All posts by johnbyrnebarry

3. None of Us Will Ever Forgive You

Wasted.091814My “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.

3. None of Us Will Ever Forgive You

According to Solano County Assistant District Attorney Maria Gonzavez, several small waste haulers complained they were being harassed and followed by Consolidated Scavenger trucks, and that their customers were “blitzed”—this is, offered below-market rates for garbage hauling. Pretty soon, said Gonzavez, Scavenger had all the contracts and the small haulers were out of business.

—Glenn Fontana, “Monopoly Mania: How Two Companies Came to Dominate California’s Garbage Business,” Corporate Crime Quarterly, Spring 1998

[Monday. October 12. 2:30 p.m.]

I fell in love with Barb the first time I met her, nine years ago, in the middle of another Indian summer. My band, the Burning Bridges, performed a benefit concert in the Re-Be yard to support a city ballot measure calling for a five-year moratorium on garbage incinerators. (It won.) The sun was scorching and Barb wore a skimpy spaghetti-strap dress with sandals and I flirted with her shamelessly, which I could somehow do with a guitar strapped on my shoulders. I was dazzled by how her face gleamed in the sun, how she stood close to me and touched my arm as we talked, how her sparkling eyes held mine so intently.

We were babbling about nothing, mostly the weather, but it was all subtext. For me, anyway. She said something about how rarely it got this hot in Berkeley, and very quickly we figured out that we grew up in the same state, she in Kansas City, me in St. Louis.

“Well, I like it hot,” she said, twisting her hair around her fingers. Then this lanky, longhaired guy with close-set eyes came up behind her and put his arm around her waist. “This is Doug,” she said, taking a step backward. Doug nodded. “Righteous tunes, man.” Then led her away.

A few years later, when the band was ancient history, Eileen and I were married, I was making a modest, albeit dull living counting money for various businesses and nonprofits. I walked into Re-Be looking for work and ended up volunteering, working with Barb to get Re-Be’s books on the computer. I told myself it was for a good cause—giving back to the community and all that—and maybe other people believed that. All I wanted an excuse to be near Barb.

Last winter, I ran into her on a gloomy night at a political poetry slam at the Bolshevik Café and we hung out afterwards, drinking beer and commiserating about how unhappy we were in our respective relationships. I remember telling her that Eileen and I had “retreated into our private disappointments.”

Doug is the one who urged me to write about the “recycling wars”—that’s his term, though I’ve adopted it—and I really am strangely fascinated with the gritty and metaphor-filled world of garbage and recycling. But would I be chasing this story if not to reconnect with Barb? Maybe. Of course, if I’m successful exposing Con’s misdeeds, Barb’s not likely to be thrilled with me, so who knows how smart this whole idea is?

Monday afternoon, after lunch, I bicycle to Barb’s office in downtown Oakland. I lock my bike to a parking meter and climb the stairs, two at a time, to her fifth floor office, pushing off my knee with one hand, pulling on the railing with the other. I stop at the fourth floor landing to catch my breath and peek out a narrow window across Lake Merritt towards the bone-dry Oakland hills. I lift my arm and sniff. A hint of the locker room, but only if I jab my nose in there.

I’m nervous. I’m going to ask Barb to dinner. Slip the invitation into the conversation casually, as if it just occurred to me. This is the first time I’ve seen her one-on-one with us both unattached.

When I walk into her office, she grins at me from her chair, gesturing in a self-mocking manner. Like the Pope greeting the masses. “Welcome to my palace,” she says.

I make eye contact and hold it. I smile and rotate my head slowly to take in the spacious office.

She pushes her chair back and comes out from behind her desk. I bend on one knee and take her hand with a light grip. “May I kiss your ring?” I say.

She waves me up and gives me a hug, then motions me to the group of chairs in the corner. She seems happy to see me. Neither of us says anything until we’re seated. “If I let them,” she says, “they’d have someone bring me coffee in the morning, do all my faxes, make all my copies. ‘That’s why we have support staff, Barb.’ But I’m not used to this queen-bee stuff and they’re starting to understand that.”

She pauses.

“The good news is I don’t have to fix any trucks.”

