1. Truth is for Cowards

My “green noir” mystery novel, Wasted, takes place in October 1998, as Berkeley experiences an unusually hot and prolonged Indian Summer.

Every day this October, I am posting a chapter of Wasted. You can read it like a serial novel, a chapter a day for a month. The day’s chapter will be here, the already posted chapters at johnbyrnebarry.com/wasted. My goal is to publish Wasted by December 1 and I am seeking readers and feedback.

If you’d like to read the book without waiting a day between chapters, please contact me — I have advance readers copies available now as e-books and, within a couple weeks, as trade paperbacks. All I ask is that you write an honest review.

(If you haven’t read my other novel, Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher, which I wrote after Wasted, you can read the first three chapters here, and buy it here. It’s fun and fast-paced. Read reviews here.)

Here’s the first chapter.

Wasted.091814

1. Truth is for Cowards

“For years, the big garbage companies worked overtime to discredit and stop the recycling bandwagon,” says longtime activist Doug Spaulding of Recycle Berkeley, a.k.a. Re-Be. “Now they don’t just want to get on the bandwagon. They want to buy the whole thing and kick the rest of us off.”

—Brian Hunter, “The Garbage Shortage,” East Bay Beat, September 30, 1998

[Sunday. October 11. 9 a.m.]

I see Doug before he sees me, and I pause in the shadow of the Re-Be gate to watch him. He’s driving a dusty yellow John Deere forklift, precariously balancing five bales of cardboard and drumming his hands on the steering wheel. He’s wearing headphones and singing, but I can’t hear him above the groan of the engine.

His frayed jumpsuit, dotted with oil stains and holes, looks like it will disintegrate in the next wash, and his graying ponytail pokes out the back of his orange and black Giants baseball cap. It’s his carefully cultivated Joe Working Class Hippie look, but he grew up in the high-hat suburbs of San Diego and has a Ph.D. in Biology.

I take a breath—dealing with Doug takes an extra shot of oxygen—and stroll into the yard. Doug drops the bales onto a flatbed truck, zips away in reverse, and skids to a halt. He leans into a turn with his shoulder, and grimaces as if his shoulder is bearing the weight. When he sees me, there’s a flicker of embarrassment, then he jerks the headphones off and hops down from the cab.

“I want to show you what we’re up against,” he says. “I will not be fucking intimidated.” Doug, have you heard of hello?

An hour ago, he woke me with a phone call, growling, “You want evidence? Bring a shopping cart. And your camera.”

Doug leads me to his boxy white 1950s bread truck, with the faded Langendorf Bakery logo still visible on one side.

“Front tire punctured. And they leave the fucking screwdriver on my front seat. And the gloves. They want me to know.”

“And who, specifically, is they?” I ask, as innocently as possible. “Tom Herman? Julian?”

“Of course not. Some grunt they hired. I already told you about that whacked-out poacher who tried to kill me. I mean, my life is in danger.”

Doug’s a modern guy—he surfs the Web, follows aluminum prices on the commodities market, listens to Beck and Dave Matthews, and uses sunscreen. But his contempt for “yuppie scum,” his characterization of landlords as “parasites and extortionists,” his sneering about rich people this and rich people that pigeonhole him as a ’60s relic. He’s practically a caricature.

Yet I admire his unflinching passion, wish I had more of it myself. Of course, Doug is a coward in his own way, rarely turning his critical and perceptive eye on himself.

“So what did the police say about all this?” I frame the front tire and passenger door of the truck in my viewfinder.

He hesitates.

“You didn’t call them.”

“Why bother? They’re in on it.”

I put down my camera and give him a skeptical look. “‘Paranoia strikes deep,’” I say, “’‘Into your life it will creep.’ Stephen Stills.”

He stops me with a pointed finger, flashes a phony grin. “Hey, ‘A paranoid is a man who has all the facts.’ Williams S. Burroughs.”

“Yeah, and he was a junkie who shot his wife,” I answer.

