it'll take you two seconds to find some dirtbag's plastic six-pack holder. I hate this. But I never did anything about it except mutter and seethe. And I probably would have continued doing nothing until eventually I suffered a fatal stress-related heart attack and got buried in a grave with Slim Jim wrappers fluttering over it, except that a dramatic turning point occurred in my life, an event that transformed me from a seething mutterer into a Man of Action. This turning point -- as you may have already guessed -- was: a visit to my optometrist.

My optometrist's name is Dr. Jeffrey Jeruss, and although he looks like a normal human being (only larger), it turns out that he is fundamentally -- and I mean this as a compliment -- insane. I found this out during a routine eye examination, when Jeffrey was shining his little light into my eyeballs, making that hmmmmm noise that medical professionals are trained to make, and I happened to mention littering. Do you remember in the TV show The Incredible Hulk, when Dr. Banner used to transform himself from puny little geek Bill Bixby into the extremely wrathful, frog-colored and structurally impossible Lou Ferrigno? That's essentially what happened to Jeffrey, right there in the examination room: His neck muscles bulged out and he began stomping around, denouncing the beer-can tossers of the world and waving his eyeball light around like the Hammer of Thor.

Watching him, I realized that I'd finally found the perfect sidekick for Captain Tidy.

Captain Tidy is a concept I've fantasized about for many years, a masked avenger for the forces of neatness. When a person littered, Captain Tidy would come swooping out of nowhere and explain to the litterer, in polite terms, that he or she is being a jerk. What kept me from acting out this fantasy was basically the fear of being embarrassed, by which I mean having my nose punched into my brain. But I knew that if Captain Tidy had a sidekick, a large sidekick, a large trained optometrist sidekick, that would be a whole different story.

Thus Jeff and I became: Captain Tidy and Neatness Man. We wore special costumes, which I painstakingly assembled in about 15 minutes with the expert advice of my 9-year-old son and a costume-store salesperson named Ethel.

"Most of your super heroes wear red and blue, " Ethel advised.

"That's right, " said my son.

So Jeffrey and I wore the aforementioned red tights (size triple-extra large); plus red Superman-style boots; plus blue shorts and T-shirts with our super hero names professionally lettered on them; plus the garbage-bag capes; plus white gloves; plus special utility belts from which were suspended dustpans, rubber gloves and pink feather dusters. Needless to say we also wore hoods and masks to preserve our Secret Identities. When we put our costumes on and stood in the official super hero stance -- hands on hips, chests thrust out, garbage bags blowing out dramatically behind -- there was no way you could look at us and not say, with genuine emotion in your voice: "What a pair of dorks."

True. But we didn't care. We knew that Right was on our side, and although the world might laugh at us, we had the strong support and encouragement of our families and friends.

"You're going to get shot, " they said, virtually in unison. They did not think it was wise to go around handing litter back to Miamians, who tend to use firearms the way people in other cities use turn signals.

Nevertheless, Jeffrey and I were determined to proceed. We agreed to meet at The Miami Herald, and at the appointed hour, Jeffrey walked into my office, his face a mask of grim concern.

"I forgot my tights, " he said.

Fortunately I had another pair. "Always carry spare costume elements, " that is Rule Two of the Captain Tidy Code.

And so it was that on a bright Thursday morning the Caped Crusaders of Cleanliness strode impressively through the Herald newsroom, drawing many respectful stares, and marched manfully out of the building, into the back of a black rental limousine, a.k.a. The Tidymobile. Also with us were the executive director of Keep Dade Beautiful, Ana Maria Monte-Flores -- a funny, charming, warm and caring woman who, if she saw you drop a gum wrapper, would rip out your trachea -- and her sidekick, Luisa Alvarez, who became a convert to the anti-litter cause a few years ago when she threw out the remains of her fast-food lunch on 27th Avenue and a police officer made her go back and pick it up, not that there is any reason to reveal this embarrassing incident in the newspaper.

The Tidymobile driver was David Levin, who hails from London, England, and therefore has the ideal accent for chauffeuring super heroes. Later in the day he even started wearing a mask. (He feels that the United States needs more trash cans. "When I first came to this country, " he said, "I was looking for a place to throw some paper, and finally I threw it into this blue thing, which turned out to be a mailbox.")