Barb never has played the queen-bee role, despite her many accomplishments and her leadership. She’s always been less a tada-here-I-am person and more oh-there-you-are. She was stamped with the same Midwestern modesty template as I was, but working at Re-Be certainly magnified that. Stars not allowed at Re-Be.

“I hear you and Eileen split up,” she says. “How are you handling that?” She reaches over and touches me on my wrist.

“How do you—?”

“I ran into her on the street. We had a nice talk.”

“A little venting about your exes, I suppose.”

“Actually, no. She said she was sad that you two couldn’t work it out, and she wished you the best in your next chapter.”

“Oh.”

“But you’re not doing so great, are you?”

“No, I’m fine. Well, fine might be stretching it. But how do you know all this?”

“Lucky guess.”

She leans forward in her chair, listens intently, her eyes wide and inviting.

“Well, I’m okay,” I say, “but I still find myself having all these conversations with Eileen, as if something doesn’t happen unless I tell her about it. I write letters I never send. I—but I didn’t come here to blather away about myself, I wanted to see you, to interview you for my story, give you a chance to balance some of the crazy things Doug has told me.”

And to ask you to dinner. But that gets caught in my throat.

She stands up and walks over to the wall next to me and straightens out a slightly askew Ansel Adams print, that one with the full moon over New Mexico.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll figure it out. You’ve got a lot going for you.”

I tell her about my visit with Doug yesterday, how agitated he was, how he pushed me in the baler. “I felt like I’d been transported into one of those after-school, black-and-white TV shows where Batman is about to be crushed or impaled in some devious death trap by a cackling villain. Except I only had a few seconds to get out of there.”

I leave out Doug’s spiteful comments about her, but do say that I’m concerned about the intensity of his anger, with me and with her. She closes her eyes and rubs her forehead.

“I don’t mean to suggest that you’re responsible or anything,” I say. “I’m not part of the firing squad. I respect what you’ve done.”

“Do you?” She sounds skeptical.

No one at Re-Be has questioned Barb’s decision to leave Doug. “What took you so long?” is the most common reaction. Some, however, are giving her grief for taking a paycheck from Consolidated Scavenger. Of course, Re-Be seems to be floundering without her, so that’s part of the mix.

She walks over to the window, adjusts the blinds to block the bright afternoon sun.

“Brian, what am I supposed to do?” she says, her voice quivering with despair. “Don’t you think I know how he’s acting? He’s stuck. As if his shoes are nailed to the ground.”

“I didn’t mean to dump all this on you. I’m doing this story like I said on the phone, but I really came because I wanted to see you.”

“Here I am.”

She wraps her hair in her fingers, looks down. She ties her thick hair back, but strands are always getting loose and hanging down the side of her face. She’s constantly pushing her hair behind her ears—if she saw herself on video, she’d be shocked how often she does that.

She looks up, but past me, her eyes unfocused, tired. “It took me years to break up with Doug, but I’m still not free. I’m determined not to give him the satisfaction of seeing he’s getting to me, but I’m afraid that one day I’m going to snap.”

She glances towards her desk, then back to her hands.

“I don’t want to be a victim. I’m too privileged to embrace victimhood. I’ve got a lovely place to live, meaningful work, enough to eat, too much to eat even. But somehow because Doug was so headstrong about this collective principle, and I don’t know, threatened somehow by my competence, I found myself feeling like a victim. Unappreciated. Stuck. Feeling sorry for myself. That’s not who I am, not who I want to be. But that’s what I was becoming. I had to leave to save my life.”

“Amen. And you have.”

“I have.” She nods, her lips pressed together in a pout that seems to say that saving her life is still a work in progress, more a goal than an achievement.

“You don’t look like a victim,” I say. “You look great.”

“Thanks,” she says, and then comes an awkward silence and I ask her about work. She begins explaining how she’s redesigning the commercial recycling program in Emeryville and Oakland, a spiel she clearly has trotted out before. She relaxes, relieved that we’re onto something she can talk about with ease.

