Once the days get warm and sunny enough, the outdoors pull at Andrew to start up Pokemon Go again, wandering the nearby neighborhoods in search of exercise, whimsy, and vitamin D. I’m not far behind, chattering away alongside him about whatever I’ve been reading lately, full of lamentations that my potato-phone can’t support the game.
“One day,” I tell him, “the amount of time I spend whining about my phone will become more valuable to me than a phone is. And that’s when I’ll buy a new one.”
He nods. I’ve inherited my father’s tendency to use technology long past its usual life expectancy, making do until it finally splutters into blank-screened oblivion. And even in replacing my antiquated gizmos, I’ve got little use for bells, whistles, fripperies, or gewgaws—I save ostentatious embellishment for my writing, thank you very much. When it comes to new gadgets, I aim for simple.
But even with the potato in my pocket, I’m happy tagging along on the Pokemon Go runs, getting in my daily sunshine and exercise, looking at the buds appearing on the trees, the new leaves unfurling, the cacti and palm trees growing in front yards, the procession of desert architecture—garages pushed forward, decorative walls at odd angles, low-hanging roof edges, all striving to block the harsh sun. Andrew and I exchange thoughts on the blue paint one house is sporting; we admire the extensive gnome collection surrounding another; we gawk at a 25-foot saguaro which, with all the placid gravitas of an oak, is dominating the narrow strip between two nondescript houses. “That thing must’ve looked crazy with the snow on it,” I say.
Sometimes as we walk the busier streets between neighborhoods, my eyes skim down, taking in the rocky desert landscaping along the sidewalk. I’m in the habit of plucking pennies and other shiny sundries from parking lots and busy walkways. I may not fill my pockets with lustrous gadgets, but I’m certainly not immune to all that glitters. Give me a curious dropped bead, or a stray flattened penny from an obscure national park, or a particularly pleasing pebble, and I’ll treasure up the soap operas I imagine brought these prizes to me.
I am, in essence, either a magpie or a very small child.
Andrew and I are crossing a bridge over the freeway when I spot something shimmering in the gravelly expanse between the sidewalk and the fence blocking off the nearest neighborhood. The whole rocky spread is sparkling, opalescent in the spring sunshine. I’m entranced. And I’m ready to step into the brilliant midst of it—until I realize I’m looking at broken glass.
Brown and clear and green, most of it. Scattered inextricably amongst the red rock gravel sloping down the sides of the overpass are the smashed and jagged remnants of years of bottles tossed aside. The glinting shards are part of the gravel now. They are far too numerous, too small, too sharp, too nestled for someone to clean up after, even with thick protective boots and gloves.
I take in the sprawl of shimmering shattered trash, sharp points catching the light, and think of sea glass.
If this were sea glass—if this were a rocky beach, with the roar of waves beside me instead of the roar of traffic—I would dash headlong into the carpet of yesteryear’s cast-offs. I would gather the frosted glittering pieces, filling my pockets until they bulged. I would use my t-shirt front as a makeshift basket, stretching out the weave in the service of a sublime and curious collection. I would imagine washing sand and dirt from each piece; I would imagine which of my jars or bowls would house the treasures once I got them home; I would arrange imagined vignettes around my jewels, the lighting brighter and softer and more delicate than anything achievable in reality. Andrew’s Pokemon would have to wait.
But this is not sea glass.
Well! What’s the difference between sea glass and street glass? My magpie’s brain is obstinate and the rocky slope is shining like a jewelry store.
Sea glass isn’t sharp, my rational self observes. It’s been battered and tumbled and smoothed. Time and the sea have made it gentle. Street glass is treacherous. It’ll tear through the rubber soles of shoes. It’ll rip up the bottoms of your feet, and who knows what more could get into an open wound in that vast sprawl of garbage?
But I know that isn’t all the difference. Suppose someone could promise me this glass was not razor-sharp. Suppose they could guarantee that somehow, all the glistering shards were smooth-sided, safe for human hands and feet. Would it then be the same as sea glass?
No. Why then?
Sea glass is clean, my rational self persists. It’s been purified by the sun, the salt, the long sojourn in the sea. Street glass is unwashed: still coated with the last rancid drops of beer, someone else’s saliva, someone else’s lipstick, and who knows what else?
But suppose someone could promise me this glass was clean. Suppose someone pointed out that this glass, too, has spent time beneath the searing desert sun. Suppose they mentioned the cleaning coat of recent snow, the rain washing all but glass down into the earth. Suppose they pointed out that beaches weren’t all that clean, either: gulls and other creatures doing their business everywhere, washed-up kelp rotting away. Could the street glass then be elevated?
No. No, I think not.
I watch the sunlight glistening on the glassy gravel. The peripheral effect is elegant, glitzy, and totally Las Vegas: even our overpass stones are jeweled, our sidewalks banded with diamonds.
I imagine hundreds of passersby—at all hours of the day, of all kinds of backgrounds—each tossing empty bottles aside. Brown bottles breaking. Clear bottles shattering. Green bottles splintering. The motion is sometimes careless, and sometimes daring, groups seeing who can fling their bottles farthest into the rocky waste. Thoughtless. Destructive. Ultimately heedless of long-term civic stewardship.
The scene has no business being beautiful.
But does sea glass have any business being beautiful? It takes twenty to forty years—sometimes as long as a century—for sea glass to apotheosize, but in the beginning, was it not also litter? Was it not garbage? Was it not cast thoughtlessly into the sea? How, then, can it be beautiful?
Romance, perhaps. Slung into the sea as worthless, the glass was claimed, and changed, and delivered up again smooth and shimmering among ordinary pebbles and broken seashells. The 1966 teenager throwing a Coke bottle into the ocean is forgotten. The 19th-century seaman jettisoning damaged inventory is forgiven. The bygone townsfolk dumping refuse over ocean cliffs are pardoned. Age and mystery have glorified their broken things.
Will age and mystery glorify my street glass? Or, in the absence of the sea, will the garbage-glitzy overpass stay sharp and treacherous forever—inexplicably, rebelliously, accidentally beautiful in the shimmering spring sunlight?
In researching this essay, I came upon this Cleveland-based project, making jewelry out of the broken glass left after car break-ins. Check out artist Deanna Dionne!
Have you ever found a beautiful scene that had no business being beautiful? What was it? How did you respond? Share in the comments below!