1. Berkeley Scavenger
In the beginning, we threw our garbage away by throwing it. In the corner of the cave. Outside the door of the hut. In the street. Rats, dung beetles, and bacteria did the rest.
—Brian Hunter, “The Garbage Shortage,” East Bay Beat, September 30, 1998
I’m tired of taking showers at the Y. The skin between my toes is itchy and cracked. Maybe it’s time to get a real place with my own shower, live like an actual middle-class person instead of sleeping illegally in my office, on a sorry-ass sofa bed that only unfolds if I hang my chair on a hook.
Or rather, not sleeping, as is the case now. I’m studying the fat ventilation tube clamped to the high ceiling. The moonlight paints a gash on it, as if all the air is about to spill into my studio.
I could get up and work for my bookkeeping clients, but every hour crunching spreadsheets is as deadening as a day in a coal mine, without the black lung disease to hasten my demise. But that’s a good thing. I may be depressed, but I’m not looking to end my life. I’m looking to start it.
OK, I’m getting up. I’m going to head out into the darkness with a shopping cart to steal bottles and cans. I’m getting up. Now.
Yesterday, my friend Doug told me that every month in Berkeley, poachers “steal” $15,000 worth of recyclable aluminum, glass, and cardboard from Re-Be’s apple-green curbside bins. (Re-Be is what everyone calls Recycle Berkeley, the collective where Doug works.) He encouraged me to go undercover as a poacher to see what I might discover. The pickup schedule he gave me is tacked to my bulletin board. Today’s route is in the flatlands, about ten blocks away.
Determined to reinvent myself as an investigative reporter, I now seem to be covering what Doug calls the “recycling wars”—the fight between the recycling true-believers and the corporate come-latelies, like the giant multinational Consolidated Scavenger. Which Doug, not so affectionately, calls “Con.”
I maneuver a shopping cart from the furnace room through the dark and narrow corridors. Donning my disguise—jeans with a hole in the seat, a stained Microsoft Excel t-shirt from a trade show, crusty garden gloves, and a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap I’ve had since high school—I can’t say if I look the part, but I feel it. My throat is scratchy, my stomach churning with two cups of truck-driver strength coffee, my eyes bleary.
Walking up Ninth Street, I start seeing the bins at Delaware. The shopping cart keeps veering right because one front wheel doesn’t touch the ground. I have to stop every few minutes to tilt up on the back wheels and reposition. I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something, but I haven’t worked it out yet.
There’s no one around, but I feel jumpy. It’s not like I’ve never walked these streets in the dark before, but there’s something unsettling about the hours before dawn. I have to fight the urge to go back to my studio and burrow back under the covers.
Once bottles and cans are placed on the curb for pickup, they legally belong to Re-Be. When scavengers in their shopping carts rummage through the bins, take the cans or cardboard or whatever they can get a good price for, they’re technically stealing.
The first block has been picked clean—there’s only newspaper and mixed paper left. Heading east on Virginia, I find a block no one has scavenged. After half an hour, I’ve barely covered the bottom of my cart. Already I smell of stale beer and soda.
As I bend over a bin, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I jump. Hovering over me is this big black guy maybe fifty years old, with a scraggly white beard and yellow gloves.
“Hey, how’s it goin’?” I say as nonchalantly as I can. “I’m, uh, Brian.” I’m not alert enough to lie.
“I ain’t see you before,” he says, in a soft voice. One of his eyeballs rolls around inside the white of his eye, like a marble in a funnel. He’s at least six four and two hundred fifty pounds. In his right hand, held partly behind his back, is a long flat piece of weathered white wood with a pointed end, like he’s pulled a picket off a fence.
I consider running. His shoelaces are loosely tied and he does not look fleet of foot. With a head start, I can surely outrun him. At the end of the block, I eye a couple of shopping carts. I didn’t hear them. Maybe he’s oiled the wheels. Mine squeak. What’s that advice I heard? If it moves and it shouldn’t, use duct tape. If it doesn’t move and it should, try WD-40.
I stay put.
“First time in this part of town,” I say. “Used to do Oakland right near Piedmont. Got hassled too much.” Doug told me poachers in the Piedmont neighborhood of Oakland were being routinely harassed by the police and “advised” to go to Berkeley.
“You gotta find somewhere else, boss. This here’s mine. You got a sponsor?”
He takes a step back and unscrunches his neck. I think he’s reading me right. I’m not going to challenge him.
“I can go somewhere else,” I say. “How do I know what territory is left? I’m new in town.”
He squints at me as if he’s trying to read the small print on a medicine bottle. “You look like you be new all total,” he says. “You sure you done this before?”
I look up and down the street. “Just a couple times,” I say. “Back east, St. Louis, when I was really broke. Like I am now.”
Without warning, he swings the picket and hits my thigh.
I howl. “Oh shit, shit, shit! What the—” Before he swung, I was nervous and measuring my words, but stunned and emboldened by the pain, I yell at him fearlessly. “You’re fucking nuts! Why the fuck did you go and do that for?”
“You were after my shit,” he says.
I grit my teeth, hold my leg. Nothing’s broken. But he swung his picket hard on the meat of my quadricep. I look down the block at his carts.
“No, I was not going to take your shit,” I snarl. “If you weren’t so totally stupid, you’d see I was going to do whatever you wanted me to.”
“You were going to run off with my carts.”
“No, run away from you, maybe, but not with your stuff.”
“Oh.” He pauses. “But you was lying to me.”
A few blocks away, a train passing through blares its horn. The 5:30 commuter run to Sacramento.
“I have to sit down,” I say.
“Here, you want a beer?” He reaches into a frayed canvas shoulder bag, the kind I wore as a kid delivering newspapers on my bike in Dogtown, and pulls out a can of Weltanschauung. My stomach is sloshing from the coffee, but I mutter thanks, and sit on the curb. A couple of birds chatter, but otherwise it’s quiet. Early birds. Daybreak is an hour away.
