5. Err on the Side of Being an Asshole

Wasted.091814Every 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 5. Err on the Side of Being an Asshole

“None of us will ever forgive you,” Spaulding says, his fists clenched by his side.

“You might never forgive me,” says Genessee. “That’s your problem. But the others, they understand. They—”

“They don’t have the guts to call you traitor to your face. I do.”

“How brave of you.”

—Brian Hunter, “Recycling Rivalry: This Time It’s Personal,”
East Bay Beat, October 14, 1998

[Wednesday. October 14. 9:30 a.m.]

“What the hell were you thinking?” Barb snaps at me over the phone, her voice scalding. I’ve just returned from a walk to pick up a copy of the Beat. Four copies actually. My story’s on the top of page 3, with a photo of a scowling Doug leaning against a stack of newspaper bales.

“You sound upset,” I say.

“No, I’m not upset,” she says. “I’m furious. How could you not know I would be pissed?”

“I thought, well, you did say it was okay to sprinkle in elements of your life with Doug, and—”

“I did not say that. My professional life yes, but not this personal crap. God, you made me look so snide and petty. You crammed ten years of emotional muck into those lines. You’re a piece of work, Brian.”

“I guess I was far more worried about how I portrayed Doug. I mean, he’s clearly the one—”

“He won’t even care,” she says. “Being an asshole is a badge of honor for him. He’ll pick up a dozen copies for his scrapbook. He thinks being nice is bourgeois.”

“Barb, I’m truly sorry. I don’t have a good excuse.”

“How dare you? Why give Doug a chance to grandstand with this purer-than-thou crap about selling out? What is so horrible about getting paid a decent salary for the first time in my life? I deserve it.

“You think anyone who makes money is bad, and the only pure enterprises are money-losing? Get real. The only people who are going to pick up garbage and recyclables without a decent paycheck are young hippies and immigrants. It’s shitty work. It’s hard on the back. I’ve paid my dues. Doug’s got parents with money. I don’t. I’m sending my mother a check every month.”

“Whoa, Barb. I—”

“Don’t ‘whoa’ me. You had your say in print. I know you think I’m making Scavenger look better, giving them some green veneer. But Scavenger is not going away. So we sit on the sidelines and badmouth them? No. We make them walk their talk. We work with them, we work for them. I’m not here to make them look better, but if they look better because they are better, then I’m doing my job, thank you.”

I knew that it was dangerous to lead my story with the argument between Barb and Doug. But it gave the story the soap opera sizzle it needed and my editor loved it. I’ve been telling myself to take more risks, to throw off the tyranny of the “shoulds.” Act first, think second, and all that. Living a passionate life means taking risks, right?

I swivel in my chair so I’m facing away from my desk. I rub my forehead. I stand up to walk around, but I haven’t yet folded up my futon, so there’s no room to move. I sit back down. I knew she wouldn’t like this. How could I have convinced myself otherwise? Doug was clearly the transgressor in the story and Barb was tenacious fending him off, but I guess it looked ugly regardless.

I write down what Barb is saying. Not that I am going to publish it, though I note that she hasn’t said that I misquoted her or that I was wrong or inaccurate. I didn’t “create” the truth. I reported it.

“I know Con has gobbled up other companies,” she says. “I know they pushed for higher landfill standards to drive the little guys out of business. I know I’m not working for Mother Theresa, though I’m sure she has her dark side too. A lot of those little fly-by-night companies that Con bought were corrupt. Thanks to Scavenger—and Re-Be—landfill regs are stricter, recycling goals are higher. We fought for these things at Re-Be. What were you thinking? ‘This time it’s personal.’ Unfucking believable.”

“I wasn’t thinking, Barb. About you anyway. The story. It was stronger with the personal stuff. But I lost sight of how you would feel, and you always seem to be so tough and impervious to being hurt.”

“That is an act. I bleed like everyone else.” Her voice doesn’t sound tough or impervious now.

“I admired how you defended yourself against Doug,” I say, “and I guess I’ve been trying to be more reckless, not so timid. Err on the side of being an asshole, that must be my mantra for the week.”

“So that makes it okay to turn my life into the Jerry Springer show? You get your personal growth by humiliating me, is that it? How dare you? How dare you?”

“Barb, I am sorry. Really.”

“Stop groveling. It won’t unwrite the story.”

“You told me you’d be used as an example by people who wanted to trash Con.”

“I didn’t expect it would be you. I thought you liked me.”

“I do like you. I always have. I think you’re great.”

“So what is this, seventh grade? You like some girl so you tell her she’s ugly.”

“I like you a lot, Barb. I really do. You’re an engaging and beautiful woman. I’d like to go out with you.”

“Can you run that by me again?” she says. “I must have missed something.”

“I’d like to take you out. To dinner. Dancing maybe.”

“Now why would I want to do that? Why would I even want to be seen in public—with you—after you humiliated me in your goddamn newspaper?”

I rub my eyes, press my palm to my chest. “Because you’re bigger than that. Because you accept my heartfelt apology and because you know I will never ever tell your story again without express written permission in triplicate. Because next time I’ll engage in more traditional courting gestures, like bringing you flowers. Because you and I have both been through the relationship wringer and we can maybe provide some comfort and healing to each other. Because we can have some fun together. Remember, you said it’s been a while since you had fun.”

Silence. It sounds like she’s holding her breath.

“Flowers would be an improvement,” she says, with hesitation in her voice.

“How about if I throw in some chocolate?”

Another long silence. I resist filling it.

“This going out. What did you have in mind?”

“I don’t know, I was thinking maybe we get together someplace quiet for a drink around eight, then go dancing at the BFD club in the city—they’ve got swing dancing on Thursdays—then we go back to your place and make out for an hour or two, then make love until the sun comes up, and then I’ll take you to Lois the Pie Queen for a healthy breakfast with a tall glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice.”

“Brian—“

“Or grapefruit juice. I’m flexible on the juice thing.”

“Slow down. Slow down. You sound like you’re reading from some Hollywood screenplay.”

“Hey, if I had a script, I’d know what to say next.”

She laughs.

“You’re impossible.”

“Oh, no, I could not be more possible.”

“You’re going about 60 miles an hour in a school zone. How about we start a little more leisurely, you come over for a glass of wine? And no grapefruit juice.”

She sounds dubious, but I hear some playfulness. I think.

I tell her I’d be thrilled. “And Barb, I know I’m not for everyone, but if you’re looking for someone like me, I’m perfect.”

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