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.
2. Illegal Contributions
A dozen years ago, recycling was a gangly wide-eyed youth, all arms and legs and save-the-planet idealism. Now it’s grown up and faces these pesky problems that come with adulthood. Shareholders want their dividends. Ratepayers want low rates. Workers want raises. That youthful promise doesn’t cut it anymore. I don’t care what kind of grades you got in college, kid, you’re in the real world now. Let’s see your stuff.
—Brian Hunter, “Recycling Grows Up,” East Bay Beat, October 7, 1998
[Monday. October 12. 10:30 a.m.]
The next morning, I follow the money to Emeryville.
I call James Wilcox at work, but he’s out, so I decide a face-to-face interview is worth a try. I learn more in person. I look unthreatening—put me in a UPS uniform with a package and all anyone will remember is the brown uniform.
I’m not striking, like, say, Doug, who’s not handsome in anybody’s book, but memorable with all his sharp angles and jerky movements. I’m somewhere between handsome and bland—soft-featured, wiry, a pleasant enough face. Five nine in hiking boots. Skinny as a sapling. Back when I used to play guitar in a hard-driving neo-punk, acid-folk-rock, Afro-Cuban Clash-wannabe band. I could get down and dirty, but one friend used to say I was too white. Hey, I am what I am, a northern European mutt. I do have a nice thick mop of hair, though it’s poorly cut, according to at least one source. A month ago, at a lunch meeting of the West Berkeley Business League, I overheard two women talking about me. “He’d be pretty cute if he got a decent haircut and some nice clothes. He’s got a nice bouncy quality.”
I’m not feeling bouncy this morning. The gash on my cheek is small enough I don’t feel like a pirate, but I’m tense in the crick beneath my shoulder blades, and I can’t seem to untie the knot tightening between my temples. And I wasn’t doing so great before my fight with Doug.
To be honest, my life is pretty fucked up at the moment. I live illegally in my office, in a low-slung wooden 1920’s warehouse, a warren of dance studios and art galleries and the toxic-sweet scent of petroleum products wafting through the low-ceilinged hallways.
I know my glass-blowing neighbor Maya sometimes spends the night here. Sometimes when I pad to the bathroom around midnight, I can see her stove burning orange though her partly ajar door, and then long after I’ve made my coffee and read my newspapers and started on my workday, I’ve seen her open her studio door from the inside. But I know she has an apartment, or did, and she has her boyfriend’s place as well, though I sense she’s not so sure about this boyfriend.
This sleeping in my office is temporary. I’m just trying to save some money and get my bearings back.
The bustling, post-industrial West Berkeley neighborhood I walk through from my studio toward Emeryville is an area in transition. Most, but not all of the old steel foundries and manufacturing plants have flown off to Kuala Lumpur or Tijuana. Dozens of retrofitted industrial shells now house an eclectic mix of dance companies, software startups, consumer boutiques, rug importers, publishers, pottery collectives, and artist studios.
On the block next to mine the 19th century collides with the 21st—the Berkeley Brass Foundry, a brown-brick fortress erected in 1895, squats across the street from a sleek glass and steel cube that houses a biotech startup. There are still enough railroad tracks, workers with hard hats, and peppy ladybug-like forklifts zipping to and fro to give the neighborhood a gritty feel, but you can also find a good cappuccino within four blocks in any direction.
Maya hates it. “Friggin’ Starbucks’ll be here soon,” she snarls.
I second that snarl, but secretly I like the mix, wish I could freeze the moment, savor it, like those last chapters of a satisfying thriller. But I can’t.
That’s why they’re called transitions. They don’t last.
Emeryville, ten minutes from my studio, has already “gone over to the dark side,” as one of my friends says.
When I first came to the East Bay in the mid-’80s, this little city of 5,000 residents was invisible. Carved out of the northwest corner of Oakland, Emeryville was known only for its card rooms, where low-stakes gambling was allowed and high-stakes games tolerated. Now it’s bursting with cranes and construction. Berkeley and Oakland want developers to pay mitigation costs, build responsibly, and so on. Emeryville says, come on in, do whatever you like. From the abandoned factories and vacant lots sprung sprawling software campuses, high rise apartments and hotels, shopping complexes, a shiny new Amtrak station. IKEA is building a giant store by the freeway. A planning commissioner I know says dourly, “I failed to prevent the Emeryvillization of Emeryville.”
But the neighborhood where Brady and Wilcox live is as shabby as ever. The row of one-story brick townhouses has the charm of Army barracks, only less so. The Brady/Wilcox place is not as ramshackle as Doug described, though it’s on the same block as the house with the knee-high weeds and the clunker up on blocks.
I don’t hear anything when I press the doorbell, so I rap loudly on the door. With each knock there’s a thin metallic ring, as if an empty coat hanger is rattling on a hook.
A woman with fluorescent red hair opens the door a sliver. Doug didn’t describe Lynn Brady, but I imagined a sugary hillbilly housewife in an apron. Not even close. Tall, late twenties, pink and punkish with black horn-rimmed glasses, she wears her hair in a severe slant from crew cut short in front to long and straight in back. A silver stud pokes through her nose. I hear the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” playing behind her.
“What?” she asks.
“Hi, my name is Brian Hunter. I’m a writer for a weekly newspaper in Oakland called the Beat. I’m writing about the upcoming election and I wonder if I can ask you a few questions.”
“I don’t have anything to say about politics.”
“Are you sure about that? It says here on the Candidate Contribution Compliance Report from the city clerk’s office in Berkeley that you and your husband—is that James Wilcox?”
“Uh huh,” she say, gripping the door as if she’s ready to swing it closed. All I can see is her face and neck.
“It says Lynn Brady and James Wilcox each made a contribution of five hundred dollars to Sheila Womack and five hundred to Chris Wass, both running for Berkeley City Council.”
