Street cleaners are in front line in the fight against chaos.
How close we are to chaos is seen every time the power lines go down and we realise that the freezer is going to unfreeze, the internet is down, and we are less than a week away from running out of food.
Well that didn’t happen to us; not quite – except in my thoughts. A few days ago in the winds that hit Edinburgh, the power went. It was back up before I had time to google for the contact number for the Electricity supplier. Of course, I had to stand by the window so that I could catch a decent 4G signal because there was no wifi because there was no power to the router.
So how long would things have to be bad before normal human niceties broke down?
There was a series on TV a while back where a reporter traveled to former hotspots where people that had been neighbours had suddenly turned on one another – think Kosovo or Rwanda.
His conclusion was that it wasn’t about tribalism or ideology or about land or wealth. What really characterises human beings, he said, is that we are unstable and volatile. It doesn’t take much to send us mad.
Dostoyevsky made a similar point in his Notes From Underground. He said that when things are great and everything is as we want it, there is a part of us that will destroy it just because that is who we are.
Back To The Fight Against Chaos
So, about street cleaners and their front-line job of fighting chaos.
When I was young, I would see street cleaners sweeping the streets. When I say street cleaners, I mean men on their feet working their way along the pavements and the gutters sweeping with hard-bristled, long-handled brooms.
I would see the cleaners in regular rotation more or less every day in our street or the nearby streets.
And for me they were a pleasing addition to the scene. It meant that the streets looked nice. I even liked the brush marks in the gutters where the brooms had raked through the detritus.
There wasn’t very much on-street parking where I lived, so it was easy for the sweepers to move along at a good pace.
I think I always saw what they did in terms of a continuum. That was in part because I knew what the rough end of the city looked like. I had a schoolfriend who lived there.
On the route back home I would pass back gardens – really just narrow strips of ground shuttered off from one another with brick walls – and there would be old prams, mattresses, and other things dumped there.
It frightened me because in my imagination I could see further still down that continuum. I could see to the point where self-destruction was just a hair trigger away from chaos.
The street cleaners disappeared and were replaced by street-cleaning vehicles, spritzing water and catching everything in their rotating brushes.
Well, that was then and this is now. Street-cleaning vehicles can’t operate here in the centre of Edinburgh because the streets are full of cars. Parking spaces are at a premium and everyone who has a car has to have a permit to park near their own property.
So the gutters fill up with rubbish. There are leaves, of course. But there are also plastic bottles and bottle tops and crisp packets.
The act of littering is a public two-fingers to the community. And littering is insidious because it is so easy to do.
We have special bins for compostable material, bins for recycling, bins for glass and metal. So I don’t think anyone can litter thoughtlessly nowadays.
Well that’s the litter situation.
Today I saw a man with a broom cleaning the gutters. He works for the Council and he told me that his beat is 32 streets in this area, plus additional streets in the next area along.
We commiserated about the small number of street cleaners and about the money that the Council does not have to pay for more cleaners.
The streets around here are long. It would take a man all day to do one side. Another day to work his way down the other side.
He has to work his way between the cars and in many cases under the cars because they park so near to the kerb. The streets are cobbled and the kerbstones are big, rising several inches.
So when there is a car parked front end to the kerb, it can cover a lot of rubbish. And as I said, there are a lot of cars.
Let’s say it’s a five-day week. So that’s a turnaround time of around three months between sweeps of any particular street. No wonder I haven’t seen him before.
The reference in the title to this post to Agents of Shield is to something on TV that I haven’t seen. But I get the general idea – saving the world from destruction. And that’s how I think of the street cleaners. The litterers push one way and the street cleaners push against them – saving the world from chaos, one street at a time.