She talks with undulating hands, like her Italian forebears, punctuating her sentences with fingers spread wide. Despite her weariness, she looks absolutely lovely, with her lithe, graceful gymnast’s body, her Mediterranean face with a tint of olive. Her black hair, lightly streaked with white and gray, gives her gravity and elegance. Her face is too angular to be classically beautiful, but she’s “handsome” in a hardworking, modest, comfortable-in-her-own-skin way. She looks stronger and thinner than when I worked with her on the bookkeeping three years ago, but it’s jarring to see her wrapped in a business suit. I’m used to her in simple jeans and t-shirts with colorful earrings and braided bracelets and bright Guatemalan shawls. She’s done a lot of work on herself in the past few years—running, modern dance, therapy, swimming, yoga, juice fasts, and so on. I heard from Kisa that one reason Barb wanted a better job was so she could afford more therapy and bodywork. I’ve heard her summer’s been a dramatic one, full of tears and late-night calls to friends.

She’s talking about Scavenger’s plans to start collecting food waste from restaurants when her phone beeps. She holds up a finger to put us on pause, then walks to her desk and punches a button on the phone.

After a sputter of static, a female voice comes over the speaker. “There’s a Doug Spaulding here in the lobby. He says he’ll wait as long as he needs to until you see him.”

Barb rolls her eyes. She presses the button on the phone, holding her finger there, and says, with pleading eyes, “Stay.”

I nod. She releases the button. “Send him up.”

She shakes her head. “This is the third time he’s showed up. I’ve avoided him twice. I’ll feel safer with you here.”

“Are you afraid he’s going to hurt you?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “You know the story, right?”

I nod again. “Second- and third-hand. Doug said it wasn’t you breaking up with him that hurt, it was you working here.”

“So he says.”

She opens the door, then sits down behind her desk and takes a few deep breaths.

I see Doug ambling down the hall, all legs and elbows, looking out of place in his denim work shirt and ponytail. Though he’s pushing fifty, he still moves with the gangliness of a teenager during a growth spurt. He squints as he enters, nods at me. Not a hint of surprise.

She points to an armchair. “Have a seat.”

Doug marches directly towards her until the desk stops him. He pushes, but the desk is heavy and doesn’t budge. Then, his thighs against the edge of the desk, he leans forward, and glowers at her. She meets his stare without flinching. I’m holding my breath.

He steps back and starts pacing.

She straightens a stack of paper that’s already straight. Her desk is neat and uncluttered. At Re-Be, her workspace was never this orderly.

“We’re watching,” he says, hands folded behind his back. He’s casual, low-key. With no affect. “You step on our turf and it’s war. And we don’t play by the rules.”

“Do we have to go over this again, Doug? This turf business is so tedious. It’s like the crazies saying Re-Be gets its marching orders from Havana. Do you really think Con is going to move in on Berkeley? We’re still—”

“Damn fuckin’ straight I do—”

“Let me finish.” She brushes her hair behind her ear, holds it there with her fingers. “We have our hands full jumpstarting the commercial program. Residential is not that lucrative, you know that. You have to trust me on this. If I thought for one nanosecond that working here would endanger Re-Be, I wouldn’t be here. Period.”

Doug’s fists clench by his side. “None of us will ever forgive you.”

“You might never forgive me,” says Barb. “That’s your problem. But I talk with Kisa, with Shannon, Ray, they understand. They—”

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

“How brave of you.”

I slouch back in my chair, careful to not draw attention to myself. But they know I’m here.

“You know Con is using you,” Doug says.

“That’s why they pay me. That’s why they call it a job. They pay me money and then they expect me to accomplish something in return. It’s called the real world, Douglas, it’s something—”

“You’re contemptible. You’re a whore. You—”

“Cool it, Doug.” I jump up. “Barb is not the enemy. She’s—”

“Oh, Hunter speaks his mind,” snaps Doug, turning his glare on me. “That’s right, I forgot, you’re sweet on Barb, aren’t you? That’s so touching. You two would make such a cute couple, you with—”

“Enough!” Barb says. She turns to me, in a quieter voice. “Brian, I can defend myself, I’ve been doing it for years. Way too many years.”

I ignore her. “Doug, get yourself some help. Put on some boxing gloves and swing at a punching bag or something. Get a bat and whack some pillows. You’re way out of line.”

