Are you a glass half empty or glass half full person?
What if it’s a jar of broken glass? Spread there, for you to step on? This is a question I recently mulled with a family friend, Lasse, who is visiting from Norway. He is the third of four children from this family to do so – it’s become a kind of right of passage for them, as they leave high school and enter early adulthood, one we’re happy to be part of because if there is one thing better than having a friend with a boat, it’s having a friend who lives in the Norwegian wood.
The most beautiful months to visit San Francisco are October and November. During actual summer months, the city is socked in with fog, and the Financial District is full of people in down and wool coats. True summer here is Indian-style, in the late fall. For days now the skies have been sunny and the air clear, the Golden Gate bridge limned in International Orange against a cloudless crystalline blue sky.
For the past thirty days or so I have not needed even a light jacket as I walk Jake, my 6-year-old chocolate labrador. Today as we head through the Presidio Gate and hook a right up a public path, I can see a bank of gray clouds out west. The air has a freshening quality about it; the rains are on their way. “You know what that means,” I say conspiratorially to Jake. “Snow in Tahoe.” At the sound of one of his favorite words, not to mention places, Jake’s ears perk up and he gives a joyful “let’s go!” bark I understand perfectly. To emphasize, he races around in big graceful circles in the tall bearded grasses that grow at the side of the path.
“Hold up!” I warn him, and he dutifully moves off the path. He knows the drill. Soon he is deeper in the woods, sniffing out whatever is newsworthy.
The drill is this: I whip out my plastic bag and walk slowly up the path picking up shards of broken glass that have been recently scattered. I know it has been recently, because I picked it all up the day before yesterday, and I didn’t miss any, just like I picked it all up and didn’t miss any the day before that, and the day before that.
I haven’t caught the Glass Whisperer, as I sometimes call him/her, in the act – yet. That the glass whisperer knows who *I* am – at least on sight – I have no doubt. Sometimes, I think I can feel their eyes on me, from the window of the house that contains, somewhere within it – probably in the garage – a bin of freshly broken glass.
“But that’s EVIL,” says Lasse, indignant. He is just eighteen, on his first trip to the U.S. to visit the famous city where his parents met and fell in love, he is exactly the sort of tall blonde strapping lad you are likely picturing. He was eating his ninetieth bowl of cereal when I returned to the house one morning, Jake panting beside me, to empty the freshly collected shards into the jar.
We consider the jar, which is nearly full. What will you do with the glass, Lasse asks, and I have no answer yet. Something good, I tell him, and we spend a macabre fifteen minutes or so discussing the possibilities, because I am after all a horror writer, and that’s where my mind goes first.
Have I mentioned that the houses that back up against this public path and contain within them a bin of broken glass are located on one of the wealthiest streets in all of San Francisco, which of course makes it one of the wealthiest streets in the world? It’s true. One block away in either direction are homes owned by the CEOs of Oracle, Salesforce, Zynga and LinkedIn. Tourists regularly walk down this street to photograph the view – because that is the reason all of these homes cost so much, not because they are hulking behemoths (although they are) but because their high-in-the-sky uppermost story shows them the bay and the mountainous Marin headlands and all the way to the western horizon beyond the ocean.
“But WHY?” Lasse asks again, troubled. He is a kind and considerate young man, the product of a German father and a Norwegian mother and a lifestyle that is dedicated to being completely sustainable: they live in a house of reclaimed wood, and if there is a piece of furniture or art that was not acquired at a flea market somewhere in Europe, I’d be surprised. In fact the only new thing to enter the house in a decade has been baby Daniel (now eleven). The house is surrounded by gardens of herbs and vegetables; the backyard is a thicket of blueberries, with rakes by the door to gather for breakfast. Sitting in a shaft of sunlight at the French wooden table in the kitchen with its ancient black potbellied stove, there is a strong sense of timelessness. It is a house full of beauty, life and peace.
The idea of spreading broken glass for pet paws to impale themselves on, printing the path with their blood is not an idea Lasse can wrap his head around. What is wrong with these people? he wonders aloud, and his perturbation echoes in my head as Jake and I stride up the hill each morning, past the house with more than 30 windows catching the sun and flashing it back in our eyes, past the house with the seven car garage, past the house with the gorgeous gardens that run the entire length of the street.
I know why. Though the right side of the path is bordered by a brick wall, it is low. If I turn my head as I walk, I can see into maybe five of the dozens and dozens of windows I pass. I never have, except to notice glancingly that most windows were treated with curtains, blinds or reflective glass. I’m genuinely appalled that someone who chooses to live in a busy and populous city would let themselves get so upset at the notion of people walking past their house that they’d sow the ground with broken glass. Talk about a glass is half empty view of life. How lonely they must be.
We agree, my sweet Norwegian eating machine and I, that the lesson I eventually administer must utilize the fear of exposure to effect a change in their behavior. We want the behavior to stop because it’s harmful and illegal sure, but more, we want the behavior to stop because they, themselves, see it as wrong. We want them to see the glass not as some poorly-considered defense of their property, but an offense against beings they care about. I am not sure how I will accomplish this, but when I see my fifteen year old daughter returning from a walk and wordlessly emptying her pocket of broken glass into the jar I keep on the counter, I feel up for the challenge.
Shaming will not work, and I have no interest in bringing actual harm to the culprits – if it’s who I think it is (and my observations stretch beyond a year now), they are quite old. I do not want them to feel fear for the safety of themselves, or their precious property, just the fear of public exposure, and the scorn and possible legal attention it will bring (the lands they spread the glass on every day are actually federal park lands – the glass whisperers have no claim on it).
But still! says Lasse, petting Jake’s finely shaped head. –It’s evil, pure and simple. I find it hard not to agree. What can they be thinking, really? Because it’s not just the fresh spreading of glass, it’s the effort, too – sometimes shards are actually buried, like glass knife blades sticking a quarter inch out of the ground. I patiently dig them out with a stick as Jake sniffs the ground around me.
Who is it, I whisper, giving him the glass to sniff, and he actually glances up at one of the houses, perhaps catching a movement at the window. Because of course the glass whisperer watches me, fuming, from their window. They know me by sight, but they don’t know, yet, that I know them too. Someday they will, but in the meantime, we speak a strange kind of conversation, they sowing the earth with broken glass by dark of night, me patiently harvesting it by light of day, my good-hearted dog at my side.