The incredible traveling tarp no one would take responsibility for and what it says about me, my neighborhood, and all of us


Several weeks ago a large, dusty, well worn tarp flew off a lawn service truck on my street. It lay smack in the middle of the intersection, a not insubstantial puddle of material which drivers swerved around or bumped over.

With my compulsive sense of collective social responsibility, I wanted to run out immediately and haul it away. My altruistic persona, much maligned as “interfering” by my nasty threatening neighbor to the north, warned me against such an action. Really, I hadn’t put it there, it didn’t belong to me, wasn’t on my property. It was pas ma problem, babycakes. I left it, even became adept at blocking it out of my vision and awareness by keeping my head turned at a 45 degree angle.

Next thing I knew, it had crept to my very corner, still some 60 feet from my yard. Butt out, I sternly warned myself in the ringing, commanding tones of Nasty Neighbor. I decided to make my relationship with the tarp a psychological exercise, desirable training in will power. After all, millions ignore litter and trash daily, don’t twinge at emissions from their autos, even relish the unhealthy ungodly junk they force down their gullets, not to mention the weapons with which they attack one another. Surely one innocuous tarp would do no harm in the total scheme of life on the planet.

With pride I can relate I was able to ignore the tarp for two weeks as it grew dirtier and more repellent. Footprints appeared on it. Dogs did their business at the edge. Bits of trash like cigarette butts and scraps of newspaper worked their way under and between the folds. Still no one picked the tarp up.

A side bar about littering and dumping. Many municipalities and states have laws against these activities. Unfortunately, without eye witnesses to the scofflaws, they are virtually unenforceable. I knew there was nowhere to lodge a complaint, no office that would take responsibility.

After about 20 days, I noticed the tarp had disappeared. Hooray! Nope, surveying the corner across the street, sure enough the tarp had migrated again. Now it rested on the curb ramp next to the sidewalk where it interfered with water flowing into the sewer as well as any wheelchair needing access. The situation was getting dangerous! Should I take the incentive and remove the tarp?

Fortunately before I was forced to make a decision, the tarp disappeared. It hasn’t resurfaced for some time, so I guess someone disposed of it or opted to confiscate it.  But what does our apathetic attitude say about my neighborhood’ s residents?

There’s lots of talk nowadays about the accountability of government and business to citizens, almost nothing about the reverse—holding citizens or residents accountable for the condition of their institutions. .And yet for centuries it’s been understood that people enter into a social contract in society. We exchange some freedom to do whatever we want in exchange for protection and rights to think and act in accordance with our laws. I’d say the fate of the traveling tarp was my responsibility, as well as other residents, including Nasty Neighbor.

I wonder what impact we’d feel if we bore the responsibility for all our actions, including voting? Say we vote an incompetent idiot into political office and things go badly, could those who didn’t support him or her sue for damages? Or could folks who use inflammatory or abusive language on social media be charged with libel when the actors or singers they malign complain? Or people who incite violence between races or groups be held accountable for the hideous results?