“She betrayed us,” says Doug, addressing me and pointing his finger at Barb, “and she doesn’t even know it.” He can’t hide the weariness and distress under his hostility. For a second, it almost seems like he wants to roll up into a ball and cry. Behind the turf war bluster, his message to Barb is unmistakable: “How could you leave me?”

He regroups, turns back to Barb, raising his voice to a saccharine snarl. “Let’s see. How do we take over?”

He counts off with his fingers. “First, we steal their best people, bribe them, put them up in fancy offices with vacant postmodern crap on the walls. Second, we lowball the bid to get the contract. Third, we squeeze out the competition and bury them in—”

Barb stands, her palms on the desk, and leans across her desk. “Don’t talk down to me,” Her voice is even and controlled. “My eyes are wide open. I know you. You don’t have the discipline to work in the real world. God, you might have to be on time for meetings. You might—”

“I know all about the real world—”

“No, you don’t. You don’t. You’d rather stay where you are and blame it all on me. You call yourself a radical, but all you do is sit on the sidelines and complain about rich people. What’s so revolutionary about collecting bottles and cans in 1998? Why not let a mainstream company handle it? Get Re-Be out on the cutting edge with something no one else will do.”

“Only Con is not just some mainstream operation,” Doug says, “it’s a mother-fucking global criminal. You’ve got a trail of blood and toxic waste all over South Asia. You’re dumping radioactive stew in the Ganges River in India, shipping incinerator ash full of dioxins to Burma where they put it into concrete construction bricks—”

“And Con has racked up more than $50 million in fines and penalties,” Barb says, mimicking Doug’s voice and cadence. “Con’s been convicted of price-fixing, conspiracy, illegal dumping, child pornography, white slavery, organ trafficking—“

“Oh, I almost forgot,” says Doug. “Step four. Jack up recycling rates by threatening poachers and sending them to Berkeley, with a fucking map of the Re-Be routes.”

Barb sighs, then picks up the phone and punches in a number. “So, are you going to leave now or do you want me to call security? Let me guess. You want to make a scene and then whine about how you were manhandled by the big badass corporate criminals? It’s your call.”

“Believe it,“ he says. “I’ve seen the maps.”

He pushes up against the desk again and glares at her. This time he rams his legs into the desk with such force that it lurches an inch towards her. With the phone in her left hand, she sits down and writes a note on a pad of paper. As calm as if she were alone in the office.

Doug turns to leave, shooting me a squinty-eyed sneer. “You’ll regret this,” he says, loud enough for most of downtown Oakland to hear. At first, I think he’s talking to me, but he couldn’t be.

When Doug leaves, Barb stands up and exhales, as if she’s been holding her breath for the past ten minutes. I take a tentative step toward her. She moves behind her chair and tightly grips the blue fabric of its back and breathes in and out. Then she takes a drink from her light blue mug and moves toward me. I open my arms wide and she leans into them, but she still has the mug in her hand and it gets stuck between us and spills, and my backpack slips off my shoulders. But she holds on. I can feel her trembling. “Thank you for being here,” she says.

She pulls away and points at the wet spot on my shirt. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s only water,” I say. “Hey, let’s sit down.”

I take her hand and lead her to the chairs in the corner. We sit. She squeezes my hand for a second then lets go and jumps up.

“Look, I need to earn my mercenary paycheck, bring this program in under budget and how the hell am I supposed to do that without busting my ass?” She’s mumbling now and disappearing before my eyes.

“We underbid to get the contract, just like he said, and somehow I’m supposed to make a profit. But the numbers don’t add up and well, you don’t want to hear about it.”

“Actually I do.”

She leans her head back, closes her eyes. “Maybe another time.”

“Now works for me.” I pause. “Okay, another time. I’ll call you. I’d love to see you under better circumstances. To have fun.”

“Fun,” she says. “I forget what fun is.”

“He’s really being an asshole,” I say. “But he is right about one thing—I am ‘sweet on you.’”

On my way down, through the window in the stairwell between the third and fourth floor, I see Doug climb into his battered bread truck and scream up San Pablo towards Berkeley with a squeal of tires.

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2. Illegal Contributions

Wasted.091814My “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.

“Not now.”

“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.”

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.

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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.”

