Toy Collector

Beach
Photo by Clement Souchet on Unsplash

Strange how predictable what washes up at high tide. Week after week. Plastic bottle caps, broken straws, cigarette butts and filters, and everywhere fragments and slivers of primary-colored plastic. Maybe they’re toy remnants, she thinks as she bends to collect one after another into her latest Ming's Chinese Palace takeout bag. So cheerful these bits from beach buckets and spades, balls and bats, a toy bulldozer shovel just like the one left by her little brother, while knowing it’s adult refuse she’s really collecting: from detergent, juice, and water containers; degraded plastics from fishing boats and tankers; overflow from an aqueous dump out there. She’s always tricking herself that way, looking for cheer in the colors of imaginary toys and in deflated balloons tangled in curling ribbon. Praise in spirited injunctions.

She doesn’t like to dwell on organic finds. So much trouble from shipping traffic these days.

She gathers a chunk of Styrofoam from a takeout cup or picnic cooler, used for fish or beer. Hard to say. There are fewer cans—none for months now—replaced by Covid masks: the blue surgical ones, but also the black vinyl, and twice now white N95s. Funny what become time markers. All her finds are embedded with fine black sand. Balding tennis balls she leaves for dog people to retrieve, though she didn’t herself when Melvin returned without his. She leaves all organic remains. There’s only so much she can carry in her Ming's bag.

This section of San Francisco beach is blocked at high tide so she plans her visits for low tide on Fridays, which was her scheduled pet-sitting day with Melvin. She scrambles down a bluff at the north end of the park, where Ocean Beach is visible and, on a clear day, Point Reyes. She walks south, keeping equidistant from the surf and the sandstone bluffs that rise some places 200 feet above her. Erosion here is constant, and people often need rescuing from the collapsing edges. A couple once was buried at the base of one. Which is why she’s cautious. Did they just decide to be carefree that day like couples do sometimes?

For sanitary reasons, she wears a glove—actually one of Melvin’s unused waste bags. She has 19 rolls remaining, which she won’t return. Sometimes just opening a bag sets off that hollow and helpless ache she gets. Whether Melvin’s owner hired another dog walker isn’t something she regularly thinks about as she passes the clay rocks, extending like fingers towards the surf, concrete ruins that used to hug the cliff, covered in bulbous graffiti, and a giant sewer pipe that at times is barely visible in the sand and at other times, she must set her bag on top to climb over, using its steel struts. And how is carefree and careless so unalike, she’d like to know.

Today, in another February without rain, bits of ice plant torn from the bluffs are scattered in the sand alongside ropes of bull kelp with rubbery bulbs and brown-green blades that once kept it afloat. There’s a trail of sand dollars, as perfectly round as the bottle caps she collects, broken crab and mollusk shells: the messy remains of seagull meals. Surf foam flies up the beach in fluffy strips, banking against the rocks and the ruins and the sewer and, somewhere further up the beach she can’t see, a body that has been left or washed up. The foam doesn’t sting or slow her like the flying sand.

After an hour of bending and picking, she rests. She basks in the salty air tinged with sweet decay; the cries of gulls skimming the waves that compete with the caws of crows circling the bluffs; the pounding surf; and rattle and howl of sand-filled wind that can drown out all. A jet banks northwest and up and up, disappearing into cloud. “Hello, hello,” she calls. She scans the break and beyond for dolphins, seals, surfers, or possibly a whale. Sandpipers scuttling along the water’s edge she welcomes along with three long-billed curlews that touch down nearby. For these winter months only, they forage together: she for what’s visible and they, dipping their long, curved bills deep into the wet sand, for hidden marine worms, crabs, and mollusks.

True, people and their dogs unnerve her now. Before, she was delighted to see Melvin chase other dogs, foam on windy days like these, and wild birds. Gross and funny his ferocious play in dead matter. She’s conflicted about her affinities now, more protective of the sandpipers and curlews. You can’t un-wild animals though. Whoever said you can “tame” doesn’t understand. Gets upset by instinct—our irrepressible natures.

The bag is full and heavy by the time she reaches the steep sand-ladder with log rungs. She rests many times on the way to the top, where hang gliders launch and the parking lot, once a missile launch site, sits. Each time she deposits the bag in the metal bin with its heavy hinged door, she feels pleased with herself and her effort. She doesn’t let herself consider that this happiness is another of her tricks. Not the fact that she knows she’s made no dint in the washed-up litter, and that she’d feel discouraged if the beach was ever pristine, but that, that day, she would’ve collected her charge—carefree and indistinct from all else on the wild shore.

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