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opinion

Discarded gloves in parking lots outside of grocery stores are a new form of urban blight. They are also a warning that in the midst of this pandemic we may be casting some important human values aside.

Recently, I ventured out into the world for some nervous, socially distanced grocery shopping. Standing outside a big-box store in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood in a queue that stretched into the parking lot was unsettling. There was a lot of polite nodding, a lot of very Canadian so-whatcha-gonna-do shrugging, a lot of eye contact avoided by looking at phones.

Weary of scrolling through Twitter, now a noxious spiral of COVID-19 posts quoting, liking and reposting each other, I put mine away and looked around the parking lot. There was a shuttered Popeye’s across from me, a couple of banks, a Dollarama. Lots of cars, of course. One lonely motorcycle. And latex gloves.

Gloves galore, scattered around like the first leaves of fall, white and blue and green and black and a sickly purple that brought to mind frost-covered grape Popsicles and stale bubble gum. Crumpled castaways on an asphalt pandemic beach. They were everywhere.

I took my phone out again, fascinated. Visual typology – the study, classification and documentation of artifacts according to their characteristics – is a photographic practice almost as old as the medium itself. It’s an approach I quite enjoy. The simple act of sorting and arranging things, however arbitrary, makes the world seem friendlier and more rational.

I slid easily into typology mode. Some of the gloves looked like jellyfish. Others resembled dead flowers. There was also an inevitable looks-like-a-discarded-condom subcategory. My favourites, however, were the flattened gang-sign ones. I roamed the parking lot, ignoring puzzled stares from the few shoppers who looked up from their screens long enough to notice.

And then it occurred to me. This cheerful scattering of colourful trash was literally hazardous waste. Now that grocery store staff have become essential front-line workers, the thoughtlessness of callous consumers littering the ground with used gloves might actually endanger lives. It was going to fall to some anonymous minimum-wage earner to clean it all up, some kid or ex-retiree with no options who definitely didn’t sign up for dealing with the germ-ridden, dangerous residue of someone else’s shopping trip.

When the rubber hits the road, and fear starts to take over, what do we shed and what does it cost us? We are all scared and disoriented and yearning for a return to normal, but the coronavirus crisis doesn’t mean we can abandon basic human principles. Like cleaning up after ourselves.

Derek Shapton is a Toronto-based photographer, writer, and director. More gloves can be seen on his Instagram feed: @thunder_pino.