Wasted Chapters

Before I wrote Bones in the Wash, I wrote Wasted, a “green noir” murder mystery set in the gritty world of garbage and recycling. I “completed” it for the first time around 2001 and many rewrites later, I contacted seventy agents. Eight nibbled. Two asked for the entire manuscript. One seemed on the verge of saying yes, but didn’t. 

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Somewhere along the way, I began working on my second novel, then called Turquoise Trail, and Wasted was set aside in a banker’s box and floppy disk. (Remember them?)

Now I’m recycling it — re-editing, even a little rewriting — and preparing it for publication on December 1. I have advance reader copies available as e-books on Smashwords right now, and soon I’ll have them in trade paperback as well. Contact me in the comments below if you’re interested. I’ll send you a copy if you promise to write and post an honest review.

I’m designing the inside pages in InDesign instead of Word, which gives me far more control. Here are a six chapter opener pages. Which do you like the best? (You can click on the image to see a higher resolution pdf. And add comments below.)

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Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 9.42.00 PM You can read the first three chapters of Wasted here.

Private Lives

Thanks to my friend Lawson LeGate for his perceptive review of Bones in the Wash. I wish I could say that I consciously set out to do the things he says, but maybe it doesn’t matter.

“It is remarkable how the author so completely understands the characters he develops for this story: the dynamics of Zamara family; the competitive relationship between two young women friends; the distinctly different romances between young Sierra and her boyfriend, between Mayor Zamara and the mysterious Tory, or the strained marriage of Sierra’s parents.

“You feel as if you’re peering into the private lives of real people, all skillfully set against the backdrop of the highly competitive world of presidential politics, with the sinister world of organized crime casting a faint but menacing shadow. It takes a fertile imagination to dream up a flash flood that threatens the lives of the mayor and his lover on an outing in one part of the state, while uncovering the bones of his murdered wife in another. I found myself eagerly turning the page to discover how the various plot lines in this book were going to turn out.

“Highly recommended.”

Everything he says above I did intend to do, but I never spelled it out quite the way he did. Now it’s true that I very deliberately linked the flash flood that the mayor and his lover were caught in with the bones in the wash discovered downstream. I remember mapping that out.

But the contrast between the relationships was not as conscious. The distinct differences were not so much planned as much as they grew out of the distinct characters. After all, what makes relationships similar are the universal things, like sexual attraction and getting each other and common likes. What makes them different are the people who come to them.

It’s been a challenge getting the word out about this novel, which I sweated over for years. But when someone enjoys it and captures so well the reasons I wrote it in the first place, well, that makes all that sweat worth it.

You can read the first three chapters here, and the Making of Bones in the Wash, Parts 1 and 2, here.

Exercising Every Day for 40 Months

Not only was Wednesday the last day of April and the hottest day of the year, it marked the 40th month that I’ve exercised every day.* That’s 1,216 days, but who’s counting?

I hiked my regular loops — Tennessee Valley-Coastal Trail-Fox Trail. Four miles. An hour and 10 minutes. About 1,000 feet of climbing. Gorgeous views. That photo at the top of the page is from this trail.

I started keeping track on January 1, 2011. My goal at that time was every day for the year. When 2012 arrived, I kept on going. Of course, my reward for reaching this milestone is to keep at it for another 40 months. At least.

So what counts as exercise? Walking, certainly. That’s what I do more than anything. Then, in order of frequency, there’s bicycling, lifting weights, Zumba/aerobics class, and, hardly ever, swimming and running.

How long before it counts? An hour, though I give myself some slack and 45 minutes counts when that’s all I can fit in. (On the stopover from Ecuador three years ago, I walked back and forth in the small San Salvador Airport at least a dozen times, which was about 40 minutes. But we had hiked the Inca Trail ten days earlier so I decided that was good enough.)

I’m not an athlete. When I bicycle to the city, the only cyclists who don’t pass me are tourists on rented bikes. After 15 years of Aerobics or Zumba, I still feel like a beginner. Most of the time, I do these physical activities myself, though I frequently walk with my wife and/or with friends.

One key to making the every-day routine work is, whenever possible, walking or bicycling to where I need to go anyway. For ten years, I commuted to or from work 2-4 times a week, from Mill Valley to downtown San Francisco. I walk to and from grocery stores, cafés, meetings, friends’ houses.