* * *

As The Tidymobile cruised slowly down Biscayne Boulevard, we quickly discovered that it's not easy to apprehend litterers in the act. It's easy to find people who are probably going to litter -- people smoking cigarettes, carrying drink containers, etc. -- but it's difficult to be right there when they drop these items. But drop them they definitely do, because the streets are a mess. Crud swirling everywhere. A Festival of Filth. It does not reflect well on Dade County or the city of Miami, and you will therefore be surprised to learn that a large quantity of this litter was placed here under the official sponsorship of: Dade County and the city of Miami. Yes. Two days earlier there was a ticker-tape parade for the national champion University of Miami football team, and the municipal governments honored their heroes, as is the custom, by dumping trash on them, and much of it is still here. Good thinking, government people! Next time, let's go all out to support our team! Let's break some windows! Let's have municipal employees form gangs and spray-paint their names on the People Mover!

But most of the litter is provided by private citizens. And most of them know better. I base this statement on the way people generally reacted to being confronted with their litter by Captain Tidy and Neatness Man. With chagrin, is how. Apologetically. Suddenly eager to dispose of the litter properly. They seemed to genuinely understand that what they had done was wrong. Either that, or they feared that we were potentially homicidal tights-wearing perverts. Either explanation is fine with me, as long as they think twice next time.

* * *

Flagler Street. A woman store clerk, leaning in a doorway, playfully tosses a crumpled napkin at a man. Seconds after it touches the sidewalk, Neatness Man and Captain Tidy are politely returning it to her. She is embarrassed. The man is vastly entertained, and urges the woman to pose for pictures with the Masked Avengers.

Actually, the Masked Avengers do not draw a whole lot of attention on Flagler Street, where several ordinary civilians are dressed at least as weirdly. It takes a lot to shock people in this city. I was once walking past a restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard when an armed robber came racing out, knocked down a pedestrian, and jumped into his getaway car, which I was able to immediately identify as a Japanese model because it started right up. He then drove wildly out of the parking lot, barely missing me and several other people, and raced off down the street, swerving violently from lane to lane, which was a shrewd maneuver because it made him indistinguishable from all the other drivers on Biscayne Boulevard.

I alertly observed his license plate number and several other Important Clues, and then, congratulating myself on being so calm in the face of danger, raced into the restaurant, prepared to find a scene of shock and panic. Instead I found a scene of people cheerfully snorking down their entrees. Ho-hum, another armed robbery. If this had been, say, Topeka, there would have been SWAT team helicopters landing on the roof. But here in Miami, maybe four minutes after the robber had left, it was On With The Meal. I had chicken.

My point is that Captain Tidy and Neatness Man did not set off widespread shock waves of public excitement. But we definitely made an impression on a few people.

* * *

Noon at Coral Gables High School. The students are getting out for lunch. Captain Tidy and Neatness Man dash across LeJeune Road to confront one of them. It is not a flawless operation: We are unable to locate the exact item dropped by the student, and, worse, Neatness Man forgets to pull down his mask. (Rule Three of the Captain Tidy Code: "Always pull down your mask to preserve your Secret Identity.") But the student cheerfully agrees to pick up another piece of litter, and the Dynamic Duo agrees that henceforth we will shout "Masks down!" before leaping from The Tidymobile. We also agree that our Official Parting Slogan will be: "Be Tidy!"

Our voices are definitely getting deeper.

* * *

Now we're staked out in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven right near the high school. The students are going in there and coming out with hilarious adolescent concepts of balanced meals, most of which are essentially compressed wads of harmful preservatives.

We watch two Cool Dudes saunter out, one of them carrying his lunch, which consists entirely of:

* nine powdered-sugar doughnuts, and

* one can of Sprite.

Sitting in The Tidymobile, we watch Cool Dude No. 1 sit down on the curb and eat. Five minutes pass.

"Holy Solid Waste, Tidy, " remarks Neatness Man. "Those doughnuts sure look good."

One by one, the doughnuts disappear. In The Tidymobile, we're making bets on what the Dude will do with the doughnut box. But there's really no question. He gets up, brushes himself off, leaves the box on the ground.

"MASKS DOWN!"

We're out of The Tidymobile. The Cool Dudes are staring.

"Young man, " says Neatness Man to Dude No. 1, "you don't want to leave that box there."

"Yeah, " says Dude No. 2, suddenly a Concerned Citizen. "You don't want to leave that box there!"

"Right!" says the Dude. He hustles over very cooperatively and starts kicking the box around the side of the 7-Eleven.

"No!" says Neatness Man. "It goes into the trash can."

"Oh!" says the Dude, genuinely surprised by this new wrinkle. He picks it up and throws it into the can. Everybody exchanges high fives.

"Be Tidy!" say Captain Tidy and Neatness Man.

"Right!" say the Cool Dudes.

* * *

We cruise by the high-school grounds. Groups of students are sitting on the lawn, eating. There are food wrappers blowing around. We decide to make an educational appearance.