“Oh, there’s more. Stay tuned.” He grabs my arm. I shake free. He strides across the pavement, crunching broken glass and tin can lids under his work boots. I stuff my notebook in my back pocket and grab my camera. Rabbit, the old spaniel mutt that Re-Be has adopted, is sleeping in the sun next to the buyback scale. He wiggles his tail in a weak imitation of a wag, then buries his nose in his paws and closes his eyes. I pat him on the head. Not much time left for him. Doug weaves past two huge blue bins overflowing with glass bottles, then stops at the base of the cinder block wall that encloses the yard.

Re-Be’s had a lot of break-ins over the years. Homeless people sleep in the hut. Others get in somehow, fill bags with aluminum cans, then bring them back the next day to resell them at the buyback center. So a couple years ago, after an errant truck knocked down the old fence, Re-Be built a new ten-foot high wall of cinder blocks topped with broken glass embedded in mortar. The shards of green and brown and clear glass sparkle in the morning sun like jewels.

At the top of the wall a patch of blue denim is speared on a piece of green glass. I pull out my camera and zoom in for a close-up.

“Obviously, it’s our man with the screwdriver,” says Doug.

“Obviously,” I say, overplaying my exasperation. “Look, I get that you want this to be Scavenger sabotage. But I need more than your allegations. You insult me when you give me this flimsy shit and expect me to print it.”

“What, you expect Con to leave incriminating memos sitting around on picnic tables? You don’t have it in fucking triplicate, it didn’t happen? Is that what you’re saying? Textbook rat-fucking, that’s what this is.”

“This is textbook speculation,” I say. “You don’t seem to get this, so let me repeat it slowly. I don’t. Want to publish. Anything. Without. Hard. Evidence. Got it?”

Doug kicks an empty plastic bucket. It rolls along next to the wall, then bangs into it.

“Hunter, what has the truth ever done for you? You told the truth to your bandmates about the money you owed. They bailed. You told the truth to Eileen. She’s gone.”

I open my mouth to respond, but can’t think fast enough.

“We’re living in the post-modern ’90s, man, the truth is what we decide it should be.”

How does Doug know about Eileen, I start to ask, but he rolls right over me.

“Look, my parents are lawyers. Their job is to get their clients off, nail the other guy. Truth is fucking irrelevant. You have the chance to create truth, man, to blast the fucking lid off this takeover plan. Don’t blow it just so you can be fucking pure.”

“Doug, Doug, Doug, I published a laundry list of Scavenger’s criminal fines last Wednesday. I can’t repeat them week after week—”

He thrusts his head towards me, his face inches from mine. I lean back, twisting away from his stare, tightening my grip on the camera hanging from my shoulder.

“Truth is for cowards, man, you gotta take sides,” he says. “The middle of the road is where the roadkill lay twitching. You claim to be a radical, but you don’t have the balls to actually do anything.”

Breathe deep, I tell myself. Don’t let him hook you.

I don’t take well to name-calling. Sometimes I wonder if my marriage failed because I was afraid to fight, my skin was too thin. But there’s safe and there’s afraid. What’s that line from George Jackson? Take patience far enough and it’s cowardice.

I plant my feet, fold my arms in front of my chest, and look him in the eye.

“Doug, attacking me, attacking my integrity is not okay. I thought we were friends. I—”

I leave it at that, take a photo of a nearby stack of aluminum bales. In the breeze, I smell the bleach disinfectant that Re-Be workers scrub the pavement with at the end of each workday. I also catch a whiff of curry from the Indian takeout place up the street that’s always so crowded on weekends.

“Okay, I’m a little out of control.” Doug steps back, holding his palms up, fingers curled, as if carrying two big melons. “But this is huge. These people are criminals, predators. This isn’t just about holding onto our jobs, our twenty worker-controlled, democratic non-hierarchical jobs, by the way. It’s about the fucking chain-ganging of Berkeley. It’s about community control, resisting domination by corporate criminals. It’s about recycling creating six times as many jobs as landfilling. That’s the truth. And look at what Re-Be’s doing: We’re teaching third graders about worm composting. We’ve spun off three salvage yards that are all doing good business. We’re not just picking up the cardboard packaging, we’re getting people to question whether they need to buy the fucking product in the first place. You think Con is going to do that?”

