Every day this October, I am posting a chapter of Wasted, my “green noir” mystery novel set in the world of garbage and recycling in Berkeley.
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.
Chapter 4. Add Sex and Stir
Recycling has not been as profitable for the garbage conglomerates as had been hoped, partly because it’s more competitive than garbage hauling, which has been dominated by a few large companies over the past decade. Shareholders, demanding higher returns, are starting to jump ship.
—Will Cardinal, “Growing Pains for Recycling,” Wall Street Journal, October 1, 1998
[Tuesday. October 13. 7 a.m.]
Maya lends me her car and Tuesday morning I head out to Diablo Landfill before the sun comes up. Owned by Scavenger, Diablo is set deep in East County near the delta, and surrounded by treeless ridges lined with wind turbines. Cows and sheep munch on the dry brown grass. I’ve arranged to interview James Worton, the chief engineer, but when I arrive it’s Julian Allard who gives me the tour. Interesting. He’s a P.R. guy I met once before, based in Oakland, in the same building as Barb, so he probably rose as early as I did to get here. He says Worton had to testify at a hearing. Maybe. My guess is they were afraid he would stray off-message.
When Allard and I climb out of the truck to look over the hillside where the “possum-belly” trailer trucks empty their cargo, the odor slaps me in the face.
“Ah, the smell of money,” he quips.
For years, the so-called garbage crisis used to read like a variation on an old joke: Landfills are much too dangerous, and there aren’t enough of them around. A decade ago, we were ready to strap garbage trucks onto the space shuttle and blast them into orbit. Then, big players like Scavenger built huge regional landfills like Diablo, a new generation of waste-burning incinerators came on line, and recycling took off. So for garbage companies in California today, the real crisis is that there’s not enough garbage to go around. It makes sense for cities to divert as much waste as possible from the landfill because the tipping fees can be substantial, but for landfill operators, who profit from tipping fees, all that recycling hurts the bottom line.
But Diablo seems to be getting its share. A procession of trucks rumble up the hillside to dump their loads into the hollow below us. Allard points to a nearby area that has been capped and landscaped. “You go down eight or ten feet there and there’s hardly any decomposition going on. It’s like an Egyptian tomb. You could find a hot dog from ten years ago, still all there. That keeps the leaching of anything dangerous to a bare-bones minimum.”
When I ask Allard why Scavenger has racked up so many fines, he says because it purchased companies that didn’t have the capital to meet all the environmental standards.
“It’s like you buy a house that’s got dry rot. It’s your house now, the dry rot is your responsibility, even though it was there before you arrived. That’s how it is with garbage. There’s lots of figurative rot in these companies we’ve purchased. Some of them were downright criminal in their negligence.”
I edge closer so I can watch the bulldozers covering up the dumped garbage with dirt.
“I understand you were one of the early recyclers,” I say. “You were what, a founder of the El Cerrito recycling program? How did you end up here?”
“We’re not here to talk about me.”
“It’s just that, well, I know plenty of people have made that transition, like Barb. You used to be an ally of Re-Be, but now you seem to regard that world with contempt, like somehow the people at Re-Be are rank amateurs or corrupt or something. Or maybe it’s just that you can’t stand Doug Spaulding.”
He hesitates, adjusts his hard hat. “I’m happy to answer questions about Scavenger,” he says tersely. But his displeasure at this line of questioning only makes me more intrigued.
“I think that the Beat readers would be interested in what’s behind this turnabout—“
“That is, if you call the Beat a real newspaper,” he hisses. “I can’t even read it. It’s all sticky with PJ’s gism.”
I take a step back as if he swung at me. The PJs, the Peace and Justice Coalition, are the more left/progressive of Berkeley’s two main political factions. Barb told me Allard was once “one of us”—when he was running the El Cerrito recycling center, he even served on the PJ advisory board. There’s a story here, but I’m not going to hear it from him.
The rest of the interview is perfunctory, and when I hand him my hard hat, thank him, and climb into Maya’s car, he’s as relieved as I am.
When I get back to my studio, there’s a phone message from my editor rejecting my latest story. “It’s the same accusations with new scenery,” she says. “Sorry, but I need something fresh.”
Damn! I bang my fist on my desk. The phone rattles in its cradle. I slump into my chair.
It’s my first rejection from the Beat. I earn $200 per story, but only if it’s published. I want to be a staff writer, though I haven’t said so out loud. There are no openings now and the pay is low, but it’s better than working on spec. In the meantime, cranking out a solid story every week seems the best way to keep myself in contention.
Shit. Shit. Shit. I was finally starting to get some traction.
