Saturday, April 9, 2011

Of Caca and Springtime

“You better pick that up!” she shouted at me from the other side of the fence. My Siberian Husky Mundo had just crapped near her apartment building.

“I don’t have a bag with me,” I replied. “But I’ll come back later and get it.”

“No you won’t!” she bellowed.

I usually carry several plastic bags, though on that day I had simply forgotten to resupply my coat pocket.

“What’s your postbox number?” I asked in an even tone of voice.

“Why do you want to know?” This woman obviously had problems much bigger than dog shit, and they’d eaten away at her, making her suspicious of everything and everybody until she’d become a troll under the bridge.

“I need to know your postbox number,” I continued in the same level tone, “because that’s where I’m going to put the dog shit. Otherwise, how will you know that I’ve cleaned it up?”

That old cow just stared at me, and before she could come up with some other little problem I blew her a kiss and moved on. I would have come back to pick up the dog shit, too, if she hadn’t have been such a bitch.

For readers who like stories with clear lessons, this one has nothing to do with dog shit. The moral of the story is Don’t be a bitch (with the corollary that then there’ll be a lot less shit in your life). But, since dog shit is so topical at the moment – since it has even inspired a work of literature by Estonia’s most famous living author – I feel compelled to publicly comment: For the record, should I ever decide to run for parliament, I am in favor of cleaning up dog shit from public places.

I often like to walk Mundo near the sea in Pirita and as the snow melts around the TOP Hotel the earth gives up its treasures: rotting husks of Roman candles, rusty syringes, used condoms, kinder surprise shells, last summer’s chicken bones, and of course a veritable minefield of dog shit. It’s the time of year when the city epitomizes the Soviet maxim that if something belongs to everyone then it belongs to no one.

Recently, I heard about a campaign to point out the dog shit everywhere by placing little yellow flags to mark each pile. This is a nice gesture, but for it to work it would require that the majority of citizens access their conscience. This might work in cities where space is truly at a premium or in rich socialist countries where the angry are fewer. But in Tallinn, given the still vast gulf between the haves and have nots, the sense I get is that too much bitterness still remains. Your dog crapping and your Lexus-driving neighbor stepping in it in his thin-soled Italian shoes provides an immediate sense of satisfaction and in a small but important way helps reset society’s delicate emotional balance.

My wife Liina — who like me considers herself an amateur psychologist but who also has a soft spot for conspiracy theories – has floated the idea that there’s a reason we are given little yellow flags and not parks crawling with municipal cops with their flammable green uniforms and inbred eyes: If the city were to take away our dog shit (or, for example, the 10,000 swans we’re not supposed to feed) we might turn our attention to more serious issues, like a serious discussion of Estonia’s presence in Afghanistan, Narva’s dreadful HIV record, human trafficking or god-knows-what. Dog shit, Liina says, is the modern opiate of the masses.

Liina makes her case by pointing out that mayors of much bigger cities have shown the world that where there’s a will there’s a way. Giuliani solved New York’s litter problem and crime problems almost overnight. Boris Johnson and Mike Bloomberg are recognized for making their cities cleaner, calmer, and greener. Liina contends even an incompetent administrator, if he had the desire, could quickly solve Tallinn’s dog shit problem (and its snow- and ice removal problems).

I’m not sure I buy Liina’s theory, not least because intelligent discussion about Afghanistan and HIV would serve to draw attention away from the city government to the federal government, a clear advantage for the Centre Party, but also because there is likely a very good reason why no one gives a damn about the dog shit. It could be the fact that many city offices are still staffed by the Homo Sovieticus generation who are simply accustomed to dog shit in public places. And it’s likely Mr. Savisaar does not stroll through parks in the season of the melt: his daily walk is from the heated leather seat of a Mercedes Benz E350 CDI 4Matic directly to his door.

I have met Mr. Savisaar only once, at an American Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Those of us seated at his table asked him questions in our accented Estonian, and he briefly huddled with advisor Heido Vitsur over each question before – as if Mr. Savisaar had his hand shoved up inside him and was moving his lips — Mr. Vitsur answered our questions. I wasn’t able to form too many conclusions, except that Mr. Savisaar is not comfortable around westerners.

I recently saw Mr. Savisaar again at the press conference where he revealed his contention that the 1.5 million euros was for the Lasnamäe church. With a deft hand and without a single visible drop of sweat, he played flawlessly to thirty journalists in the room. It was a masterly performance.

Add to his stagecraft a personal history right out of Oliver Twist, and you have the perfect makings for a long profile in a well-known American magazine, to whom I actually tried to peddle the story of a three-dimensional profile of what makes Mr. Savisaar tick. They were not interested, sadly, the editor bluntly asking “Why would Americans give a shit about that?” While it seemed no less relevant to me than a story that same magazine ran about a minor politician in Central America, I guess I was simply too minor a writer to guarantee them readers for a profile no matter how interesting I could make an Eastern European politician. And so there was little left to do than write about dog shit in Postimees. (Full disclosure: Dog shit was their idea.)

Without knowing the man, what I am willing to conclude is that Mr. Savisaar is very bright, and I am sure that if he were to set his sights on dog shit in Tallinn, he would be able to eradicate it. But my sense is that his interest in the city of Tallinn is not equal to his interest in Estonian politics — city goings-on must bore the poor man to death. What of course we need to rid the city of dog shit, is a leadership more committed to the city itself than to a certain ideology or class of voters.

I find it interesting that in Estonia one may easily find plenty of people who are proud to be Estonian (or Mulgilased, Muhulased, or Whateverlased). It’s easy to find people who are proud to be from Tartu or Viljandi or Pärnu or Haapsalu. But I’ve met very few people who are genuinely proud to hail from Tallinn. (A certain breed of Tallinner — elitists more often than not — are often proud that they are not from the countryside.) Being neither a tiny town nor a big city, Tallinn somehow lacks any distinct identity; it’s the capital city we have to have, the city center a vast collection of architectural mistakes and monuments to the vanity of small-timers, and, except for the Old Town and its remarkable residential neighborhoods, the city is a rather forgettable gray blob.

It would be tempting to say that what Tallinn needs is some big event to inspire and bring us together as a community, like being named a Cultural Capital of Europe. But what Tallinn really needs is a leadership who cares both passionately and visibly about it. A leader who can make inspiring speeches about why we should care for our neighbors (Mr. Ilves’ speeches on this topic seem rote). A leadership who clearly gives a damn and can make us believe that cleaning up dog shit is about a lot more than cleaning up dog shit.

Until that happens, however, I wouldn’t place to much faith in yellow flags. Keep wearing those thick-soled shoes.

Thick-soled shoes available here.