His voice softens. Again he leans towards me, but without the aggressive stare.

“Hunter, what you write matters. The stories you publish make a difference. Con’s expansionist intentions are out there now, seeping into the public consciousness.”

I hesitate, disarmed. This is the Doug I know, even admire. Relentless, yes, but with a hint of graciousness.

“Doug,” I say, measuring my voice, “I know that this is important to you. I do want to tell this story, but I need more than circumstantial evidence.”

“Oh, like this?”

He pulls a folded piece of paper from his pocket and casually hands it to me. In the middle of a computer printout are two lines highlighted in yellow marker. “James Wilcox, $500; Lynn Brady, $500.”

“What’s this?”

“Follow the money, just like Deep Throat said. These two jokers don’t even live in Berkeley and here they are making the maximum contribution to Womack’s council campaign.”

“So these are campaign contributions?”

Doug nods. “Five hundred for a council race? This is from the city clerk’s office. It’s not their money, it’s Con’s. Wilcox is the floor chief at the transfer station. He can’t be pulling in more than about forty large. And Brady, that’s his wife, home with the kids. They live in Emeryville, in a shithole handyman special. Old beater up on blocks in front. These people are fronts. Womack and council buddies wants to shut us down, let Con swoop in.”

I study the printout. Doug bites his thumbnail, spits it on the ground, then turns and strides back across the yard towards the cavernous football-field sized warehouse, open on one side, where the sorting and baling take place. He doesn’t ask me to follow him, but I do.

Against the center wall of the warehouse, bales of cardboard are stacked ten high, two dozen wide. Paper swirls on the concrete floor. Doug climbs up three steps into the cockpit of the baler, and sits in front of the silver control panel, with its dozens of switches and buttons and levers. In the center a big red circular button says “EMERGENCY STOP.”

He flips a switch and the cans that were sitting in a pit start their ascent up a sloped conveyer belt. At the top, they drop fifteen feet into a hopper and a steel ram squeezes them into a block about four foot by four foot by three, like a wide file cabinet on its side.

I stand on the concrete slab the baler is mounted on, my head at Doug’s knees, and look again at the folded paper. Re-Be’s two-year, $2 million contract with the city to collect recyclables is up for renewal in May. I know Doug is afraid the council will open it up to competitive bidding and Consolidated Scavenger will lowball the bid and pluck it away. Con has done that elsewhere. I wrote about that in my last story.

“Talk to them,” barks Doug, jabbing his forefinger at the highlighted names. “Grill them. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Barb take over what we built here.”

“Barb?” I say, with surprise in my voice. “She couldn’t have anything to do with this, you know that. She just started.”

Barb had been Doug’s lover for ten years. She and he had been the matriarch and patriarch of Re-Be, then over the summer, with the quickness of a kitten, Barb broke up with Doug, quit Re-Be, and took a job as recycling director in Consolidated Scavenger’s Oakland office.

Doug scowls at me, his eyes narrow. “You think they couldn’t have found dozens of people to run that program? No, you don’t know her. She’ll fuck us over, they’ll promote her, and then she’ll blush and trot out her ‘oh, little old me, I’m just trying to make the world a better place’ bullshit. I’ll kill her before I let that bitch sell us out again.”

Pause.

“That’s off the record.”

I watch the cans roll uphill. “Sounds like the whole breakup hit you pretty hard.” I’m careful to sound as neutral as possible.

He snorts. “She was just a crack I fell into. It was understood from the beginning that she would bail.” He shrugs. It’s a common gesture of his, but this one is so quick, it’s more like a twitch. “But taking the Scavenger job. That was hateful, man. Poison. She did it to spite me. Not only do I not want to be with you anymore, she’s saying, I want to destroy what we built together.”

A compressed bale of aluminum clatters out the baler’s side door, then the chute at the top of the conveyer belt opens and a new batch of cans fall into the hopper.

A gull glides to a ledge below the metal ceiling and squawks.