A long time ago, before I met Eileen, I lived in Los Angeles and had a passionate romance with a flaky but exciting woman named Rain—a hippie with a capital H. She loved taking psychedelic drugs and camping and walking around naked and lolling around in desert hot springs. For a furious and fleeting month or two, she loved me too. Said I soared. We met at an anti-nuclear rally in Santa Monica where my band played. During those next weeks, I had lots of gigs, lots of rehearsals, lots of sex and I was running on coffee and oxygen and infatuation. Tall and willowy with long red hair, Rain wore colorful ankle length dresses with nothing underneath, and wow, sometimes I could hardly believe the life I was living, playing rock and roll and making love with this exciting woman who gushed over me.
She wanted to lead a passionate life, she said. We did. We lived the cliché of starry-eyed lovers. We went out dancing after my shows and then made love and talked until dawn. We read Sufi poetry to each other. We rode rollerblades on the bike paths at Venice Beach. We made out in the back of movie theaters. We walked through art galleries holding hands.
But then the band’s interpersonal shit escalated and we had too many meetings and I got stressed and I wasn’t fun and light all the time and Rain knocked on my door one afternoon and blurted, “I’m not in love with you anymore.”
I was no longer leading a passionate life, she said. The band meetings depleted me. We argued instead of rehearsing. And I began noticing how Rain said the same things over and over again.
I was crushed. Looking back, I can see that Rain was much more in love with the passion and the romance than she was with me. I’m not sure she ever even saw me. Of course, she was unrealistic to expect to keep such a passionate delirious flame burning so bright—life gets in the way sometimes—but wanting it, well, there was nothing wrong with wanting it. I wanted to live a passionate life. I still do. But somehow I let it slip away and embraced caution instead. I don’t even know why.
Now, here in this seemingly endless Indian summer ten years later, I feel like I’m recapturing it. I’m not leaping tall buildings, but I’m moving and grooving, tackling my to-do list with abandon, acting impulsively. It’s not that I’ve turned off my brain, but when I look at my sprawling list of leads and tasks, I pick one and do it instead of deliberating the pros and cons of each choice. Every time I return to my studio, I check my phone messages and e-mail, then make another round of calls and posts. Dial. Leave message. Rinse and repeat. The more I accomplish, it seems, the longer my to-do list gets. And every Wednesday, another story of mine gets published in the Beat.
But this rejection hits me harder than I expect, and I feel like chucking everything and returning to the refuge of counting other people’s money. There’s a comforting certainty to double entry bookkeeping, the knowledge that you either get it right or you don’t. There’s none of that nebulous subjectivity you get with music or art or writing. And no one expects you to work on spec.
I saw this coming, but I chose to be blindly optimistic. The problem is that I don’t have shit on Con. Of course I’m repeating myself.
I have a long list of leads. I’ve made dozens of phone calls. I visited two transfer stations, five buyback centers, Con’s regional headquarters, a bunch of recycling facilities. There was enough show-and-tell at the transfer stations and recycling yards to wrap a couple of stories around. Add a few of Doug’s accusations, some of the parent company’s criminal fines and recent purchases and mergers, and presto, there’s 1200 words. My editor was delighted with the first three stories, but she’s right. I have to amp it up to the next level.
Meanwhile, I’ve found plenty of evidence of turmoil at Re-Be, and I’ve reported precious little of that. I don’t this want to be an exposé of disorganization and posturing at Re-Be. They’re not ruthlessly efficient there, but neither are they ruthless. I want to focus on Consolidated Scavenger, but I don’t have access to anyone inside except Barb.
Of course, I’m not making it any easier on myself by reporting on people I know and care about. I’ve been careful to acknowledge, in every story, that I once volunteered to help Re-Be with its bookkeeping. After my first story, I thought it might be better to recuse myself, but the Beat doesn’t seem to care. It’s an unabashed advocate for leftist and environmental and gay causes. My editor says it’s fine to be supportive of Re-Be as long as I don’t paint them as knights on white horses. And get my facts right.
I want to tell the truth, but not be a megaphone for Doug’s paranoid ravings, or say too bluntly that Re-Be is in as much danger from internal strife as from any predatory multinational. I suppose, like Doug says, I’m creating truth as much as reporting it. My truth, though, not his. But, damn, no one wants to publish it.
Okay, I feel crappy. Get over it. Get back to work.
I grab the phone, close my eyes and point a finger at the piece of paper on my desk. It’s a phone list of Scavenger employees that Doug faxed me this morning. I can see thumbtack holes on the fax. He probably pulled it off a bulletin board when he left Barb’s office. I dial the name my finger is on.
On my fourth call, I get a live person. Judy Killea. She hesitates after my spiel. She has a hint of a Southern accent. “What is it exactly that you’re looking for?”
“Like I said, I’m thinking of applying for a job at Scavenger and I’m trying to find out if it’s a good place to work. What do you do there?”
“Why are you calling me?” she asks.