The students stare at us as we stride toward them. Clearly they are impressed.

"What are they?" says one.

"Faggots?"

Undeterred by this display of callousness, Neatness Man and Captain Tidy go from group to group.

"You young adults aren't going to leave these food wrappers lying around, are you?" asks Captain Tidy.

"Nooooo, " they answer, shaking their heads in comically exaggerated fashion.

"You're going to pick this up, right?"

"Yeeeessssss."

Leaving the school grounds, Captain Tidy encounters another young adult.

"Be Tidy!" says Captain Tidy.

"**** you, " replies the young adult.

* * *

Back in The Tidymobile, friction develops.

"You were getting a little lecture-y there, Captain Tidy Bowl, " remarks Neatness Man, displaying quite a bit of sarcasm, for a sidekick.

"**** you, " replies Captain Tidy.

* * *

Our spirits bounce back after a hearty lunch at a Burger King, which has the approval of Keep Dade Beautiful's Ana Maria Monte-Flores because, unlike some other chains, it serves food only in biodegradable packaging. As we're waiting in line, a woman behind the counter checks out our costumes.

"You want to tidy up here?" she asks. "You want to clean these floors?"

I explain that we're more involved with the conceptual aspect of cleanliness.

"Yeah, " she says, looking disdainfully at my utility belt, "that dustpan ain't never seen no dust."

* * *

Back in The Tidymobile, Neatness Man finds a gum wad stuck on his boot.

"Now I'm REALLY mad, " he says.

* * *

We get even madder when Monte-Flores directs us to a site in West Dade County, just off Northwest 25th Street near 107th Avenue. There's a canal back there with a dirt road running alongside it, and next to the road, as far as you can see, are mounds of junk -- construction rubble, bags of garbage, old cars, old boats, furniture, medical waste -- everything. Especially tires. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tires. Mega-littering, is what this is. Also disgusting. Also of course illegal. The Dade County agency responsible for stopping it is the Department of Environmental Resource Management. DERM has a special anti-dumping task force called Dump Busters, which sounds very impressive until you learn that it's supposed to patrol all of Dade County -- which has dozens and dozens of these illegal-dumping sites -- with three agents. Of course the county has many other, higher priorities. Such as planning those ticker-tape parades.

As Neatness Man and Captain Tidy stand there, hands on hips, surveying the waste-violated landscape, a man drives past in an empty pickup truck. He looks at us, smiles, gives the thumb-up sign.

"You didn't dump anything here, did you?" yells Captain Tidy.

The man makes an exaggerated gesture -- Who, ME? -- then drives off, laughing, in a cloud of dust.

In situations like this, you really regret not being able to fly.

* * *

Outside a West Dade restaurant, a man opens a cigarette pack, drops the wrapper. Neatness Man is sprinting after him, cape flapping, before The Tidymobile has time to stop. As Neatness Man politely blocks the path of the man, who is saying he has to get to work, Captain Tidy comes running up and hands the man his wrapper.

"Every litter bit hurts, sir!" says Captain Tidy, who has been dying to say this all day.

Striding back to The Tidymobile, we are feeling good. We are scratching a major itch, here. Bring on the Exxon Valdez.

"When I pull down this mask, " says Neatness Man, "I AM Neatness Man."

* * *

Now we're near Bayside in downtown Miami, posing for our Official Action Photos, practicing leaping out of The Tidymobile, chatting with tourists, really getting into being super heroes and commanding the respect and admiration of the public. An elderly man watches us for several minutes, then says something in Spanish. Monte-Flores translates: "He says, 's --- -eating Americans don't know what to spend their money on.' "

* * *

Now we're on the 79th Street Causeway, stopped at a raised drawbridge. Next to us is a pickup truck containing two large men whom I would describe as "rednecks" if I were the kind of person who engaged in shallow cultural stereotyping. The man on the passenger side is smoking. We're sure he's going to flick his cigarette butt onto the ground; the question is, will he do it before the bridge goes down, and traffic moves? Also, do we really want to confront this man? Rule Four of the Captain Tidy Code is: "Use appropriate caution when confronting a person capable of lifting you up by your neck with one hand and dropping you into the bay."

The bridge is going down. The man is taking his last drag. The bridge is down. The man flicks the butt.

"MASKS DOWN!"

Heart pounding, Captain Tidy, whose entire body is the size of this man's right forearm, exits his vehicle, picks up the butt, holds it out.

"Sir!" says Captain Tidy, very politely. "Could you please put this in your ashtray, instead of on the ground?"

The man looks at Captain Tidy, then at the driver, then back at Captain Tidy, then down at Captain Tidy's bright red tights. This is definitely the kind of man who is fond of keeping and bearing firearms. This is the kind of man who probably showers with a firearm.