“Doug, you’re wrong. Barb had changes she had to make. She didn’t do these things to spite you. And she was not just some crack you fell into. That’s mean.”

“You’ve got the hots for her, don’t you?” he says, jabbing his finger into my face. “That’s it, you’re hot for her.”

“Hot for Barb?” I say, pretending to be confused. Then I decide not to be. “What if I were, you got a problem with that?” Truth is, I’ve lusted after Barb since the moment I met her.

I fold my arms, lock my eyes on his.

“Fucking right I do. You stay away from her. I’m not finished with her yet.”

“She apparently is finished with you.”

“It ain’t over till it’s over.”

“Yeah, right,” I say.

He jumps out of the cockpit and lands on the ledge a foot in front of me.

“You shit,” he says. “You weasel. It’s people like you that keep those assholes in control. You believe her bullshit? You’re pussy-whipped. That’s why you’re scared to expose Con. You’re afraid you might piss off Barb.”

“Okay, Spaulding,” I say, “I’ve had enough of your shit. Barb leaves, you can’t deal with it, so you vent your spleen at her and the company she works for. That’s a lot easier than looking inside, because you know you drove her away—”

“Hunter with a left jab,” Doug sneers, but I won’t let him talk. I get in his face.

“This witch hunt you’re on.” I keep my voice low and controlled. “You’re tearing Re-Be apart, calling people cowards, ripping into Barb in front of her friends, accusing hard-working board members of being bought off. Re-Be’s an embattled place, mostly because of you. You can’t blame that on Scavenger.” I take a breath. Downshift. “Look, I’m talking to you as a friend. Barb leaving must, you know, mean quite an adjustment. People understand that, they do, but you’ve turned their sympathy into animosity. If you’d apologize and tell people you’re hurting, they’d come around.”

Doug leans over me until his nose is an inch from mine, and snaps his words as if they’re darts.

“Don’t analyze me. If I want a shrink, I’ll steal $100 and rent one.”

I can’t hold his stare. It’s too vicious. I pull back. I’ve never seen him this unhinged before.

“A therapist wouldn’t be a bad idea,” I say, looking down at a black stain on the concrete.

He pauses, then crinkles his nose and bares his teeth. I lift the camera to my eye and snap the shutter. He flinches, then swipes at the camera.

He misses, but then shoves me into the pit on top of a rickety pile of cans. I land on my back. The camera bangs my cheek. The cans cushion my fall, but a stab of pain rips my right shoulder. My howl echoes off the warehouse roof.

All of a sudden I feel the surface under me moving, and I’m being carried up the slanted conveyor belt that feeds the baler. I try to climb out, but I can’t get a foothold. I sweep the cans off my legs, plant my foot on a ledge and push myself upright, twisting to grab for the side wall. But my feet slip on the slick surface, and I fall face first. I flip myself around and I can see the end of the belt a few feet above me where the cans fall into the hopper.

I catch the wall with my hand and then, summoning some primal gymnast within, I yank my body to it and throw my legs over the side wall. I brace for the impact with the concrete slab, but instead fall on Doug and we tumble with our arms and legs entangled, sliding in a puddle of oil and water.

I leap to my feet.

“You fucking lunatic,” I shriek. “You could have killed me. You’re fucking—“ But I can’t find the words. Doug sprawls on the ground with a pained look on his face, rubbing his elbow. Blood smears his forehead. I look around for a shovel, a two-by-four, something I can swing.

“You know I wasn’t going to hurt you.” Doug winces as he sits up. I hope he’s hurt. “I was just letting off steam.”

A shaft of sunlight reflects off a chair and scorches my eyes. Bile blisters my throat. I have to get out. I don’t trust myself.

Doug gestures to the control panel behind him. “I was about to push the stop button. We’ve got all sorts of safeguards. You know that.”

“You’re sick, you asshole,” I say. “You need help, serious help.” I march out of the warehouse and across the yard. My heart bangs against my ribs like a rock tumbling down a metal stairway. Doug follows me.

“You know I wasn’t going to let anything happen. I wouldn’t. You know me.”

“No, I don’t know you at all.”

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