Since it’s so easy to make charts these days, I made one. This is an estimate, of course. (I kept track off and on, but then figured all I needed to know was that I did something, not what it actually was.)

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As you can see, my most common activity, by far, has been a walk or hiking. But when does a walk become a hike. When I wear hiking boots and it’s on a trail? When it’s long and steep? Going to Peets on city sidewalks is a walk. Climbing a 14,000-foot-peak in Colorado is a hike.

Here are some photos of memorable walks and bike rides.

  • Walking from my mom’s apartment in Edgewater to downtown Chicago (about 6 miles). Here’s Lake Michigan on a cold winter morning.

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  • Backpacking in a very different Chicago — the Chicago Basin in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness — with a wonderful group of Sierra Club folks two years ago. My first three (and only three) 14ers.

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  • I took most of my hundreds of rides to or from San Francisco as the sun rose or set. Here’s Richardson Bay on the way in.

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  • And here’s a recent hike with my love Z at Goat Rock Beach on the Sonoma Coast, where the Russian River meets the Pacific.

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Sometimes this daily habit is a chore. I wish I didn’t have to do it. Like bicycling toward the Golden Gate Bridge on a summer evening, directly into the cold fog. Or dragging myself up the last steep hill home.

That’s when I tell myself that I’m grateful I can still do it, that I’ve avoided injuries, pain, and never really been sick. I’d like to believe my habits have something to do with that, but there’s no denying luck and genes.

I know that can’t last forever, but my goal is to keep this going for as long as I can. One day at a time.

*As to that asterisk above, in the first paragraph, no, I’m not taking steroids. But I did miss one week with the flu in June of 2012. I made up for it.

Stone Age Fitness

For Christmas in my family, we pull names out of a hat and give one present to one person. My brother Pat got me back in December, and he suggested maybe he could come out here from Chicago and help with a project.

Yesterday, we started that project — building a rock wall and path for a garden bed on the steep hillside outside my house in Mill Valley. We were stiff and tired last night — maybe the beers contributed to that — but what a great present. Other than the expense of buying the rocks and gravel and stepping stones, I would do this again in a second.

Good thing, because after breakfast, we go at it again. We made excellent progress on our first day, more than I expected, but we’re not done yet. The rock wall is complete (and there are enough rocks left to build another one) and eight of the stepping stones are laid, but we have another dozen or so to go. Plus we had a little mission creep and now we’re also going to redo some of the existing steps down the hillside, which have been an accident waiting to happen.

Here’s what it looks like so far. Not bad for a couple of middle-aged men who sit in front of screens most days.

Here’s the before photo, with a couple sample rocks.

When we selected the rocks, Sonoma fieldstone, the most local and the least expensive, we learned that there are two main sizes, heads and double heads. The double heads were pretty heavy, but we didn’t need many of them. Those were for the bottom row, to create a strong, stable foundation.

It’s Saturday morning. We’re already done. We alloted ourselves three days and finished it in two, even with the mission creep. (Here’s to setting modest goals.) We even did some planting. Here’s a view from above. It already looks good, but will be even better as the plants grow.

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We also came up with a new startup idea: Stone Age Fitness. You pay us to be your personal trainers, and we put you to work carrying rocks down steep hillsides. Here’s Pat posing for our promo.

Here’s how we did it:

Minimal Planning, Mostly Improvisation: My plan had been to sketch out the wall and garden using my rudimentary landscape design skills. I did map out my yard in Berkeley, years ago, but it was a flat rectangle. Easy to measure. This is a curved corner lot on a steep hillside. I took a number of measurements, but never did more than the most cursory sketch. (Enough to show it to José at American Soil Products where we bought the stones, so he could help us estimate how many we needed.) More important than the sketches was reading up on some web sites and landscape design books.

What we built is called a “dry-stone retaining wall,” with no mortar to hold the stones together. The Incas built huge walls and agricultural terraces using these methods 600+ years ago. Similar walls from centuries ago have been found in Ireland, Scotland, Zimbabwe, China, and many other places. To prepare fields for planting, farmers had to remove rocks from the soil, so they were right there at hand, ready to be used for any needed structures.