“Must be something my husband took care of.”
She starts to close the door, but I slide my foot in its path. “I’m not trying to get you into trouble,” I say through the four-inch gap. “It’s just that making an illegal campaign contribution is a felony under California election law and you could go to jail. Two of the checks are from you. Could they have been made in your name without your knowledge?”
The color drains from her cheeks. Her eyes dart from side to side, as if looking for an escape route. I nudge the door open with my knee.
“You and your husband have made the maximum contribution to a city council candidate in a neighboring city when it doesn’t appear that you have a lot of extra money. You don’t, do you? Have a lot of extra money?”
She doesn’t answer.
“Ma’am, are you registered to vote?”
“I’ve got to go,” she says, withdrawing behind the door. I reach in and give her my card and ask her to have her husband call me. I remove my foot and she closes the door. By now, the Beatles are onto “Bungalow Bill.”
I didn’t plan to scare her, but I’m so used to professionals like the Consolidated Scavenger press reps who don’t flinch when I ask them tough questions. I felt bad, but also good that I was able to strike fear into someone. She did appear to genuinely not know anything, but she was also more nervous than the circumstances dictated, even before I jabbed with the felony line.
Next I visit the third floor at city hall.
I’ve never met Sheila Womack or Chris Wass. I try Wass first, but no one answers.
I approach Womack’s office cautiously. Doug blasted me for not being partisan enough. Womack is likely to feel the opposite.
The door is open a few feet and I hear two voices.
I recognize the first as Gill Sykes, Womack’s aide. I met him once at a solid waste commission meeting. He wore a double-breasted suit and a diamond earring, the other six of us were in jeans and T-shirts. Doug described him as “ambitious with a capital A.” He’s a slight African American man about the same build as me, maybe thirty years old.
“I can run my own life, sweetie,” I hear him say. “I don’t need you playing Lady Macbeth.”
Then comes a woman’s voice, cool and measured. “I hear hesitation where I want to hear enthusiasm. But it’s your play.”
I don’t know who it is, but it’s not Womack. I crane my neck to get closer. All I can see is a wall of bookshelves and a bicycle helmet.
“I’m just looking both ways before I cross the road” he says, “Lot of dangerous drivers out there—“
“You didn’t look both ways before jumping into my bed,” she says, sounding disparaging and seductive at the same time.
“Oh, I didn’t think you were dangerous.” I hear a wink in his voice. “Lucky for me I was wrong about that. Very wrong. And very lucky.”
Then comes a thunk on the floor, like someone dropping a heavy bag, followed by the slurpiness of a kiss. Then whispers. The hallway is empty. I edge closer to the opening. Suddenly, the door opens inward and she walks out.
I twist quickly to my left and scoot over to the bulletin board. The woman, tall and thin with shoulder-length blond hair and a glint of turquoise earrings, catches my eye before I turn. I swallow and arch my head towards the board to study the agenda for the upcoming meeting on off-leash dogs.
“You were listening, weren’t you?” she says. I put my finger on the board as if to read the notice better. Pretend I don’t hear her. But I feel her stare boring through my back. Go away. Please.
But I’ve been yapping at myself about not being timid. So I turn to face her. Wow, she’s gorgeous. Delicious lips with whitish-pink gloss, long pale legs with a sparkling green ankle bracelet.
“Hi, my name is Brian.” I offer my hand and give her a warm smile.
She hesitates, more anxious than angry. I keep my hand outstretched.
“Abby,” she says, and gives me a tepid handshake.
“Abby, Hi. Um, this is going to sound weird, I’m sure, but—“ I stop and look at my shoes. “It’s sort of embarrassing.”
She looks at me with suspicion, then opens her hands as if to say, go ahead, whatever, but I’m skeptical.
“Well, I saw you walking up the stairs and I was so captivated by you and I was hoping to talk to you and get your phone number, but then you ducked into that office, and I was waiting, and well, can I call you?”
I grab a pen and notebook from my pack and stand poised to write down her number.
I freeze with the pen an inch from the page. She relaxes her face and squeezes out a tiny smile, as if someone were twisting her arm behind her back. “I’m flattered,” she says, “but no thanks.”
She pulls sunglasses out of her enormous purse and puts them on. “And stop following me, or I’ll call the police.” She hurries down the stairs.
Okay, she didn’t believe me. So what? I grin to myself, pleased with my impromptu performance. Not only did I disarm her, or distract her at least, I managed to practice my flirting at the same time. So unlike me. Unlike the old me, that is.
From the stairwell railing, I follow Abby’s head as it gets smaller and she flits through the first floor lobby to the Milvia Street entrance. I turn back to Womack’s office, but Sykes is headed out the door. I walk next to him, tell him I’m a reporter for the Beat, and ask him if he can answer some questions about contributors to Womack’s campaign.
“Tell me about James Wilcox and Lynn Brady? They’ve each given your campaign five hundred dollars.”
“It’s a big city,” he says, walking fast. We’re halfway to the second floor. “Sheila has supporters she’s never met, people who like what she stands for. Now if you’ll excuse me.”
I race down the steps to keep up. “I have evidence that it’s Con’s money, Consolidated Scavenger, and that Wilcox and Brady are being used. Which means their contributions are illegal.”
He stops with one hand on the railing and his feet on different steps and whips back towards me, but then his frown melts into a smirk.
“If you’re so concerned about election corruption,” he says slowly, “you might ask around about the Re-Be slush fund.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Simple: Re-Be is illegally diverting funds it receives from the city for recycling work and funneling them to the PJs for election activities.”
“Really? Is there proof?”
“We’re assuming the auditors will find it. They’re looking.”
“And who is ‘we’?”
“We? ‘We’ would be the law-abiding citizens of Berkeley, California.”