The man looks at the cigarette butt in Captain Tidy's outstretched hand. The butt is still smoking.

"OK, " says the man, taking it back. Then he smiles. He smiles sheepishly.

"Thank you sir!" says Neatness Man.

"Be Tidy!" says Captain Tidy, who is beginning to wonder if maybe he can fly.

* * *

And so it went. And by the end of the day, thanks to the vigilant efforts of just two men armed only with high ideals and a rental limousine and a low threshold of dignity, Dade County had been transformed from a place strewn with garbage into a place strewn with garbage. There is a long way to go, with this. But Jeffrey and I felt a lot better, which counts for something.

And consider this: A few days later, I was at an airline ticket counter, and two men butted to the front of the line. Ordinarily what I do in these situations is stare with silent hostility, then maybe write a vicious humor column. (My wife believes that one of the main reasons I became a humor columnist is so I'd have an outlet for my anger that does not ultimately lead to criminal prosecution.)

But this was different. This wasn't just me; this was also Captain Tidy, who, although he could not reveal his identity, also could not stand idly by and watch this assault by the forces of jerkness. And so, thinking quickly -- it's amazing what your brain can do, when it has to -- I came up with a Plan of Action.

"Hey, " I said, to the two men. "There's a line here."

They started doing what line-butters always do when you object, namely acting as though there's something wrong with YOU, for objecting. But suddenly they shut up. Because now the entire line was getting on their case.

"YEAH, " people were saying. "You just BUTTED IN LINE." And: "Why don't you WAIT YOUR TURN?" It turned out that all these people had been seething. What it took, to get them to speak up, was the realization that they weren't alone.

I wish I could report that the line-butters got the punishment they deserved, such as being sent to the end of the line, or, ideally, falling through a trapdoor into a vat of scorpions. Unfortunately, however, they did get waited on ahead of us. But at least they knew what we thought of them. They turned away, hunched over the counter, necks red, afraid to look back at this new, bolder, less sheeplike line. They felt worse and we felt better. So there.

And another few days later, without a costume OR a sidekick, I leaped out of my car at a stop light on Red Road and got the driver in front of me to take her cigarette butt back.

Once again let me stress that I don't think that problems like rudeness and littering are as important as, say, the Greenhouse Effect. I'm just saying that the nonjerks of the world should try not to be intimidated by the jerks. Speak up, is what I'm saying; there are more of you than you think. If somebody butts in line, ask him to please wait his turn. If a beach-goer is playing his radio so loud that the crabs are sprinting away with their claws over their ears, ask him to please turn it down. If somebody litters, ask him to please pick it up. What's the worst that can happen to you? OK, death. So be careful. "Don't get killed and cause Captain Tidy to become involved in a costly lawsuit, " that's Rule Five of the Captain Tidy Code.

Speaking of which: Wouldn't you love to own a T-shirt just like Captain Tidy's? Heck yes, you would. Well, you can get one merely by sending a $15 check to Keep Dade Beautiful, 1700 Convention Center Drive, First Floor, Miami Beach, FL, 33139. Specify Large or Extra Large. All proceeds will go to Keep Dade Beautiful, which is the local chapter of Keep America Beautiful and which needs your money to educate people about litter and solid-waste disposal. You may notice that wearing a Captain Tidy T-shirt causes a mysterious transformation in you. You feel braver. You walk a little taller. Your thighs suddenly contain less cellulite. You may even start wondering how you'd look in the full uniform, in which case you should remember Rule Six of the Captain Tidy Code: "Always go to the bathroom BEFORE you put on your tights."

Read more Dave Barry stories from the Miami Herald

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    Get out the cocktail wieners and settle back for a pleasant ''read,'' because it's time for our fun feature, ''Body Parts Making the News.''

  • A brush with gardening

    It will probably come as no surprise to you that I got the idea of painting my lawn from an agency of the federal government. When I say "painting my lawn, " I don't mean my whole lawn. I just mean this one circular spot that suddenly, mysteriously turned brown, as though it had been visited by a small UFO or a large dog.

  •  
Dave Barry in high school.

    The hair apparent

    I have a letter here from Mrs. Belle Ehrlich, of San Jose, Calif., who feels I should get a new hairdo. To quote her directly: "I enjoy reading most of your columns . . . but your hairdo in your photo sure looks DATED and NOT at all flattering or becoming, to say the least. If you are still sporting that awful hairdo, I suggest you go to a good hair stylist to give you a new and better hairdo. I hope you don't mind my criticism, it's nothing personal -- just a suggestion."

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