Please note: This is not a how-to. We’ve never done this before. We don’t know if the rock wall will come tumbling down in a downpour, will fall over when some deer kicks it. I know more than I did a week ago — that’s as much as I can promise.

What I did do that served as a starting point was approximate where the walls and pathway would be with hoses and stakes. After walking around our worksite, we made some adjustments to these boundaries and started digging.

Fortunately, we had some heavy rains in February and the ground was soft and easy to dig. We piled the dirt on a tarp we spread out on the hillside, with an old plastic turtle sandbox on top to serve as a backstop and prevent the dirt from sliding down the hill.

The Flat Earth Society: For the rock wall and steps to be stable, we needed first to create a level surface. We cut into the hillside with picks and shovels and then, using a tamper from the Berkeley Tool Lending Library — Yay Berkeley — created a strip about three to four feet wide. Then we poured gravel on that strip and tamped it again. That was wide enough for both the foundation of the wall and the flagstone steps in front of it.

The original specs were for one rock wall about a foot deep, two feet high, and six to eight feet long, leaning into the hillside, holding a garden bed about four feet deep. Almost as important was a level pathway in front of the garden and connected to the steep steps along the side of the house. The hillside is steep enough that it’s a challenge to find any spot where you can stand with both feet at the same level. On the morning we started the job, we got two pallets delivered to our driveway with 1.5 tons of Sonoma fieldstone, 15 rustic green rectangular flagstones, each 1 foot by 2, and four bags of gravel, nowhere close to how many we needed.

We laid the flagstone steps first, because then we could stand on them while we built the wall, which went up surprisingly fast. We did have to lug a lot of rocks thirty feet or so down these steep treacherous steps from the driveway to the worksite. Below you can see Pat standing on the first three steps we laid and the cut we made into the hillside. The next shot shows the beginning of the wall.

We angled the wall ever so slightly in toward the hillside, and when we reached about a foot high, we filled behind it with lots of gravel (for drainage) and some of the dirt we had dug out earlier. The stacking of the rocks was like putting together a puzzle. At first, I was looking for specific shapes, then I found it made more sense to just pick one or two rocks and then find the best spot for them on the wall. We did our best to overlap one double head on top of two heads, the way a brickmason would overlap bricks.

We completed most of the rock wall and six of the flagstone steps by midday and then we had to go out and buy some more gravel, flagstone steps, and lumber.

Overbuilding: My brother and I have both done a lot of work around our houses for years, but he’s more experienced and skilled at construction, and he suggested we get some pressure treated 4 x 4s and 2 x 8s to create frames for the stepping stones as they descended the hill. (My original thought was to do without, but he argued, correctly, that we wanted this to last through heavy rains, and we should err on the side of overbuilding. So we did.)

You can see below, just to the left of the yellow pick, the way the lumber framing allows us to move down the hills and keep the flagstones level.


As I said, we had more rocks than we needed for one wall, so we built additional ones, to create another planting area, but mostly to give more support on the downhill side of the flagstones. So a hard rain wouldn’t wash out the gravel and dirt underneath them.

Natives, Not Vegetables: My original thought was to grow greens in the bed — chard, kale, lettuce, spinach, and so on. (Not enough sun or heat to grow tomatoes.) I knew that because of the deer, we would need to build some sort of cage to cover the bed. I did more sketches of that than the rock wall itself.

I’m a newcomer to this hillside home. My wife has lived here for more than 20 years, I’ve been here less than one. She likes the natural oak woodland look and I promised that the garden bed project would be in keeping with the natural surroundings. Certainly the rock wall seems very organic. If we dug deep enough, we’d probably find rocks just like the ones we piled into a wall.

But a cage over the bed? That could be ugly. So we decided instead for native perennials that were deer-resistant, and went down Friday afternoon to the native plant nursery at Tam Junction and picked up two coffeeberry bushes, three sages, and several grasses and groundcovers.

Here’s our planted garden from below. Pretty great, huh? While these are native plants, they may take a year or more to get fully established. Especially given the drought. But once they do, well, they’ll act as if they belong here.

(John Byrne Barry is author of Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher.)