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Harry's Gang: Who still drops butts?

I try to keep my parking lot tidy, but there’s a stubborn cigarette butt that keeps lodging itself in the sidewalk crack right in front of my office door. I pick it up, but it keeps appearing. Sometimes it’s dark orange, like an Old Gold or Camel. Sometimes it’s white, like a Marlboro. I’m not sure how they get there, nobody I know smokes anymore. And I find it hard to believe that people still toss their butts on the ground, expecting someone else to clean up their garbage.

But apparently they still do. It’s about as uncivilized an act as I can imagine.

I grew up in a rural tavern, the Earthwood Inn in Two Harbors. One of my many chores, which I did willingly and without complaint, was to sweep the cigarette butts around the parking lot so the motel would look nice to passing tourists.

“Sweep” is a misnomer. “Shovel” was more like it — one of those good, solid steel shovels with a hardwood handle, not one of those aluminum grain things that develop a rolled end that is useless for shoveling. I could fill a garbage can with butts. One of those galvanized cans with dents and a lid that made an excellent cymbal, especially when hit with the end of a solid oak shovel handle. Which I did a lot, which may explain the dents.

It must have been about 1979, ninth grade, when disco was all the rage, that I was sweeping up butts when a regular customer stopped in. With absolutely no irony, he greeted me warmly and flipped his cigarette on the ground in front of me. I was unfazed. Cigarette butts, back then, apparently belonged on the ground. One look around the parking lot would tell you that.

My mother didn’t like it, which is why she kept sending me and my brothers out to pick them up. My brothers, wiser than me and maybe not as ecologically minded, would sweep up a butt or two and leave to play baseball. Me, I stayed until the parking lot was clean and clear, fresh and ready to be filled with new cigarette butts, usually by the end of the week. I was shoveling snow in a blizzard.

I had an older friend named Eddy who drove a silver Buick Special, which was a pretty fancy car back then for a teenager. One time, he came to pick me up but I wasn’t quite ready. His buddy Curt was with him, and I seem to recall we were about to go volunteering for the local Salvation Army or some such charity: good, clean wholesome activities. I’m not sure, but I do remember Eddy was in a hurry. So he left his car running (gas was just 49 cents a gallon) and went up to the house to get me.

Meanwhile, Curt decided to take this opportunity to help his good buddy Eddy tidy up his car. He pulled out the overflowing ashtray, opened his door, and dumped the entire contents onto the ground. My mother saw the whole thing from the kitchen window.

Mom was not given to hysterics, but, boy, I am sure glad I wasn’t in Curt’s shoes right then. She went ballistic, scolding Curt for his deviant and slovenly behavior. Curt, sheepish and embarrassed, murmured his apologies to Mrs. Radosevich as she not so gently educated Curt on how to properly treat other people’s properties. I think he ended up cleaning the entire parking lot while Eddy and I hid inside. I’d cleaned enough butts for the day. Now it was Curt’s turn.

I don’t see Curt very often, but whenever I do, he mentions this story. He swears he’s never tossed a cigarette butt outside ever since and says he quit smoking shortly thereafter, as many of us did.

So I know it’s not Curt leaving that cigarette butt outside my office. Whoever it is, though, I wish they’d stop. Also, I miss my mother.

Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News community newspaper and an attorney in Esko who hosts the cable access talk show Harry’s Gang on CAT-7. His opinions are his own. Contact him at [email protected].