I saw an old woman sweeping today. She was sweeping the gutter in front of the apartment building where she lives. Not the sidewalk, the gutter. She was stooped over a broom of yellow straw, one like you might find in any kitchen pantry, sweeping carefully, methodically, moving forward slowly, as if to make sure nothing in her small pile of debris got away. I was on my bike, so the moment, the visual image, passed quickly.
But not the question: why was she sweeping the gutter? It wasn’t particularly littered. No scraps of paper or soda cans. Just a few leaves and twigs, and not many of those, as street-sweeping trucks with whirling brushes scrub our gutters weekly. What brought her out on a fine sunny morning to perform her solitary chore?
There is another woman in my neighborhood, nearer my house, on a route I take to walk my dog, who is often out sweeping her sidewalk when we come by. She lives in a nice house. Thanks to her continuing diligence, her sidewalk is pristine. It is usually the brown leaves and red berry pods of her magnolia tree that I see her nursing along with her broom. I smile and say hello, sometimes making a gentle joke about how hard it is to stay ahead of nature’s messiness. She has a warm, open face and an easy manner and always responds brightly as she continues sweeping.
On that same walk there is an older man who sweeps the pavers in front of his garage. There are liquid amber trees all up and down the street. They drop brown spikey seed pods that look like big round cockleburs. They are everywhere, except in the sweeping man’s yard. He gets them all.
My grandfather cut his own grass with an ancient gas lawnmower until he was ninety four. I thought he should hire someone, but he said he liked the exercise. In Tennessee, where he lived, grass has to be cut or it grows waist high. But sweeping your already-pretty-clean-and-soon-to-be-swept-by-the-street-sweeper gutter? Why do that? Other than a paid gardener or an impressed teenager, I’ve never seen a young person doing such a thing.
As we grow older, perhaps we become more more compulsive. I don’t know if that’s scientifically verified, though. More anxious, perhaps, but that’s not the same thing. I don’t think it’s a compulsion for a tidy yard that causes my neighbors to reach for their brooms--or, now that I think of it, my grandfather, the ex-university president, to have fired up his lawnmower.
The one woman I chat with on my walk is a widow, but you don’t have to be alone to feel useless. Indeed, having someone else in the house might intensify the feeling. You know your worthlessness is being observed. You can’t kid yourself.
It’s not just Princeton from Avenue Q who is searching for his purpose. We all are. Constantly. Continuously. Even when we find it, it rarely lasts. A child grows up. A job ends. And there you are, back on Avenue Q, starting all over again. Looking inside yourself for the answer, over and over again, can be tough. Sometimes it’s easier to look for something to sweep out of the gutter.