Derrick Z. Jackson

T debris: Snake was the least of it

(Istockphoto/Globe Staff Illustration)
By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / April 16, 2011

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IT WAS a novel story recently when subway rider Melissa Moorhouse lost her boa constrictor on the Red Line. But when she refused — after MBTA workers found the snake and returned it — to pay the $650 cost of scrubbing down the subway car, she unwittingly pointed out a universal problem: People trash the subway every day, and the rest of us pay to clean up after them.

“Just this week I was on the Green Line and I saw this guy with a giant, greasy sausage-peppers-and-onions sandwich,’’ T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said. “Half of the sandwich was in his mouth, half of it was falling to the floor. It was gross. And I’m sure he didn’t think a thing about it.’’

MBTA General Manager Richard Davey added in a telephone interview, “My wife and I took the train over the weekend, and this guy rolled out a three-course meal on his lap. It was a very large fast-food sandwich, fries, and what had to be the largest soft drink someone could hold. Most customers would say it’s OK to have coffee or a banana, but most people would consider [this man] a bit over the top.’’

It’s over the top because such meals often fall over the legs and onto the seats and floors of buses and subway cars. The food stains are bad enough, but the cups, bottles, newspapers, bread crusts, and other debris that riders leave behind make up perhaps 60 tons of the 150 tons of trash the T collects each month — and contribute to the T’s $18.5 million annual cleaning bill. At above-ground stations, you can add in the poop from pigeons attracted by dropped food. With the Boston Marathon coming on Monday, spectators who use the T should consider the workers who clean the trains and clear out trash down in the track pits. Richie Hart, the T’s manager of cleanup crews, said big events such as championship sports celebrations, First Night, Halloween, and St. Patrick’s Day result in “nightmare’’ cleanups.

You could call it the puking tax, and all T riders are paying it. “You just wish the people could think about their behavior,’’ Hart said. “We’re all sports fans, but the trash and the vomit, especially after the Patriots’ last Super Bowl celebration, the condition these people leave the stations in, it was just incredible. It’s all hands on deck for us.’’

As for the case of the boa constrictor, the T insists that it’s only trying to hold Moorhouse accountable for her actions. The bill is reasonable, especially if you add in how much time T workers spent looking for and capturing the snake. But last week, Moorhouse said, “I’m in no position to pay’’ for the cleanup. So we all do.

The occasional snake droppings are bad enough. But those oily food wrappers and other paper that thoughtless people throw into the track pits — or leave on the platform where gusts blow them into the pits — are truly dangerous. Pesaturo and Hart said that about 10 to 15 times a year, a T line is shut down because of fires ignited by trains pushing trash into switches or when paper catches sparks from brake shoes.

Each shutdown, ranging from several minutes to several hours, sets off a chain reaction of fire departments sending several engine and ladder companies, and the T setting up shuttle buses. A few weeks ago, the T launched a new poster campaign saying “you’re playing with fire’’ with litter. But this is not the first education campaign, and too many riders keep playing dumb. In 2009, the T had a public address announcement campaign where Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser asked for “thoughtfulness and cooperation’’ in dropping the coffee cups in the trash receptacles and newspapers in the recycling bins.

It would be nice on Marathon Day if the T saw a new spirit of civic cooperation. Snakes on a train make an entertaining story. Far more profound will be when we stop acting like snakes, slithering away from the coffee cups and papers we brought onto the train.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at