“I got transferred. Someone said you might be a good person to talk to.”
“You should talk to HR,” she says.
“I want to hear the unofficial story.”
“Not from me you will.”
“Wait,” I say, just as she’s about to hang up.
I look down at the script I threw together, but it doesn’t go this far.
“Well, you see, I’m wondering, Consolidated Scavenger is a big company, is there anyone you can think of who would have a unique perspective, someone who likes to talk—”
“I’m going to transfer you,” she says, and I hang up in the middle of the first ring.
A few callers later, I reach someone who sounds bored and perks up when I start asking questions. He doesn’t seem to like his job much. “Beats working,” he says. I try to draw him out, but don’t get much. I ask if there’s anyone else I might talk to, maybe someone who used to work there.
“Donna,” he says.
“Donna Rowland. Worked in the press office. We went drinking a couple times. She’s way cute.”
“You have her number?”
“Wish I did. I asked her for it.”
“You know where she works now. Or lives?”
“Yeah, yeah, over in the city. Her place I mean. It’s near where they’re building that new ballpark, she said the pile driving started at 7 a.m., shook her apartment. That’s why she came in early every day. You find her, tell her Neil says hey.”
I flip the San Francisco phone book open to R before the connection’s broken. No Donna Rowland, but there’s a D Rowland, which I try. No Donna there. I try the switchboard at Scavenger posing as an old friend of Donna. No luck.
I take a break to do some bookkeeping. Still have to bring home some bacon, even if I don’t eat meat and my home is an office. But I can’t concentrate.
I call the press office at Con, saying I’m an old friend trying to track Donna down. Monte Irwin, who was testy when I talked to him to a couple weeks ago, comes on the line. “Why would we do anything illegal?” he said to me back then. “There’s plenty of money to be made operating a legitimate business. People are always willing to pay someone to take care of their garbage.”
I don’t want him to recognize me, so I cough a little and talk in a low throaty voice. He transfers me to Human Resources. While the phone rings, I practice my basso profundo some more.
“Hi, this is Cathy,” a chipper voice says to me.
“Hello Cathy, this is Bill Jamison, I’m an independent auditor working on your employees’ insurance records for extended COBRA coverage—I’ve got this discrepancy here, I wonder if you can help me. It’s Donna Rowland, that’s R-O-W-L-A-N-D. She’s no longer with you, is that right?”
“She left in the spring. She didn’t take COBRA.”
I walk around my tiny studio and hold the phone to my ear with my shoulder. I talk with my hands to help me stay in character.
“The records I’m looking are contradictory,” I say, turning on the grovel. “In one place she says she wants continued coverage, then somewhere else it says no. I’m sure it’s a mistake on our end, the data entry, we really should pay those people more, awful job, no wonder there are mistakes. I know you’re busy, I can’t expect you to sort this out. I’m calling because the home number says 997-5987, but—“
“That’s the communications department.”
“I’m sure it’s just a data entry mistake on our end. I just wonder if you have a home number.”
“We have a policy about not giving out employee numbers. I’m sorry. Or ex-employees.”
“Of course, of course, listen, I know this would be a pain for you, but might you call her and leave her my number? It would only take a second, and would really help me out. The deadline is the 20th and I’ll be on the road this weekend and then I’ve got this training and—well, you don’t need to hear my excuses.”
I smile to myself. Who is this guy?
“I don’t think you need to worry,” she says, “I’m positive she didn’t request COBRA. She went straight into another job.”
I give her my number, then try three other names from the employee list, leave a few different messages, some as myself, some as Jamison.
My ear is tired. I’m restless and discouraged. It’s only eleven. I’ve already downed three cups of coffee. Another one will roil my stomach.
I wash my face in the deep utility sink. Most of the studios in my warehouse are rented by artists who use their sinks for cleaning brushes or rinsing clay off their fingers. I wash my dishes in here. Socks too. (Not at the same time.)
I call Jesse, my editor, and try to convince her that my story deserves to run. I remind her that my submissions have been well-researched and well-written—she’s hardly had to edit them—and I’ve been on time and reliable.
She sighs. “That’s true, and I appreciate that, but maybe I’ve reached my quota for drama about recycling. Or lack of drama. I’m not convinced enough readers are that interested.”
“But this is not just bottles and cans. It’s an archetypal Berkeley story. I mean, I’ve got strong career woman Barb Genessee, working for a giant transnational with a lengthy rap sheet, squaring off against embittered former lover Doug Spaulding, working for the rabble-rousing do-gooders, the kitchen-table collective. One power struggle mirrors another. At stake, a million-dollar-a-year contract, the city council majority, and if Doug is to be believed, the soul of Berkeley. Add sex and stir.”
“That’s not the story you turned in,” she says.
“You’re right. But it’s the one you’ll get in a couple hours.”