"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

Beer Can Anthropology

Beer Can Anthropology

My “abnormal” stress test seemed to puzzle the cardiologist. He said it was unlikely that I was critically ill, and declared it would be foolish to become completely sedentary. But his voice trailed away at the end of every pronouncement and he frowned intently at the computer images, making me wonder which brightly colored schematic patch was so troublesome. He eventually advised curtailing strenuous activity until an angiogram could be scheduled. 

I decided to play a game while waiting. 

My wife agreed to drop me and my bicycle off at work a few mornings a week so I could take leisurely rides back home in the afternoon. The trip would be 20 to 25 kilometers, depending on the route, with a friendly prevailing wind at my back. It struck me as an interesting gamble. I would get the long-term benefit of light exercise while self-indulgently flirting with a sudden heart attack. 

Of course, I wasn’t really worried about dropping dead or becoming fit because I planned to hedge my bets by stopping for a mini-rest every time I saw a beer can on the side of the road. 

Each can would be flattened, inserted it into a pocket of my back pack, and eventually cashed in as a symbolic reward for cheating death in such a clever way. As a matter of ethics, I restricted my game to rural areas only, and resisted the temptation to root around in recycle boxes or garbage bins—I didn’t want to compete with the people in my downtown neighbourhood who scavenged for survival. 

My haul, on that first ride home, was an astonishing forty-seven cans. 

Everyone sees litter during their daily commute, if they bother to look, but the problem never seems particularly bad through the windshield of a moving car. At a much slower speed I was able to notice the high volume of regular garbage like cigarette packages, coffee cups, gum wrappers and energy drink cans plus a surprising amount of returnable booze-related detritus. I assumed, at first, that I had stumbled upon a demographic anomaly. So, I altered my route every day and those bike rides quickly turned into an amateur sociological experiment.

Slack days yielded eighteen or nineteen cans. Good days offered up more than a hundred and strained the zipper on my backpack. I quickly learned to distinguish the pale green of a Steamwhistle can from a no-deposit Perrier Mineral Water, and the pale gold of a Coors banquet from those worthless ultra-citron Monster Energy products. 

Occasionally, I would stumble on an outdoor party-place with an odd assortment of containers suggesting something filched from a parent’s garage: Beau’s Lugtread, Prince Igor Vodka, Laker Lager, Somersby Cider, Hungarian plum liqueur. Those locations tended to be parcels of tangled brush, swarming with tics and mosquitos, the ground littered with unpleasant roadside garbage like dented hubcaps and balled up disposable diapers. To drink there, one needed a certain amount of stubborn commitment.  

Mostly, though, I followed trails of single cans, like bread crumbs in a fairy tale. Often, they were slightly cool to the touch and contained foamy residue suggesting they had just been discarded. 

When you think about it, that’s a little surprising. Per capita alcohol consumption has been steadily falling in Canada since its peak in 1977, and anecdotal evidence from two decades of teaching convinced me that anti-drinking-and-driving messages resonated with young people. Yet here I was, mining clear evidence that a subset of our population still regularly pounds back a couple of tallboys while party-hopping, or driving home from work, or picking up the kids from daycare.

After a while, I could anticipate cans. Hills, curves and highway exits tended to have more discards than open straightaways. The ditches bordering rural churches had a disproportionate number as well, adding an element of social criticism to the littering. I found lots of cans near the bases of certain mailboxes, indicating selective mobile target practice. 

Sometimes, I thought the dispersal patterns hinted at healthy self-knowledge: people were worried about being observed, and that offered some hope that the dangerous behaviour would self-correct. Of course, it was equally possible that people were simply “incontinent,” as Aristotle used the term, and were perfectly content to do stupid things even while fully cognisant of their stupidity. 

Human nature has always contained conflicted frailties. People in Aristotle’s time didn’t toss cans of Yeung-ling from their chariots, but they slept with friend’s spouses after drinking too much wine then lied about it, just like we do today. Strangely enough, knowing that something is wrong has never been much of a deterrent.    

One afternoon, I stopped to pick up a pristine Budweiser can with a Blue Jays logo incorporated into the design (one of the most popular travellers). A laborer from a paving company, cleaning up from a recent repair, called me over. “Are you picking up beer cans?” he asked, excitedly. I shook my backpack and there was the unmistakeable sound of eighty or ninety squashed aluminum cylinders rubbing together. 

“You know,” the man said, “my company has highway contracts all over Ontario. I’ve been everywhere in this province…” he paused dramatically, “…and I can’t get out of my truck without stepping on a beer can.” He looked at my bulging knapsack. “It’s amazing isn’t it?” 

My record haul for one bike ride was two hundred and seven cans. I had to stop mid-route at a licenced convenience store to unload.

When I finally had my angiogram, the cardiologist’s prediction was correct, there wasn’t anything significantly wrong with me despite my long list of physical complaints. “Maybe you should get checked for depression. Have you seen a psychiatrist?” he asked archly.  

“No, I haven’t.” Shrug. I had recently re-discovered that the world was an oddly imperfect place full of thirsty gamblers but that didn’t seem like a calamitous mental-health marker. Anyway, I was already eagerly planning my next route home.

Mark Thomas is a retired English and Philosophy teacher and ex-member of Canada's national rowing team. He has previously published essays in Electric Literature, The Thoughtful Dog and The Globe and Mail.

Cover photo by Blake Guidry on Unsplash

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