The structure was amazingly tall. The base was a mere 20 cups across the front. Ten cups spanned the distance front to back. It rose an astounding five stories high. The whole thing fit snugly between two store-front windows. It swayed slightly in the breeze, but held its shape. Passers-by had initialed many of the cups within reach. The multi-colored marks melded into a rainbow feast for the eyes.
Further down the sidewalk, discarded cups chased each other. Most ended up in the gutter. The rest rolled back and forth across the walkway. The winners nudged the shoes of the people walking past, then skipped by, unharmed. The losers crunched underfoot.
Long sculptures of connected cups draped from openings in trash cans. Porcupine quills of straws stuck out, threatening to impale unwary pedestrians. Occasionally, a strand of cups broke lose. It dangled for a few seconds before joining the rest of the sidewalk-blocking paraphernalia.
Another eye-catching sculpture arched precariously across the walkway. People carefully eased between its legs. A blue ribbon hung from its keystone cup.
“What’s that?” I pointed.
“The winner for this block.”
“There’s a winner on every block?”
“Just about. There’re different categories: free-standing; attached to buildings; attached to soda machines; crossing the street—although that is officially frowned on, because it might fall on cars; and ironic.”
“Yeah. A morbidly obese person is a fundamental part of the sculpture. That sort of thing. There’s one down the road.” He pointed ahead.
“Can we see it?”
He shook his head and laughed. “We’re not walking that far. Nobody walks that far. Used to be that we walked all over the place. With this mess, though, nobody wants to be on the sidewalk.”
I could see his point. There were cups and cans everywhere. I could hardly take one step without crunching one flat. The trash cans were full to overflowing. Every surface had a cup or can stuck to it or hanging off it. The sickly sweet stench was overpowering. The buzzing flies and bees were overwhelming.
“Come on, we’ve got to move!” he pushed my shoulder from behind. “We’ve got to get inside, quick!”
“Why?” I felt a pinch on my ankle and jumped. I glanced down and took off running. A line of ants trailed in my wake. I grabbed the handle of the first door I came to. He slapped my hand away.
“You can’t go in till you get rid of them,” he explained. “Can’t have them inside. We couldn’t live here at all.”
I jerkily brushed at my shoes and ankles. I managed to dislodge a bunch of the little nibblers. Stomping my feet got rid of many more. My hands shaking, I picked off the few remaining.
“Now!” he ordered. He yanked open the door. He shoved me inside. He pulled the door closed.
“We’re clean!” he yelled to the suspicious cashier. She looked us over. Then she nodded.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s sit over here. What do you want? I’ll get it.” He came back a minute later with six sodas. “We can get more,” he said, “but this’ll get us started.”
We each took a deep drink. We crushed the cups and tossed them on the growing pile next to the overfull trash can.
“How long did it take to get to this mess?” I asked.
“Oh, it started off slow enough, I guess,” he answered. “There was the first protest. That’s when everybody bought two sodas just to make a point. The trash was bad then, but the city kept up. Then things kind of calmed down. Soda was a lot more expensive, so people bought less. That’s when the soda machines started appearing on every block. The cans were cheaper. People didn’t have to go inside. The shops had to do something. They lowered their prices. And then the heat wave hit.”
We had finished our first drinks. He brought us back another six sodas. Then he went on.
“That was it. That was the death knell. The city couldn’t possibly hope to keep up. It just got worse and worse. There were cups and cans everywhere. They carpeted the sidewalks, the streets, everything.”
He took a sip of his drink. He sighed. He checked the bottom of the cup. Finding it empty, he tossed it behind him in the general direction of the trashcan.
“You know the city. It wasn’t long before the artists started doing their thing. Cup and can sculptures popped up overnight. They worked fast. Turned out they had to. The flies and other stuff were right behind them.” He paused. “More?”
I glanced outside and shuddered. I didn’t want to brave that mess again any time soon. I nodded.
“Just two this time, though.” I patted my waist. “Trying to keep it under control.”
I understood his chuckle. I could feel my lap slumping over the side of the seat.
“I know,” I laughed. “I planned to move here. I heard that everyone walked all over. And with the soda ban, I thought I couldn’t help but get healthy. But now you tell me that people don’t walk any more. And what I’ve seen this morning…” I trailed off. I didn’t need to explain the situation to him.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “That’s the worst part. The soda ban was supposed to be a health measure.” He laughed. “Of course, it was good for the paper and plastic cup and can industries, too. But the cans and stuff piled up. And kept piling up. The city just can’t keep up with it. Then out came the bugs. And people couldn’t be outside any more. And they certainly couldn’t walk anywhere. So now everybody rides or stays inside. Boom! The obesity level tripled in six months. And it’s not getting any better any time fast. Welcome to life in the U.C.”
“The U.C.?” I asked.
“The Land of Unintended Consequences,” he chuckled. He finished his soda and chucked the cup at the wall. It landed on top of the heap and set off an avalanche. He looked at the cashier and shrugged.