Saturday, February 12, 2011

Litterbugs, Part 6: John Breaux

The first of these "Litterbugs" posts made reference to a guy who used to bike around my town picking up litter and recyclables.

His name was John Breaux, and it's been just over two years since he died. Two articles about him appeared recently in the local press: first in a community weekly, and second in the daily paper.

Both articles told essentially the same story. A local tavern has set up a webcam that streams a live view of an adjacent courtyard, where a statue in John Breaux's memory is on public display.

Breaux died on January 30, 2009, after being struck by an automobile as he picked up litter along the side of the road. The community responded with a tremendous outpouring of grief.
The statue at the time of its dedication

Breaux was one of those people everyone in this town knew on sight, but few actually knew. Almost every day, he spent long hours riding around town on his mountain bike, collecting litter and discarded recyclable cans and bottles.

He was also known for random acts of kindness, like the bumper stickers suggest.

John Breaux suffered from schizophrenia but seems to have been harmless. When I first saw him some years back I thought he was a wandering old hippie. Others thought he was a vagrant, but he lived with his brother.

In death, John Breaux has been lauded as a sort of saint, and maybe he was – a selfless man whose kind and generous soul belied his shaggy appearance. The very day he was killed – within a few hours – someone created a tribute page to him on Facebook:

"It's amazing how many people he's touched," says the owner of the tavern.

But it seemed to me then, and seems to me now, that members of this community tried to out-do each other with praise for him. Much was made of his Christianity. There was talk of naming a park in his honor, and creating a "John Breaux Law" to punish litterbugs with mandatory sentences of picking up trash along the side of the road. (No one suggested we stop littering so damned much in the first place.)
This photo was apparently the model for the statue
In the end, they made the statue. I can't remember how it got funded, but the sculptor donated her services. The city unveiled it on the first anniversary of Breaux's death.

I think all of this, while well intentioned, was merely a stunned and saddened community's reaction to senseless loss. Most of the praise for John Breaux, I suspect, was withheld during his lifetime.

Now two years have passed, and things have reverted to the way they were. But for a brief period many of us here treated each other with a little extra kindness -- in John Breaux's memory, perhaps, or in the name of our shared humanity. It is an ideal discarded as easily as a beer can, but one we should pick up, and use again, and strive for every day.

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