The big man folds his legs and squats beside me, holding onto the handle of my cart. “I’m Wilson,” he says. He pulls out another can, opens it, drinks.
The beer is warm. That surprises me, but I don’t know why. Did I think he had a cooler on his cart?
“Thanks for the beer, but it doesn’t make up for the fact that you whacked me without provocation.”
“Without provocation. Without pro-vo-ca-tion.” He draws out the word. “You were looking at my carts.”
He pulls himself to his feet, guzzles his beer, and tosses the empty in my cart. “Next week Friday at four in the a.m., meet me here,” he says, pointing to his carts at the corner. “I’ll be your sponsor. Get you started.”
“Started?” I ask, staring at him, trying to look tough and skeptical.
“But you gotta follow the rules,” he says. “I’ll get you a map. You can’t have this one. This is mine.”
He unfolds a worn piece of paper and holds it in front of me. It’s the Berkeley route map from Re-Be, but with dotted red borders drawn in various places. I try to pull the map closer and tilt my head to read it under the streetlamp, but Wilson grips it tightly in his fist. His thumb covers the top of the map, but at the bottom, I see a list of buyback centers. I recognize several of them. He yanks the map away, then reaches into his pocket, gives me a couple of crumpled dollar bills.
“Get yourself some donuts.”
“No, I can’t—”
He pushes the bills into my palm, and closes my fingers around them. “Next week,” he says.
He walks back to his carts. A pair of raccoons poke their heads out of a sewer grate after he passes, then they retreat.
2. Truth is For Cowards
Recycling, once a gangly, wide-eyed youth, all arms and legs and save-the-planet idealism, has grown up and now faces those pesky problems that come with adulthood, like making money. And now the big garbage companies that once sneered at recycling, like Consolidated Scavenger, a.k.a. Con, want to take over.
—Brian Hunter, “Recycling Grows Up,” East Bay Beat, October 7, 1998
I see Doug before he sees me, and I pause in the shadow of the Re-Be gate as he steers a dusty yellow John Deere forklift, precariously balancing five bales of cardboard.. He’s wearing headphones, drumming his hands on the steering wheel, and singing, but I can’t hear him above the groan of the engine. I feel a dull throb in my thigh from Wilson’s picket, but it’s a lot better than yesterday.
Doug’s 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 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, then leans into a turn, grimacing 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 don’t forget your camera.” So I know he’s in intense mode.
He 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. The gloves too. They want me to know.”
“And who is ‘they’? Tom Herman? Julian Allard?
“No way. Some grunt they hired. I told you already about that whacked-out poacher who tried to kill me. My life is in danger.”
Doug is a modern guy—he surfs the web, follows aluminum prices on the commodities market, listens to Dave Matthews and Beck, 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. Of course, Doug rarely turns 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.
“You didn’t call them.”
“Why bother? They’re in on it.”
I put down my camera and give him a 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.’ William S. Burroughs.”
“Right. He was a junkie who shot his wife,” I answer. I start to tell him about Wilson, but he grabs my arm.
“Oh, there’s more.”
I shake free. He strides across the pavement, crunching broken glass and tin cans 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. 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. Doug and Barb, his partner until recently, built most of it themselves, modeling it after walls they’d seen in Mexico. 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.
“Or the black helicopters invading West Berkeley,” 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.” I keep my tone light, careful not match his ferocity.
“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. “I told you—I’m not going to publish anything without evidence. Period.”
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, any which way. Truth is fucking irrelevant. You have the chance to create truth, man, to blow the fucking lid off Con’s takeover plan. Don’t blow it so you can be fucking pure.”
“Doug, Doug, Doug. I published a laundry list of Scavenger’s criminal fines last Wednesday. I’m not going to repeat them week after week—”
He thrusts his head towards me, his face inches from mine. I lean back, twisting away from his stare, gripping my camera tightly.
“Truth is for cowards, man, you have to 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 do anything, to challenge the man.”
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 OK. I thought we were friends. I—”
Shaking my head, I leave it at that, and snap 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.
“OK, I’m a little out of control.” Doug steps back, holding his palms up, fingers curled, as if carrying two melons. “But 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. Look what Re-Be’s doing: We’re teaching third graders about worm composting. We’ve spun off three salvage yards that are 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 passionate too, with a hint of graciousness.
Clunk. Startled, we both turn towards the storage shed where it sounds like a rock has dropped on the roof. A seagull swoops down and lands on the eave.
“Feeding time,” says Doug. “The gulls bring shells from the bay, drop them on the roof to break them open. It’s cool. That’s why I work Sunday mornings when we’re closed. The gulls don’t visit much during the week when there’s people and trucks everywhere. Plus I get to play with the machines.”
A foghorn in the marina blares. Doug turns back to me, bites his lip.
“Oh, one more thing.”
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
“Like Deep Throat said, follow the money. These two jokers don’t even live in Berkeley and here they are making the max donation 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 the yard. These people are fronts. Womack and her council buddies want to shut us down, let Con swoop in.”
I stare at the printout. Doug bites his thumbnail, spits it on the ground, then turns and strides back across the yard toward 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 feet high. 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 colorful switches and buttons and levers. In the center a big red circular button says “EMERGENCY STOP.”
He flips a switch and the cans sitting in a pit on the floor start their ascent up a sloped conveyor 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 study the folded paper again. Re-Be’s two-year $2 million contract with the city to collect recyclables is up for renewal in May. 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.
Election Day is a month away. At stake are five council seats, and which of Berkeley’s political parties will control the council and decide Re-Be’s fate.
“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, she broke up with him, quit Re-Be, and took a job as recycling director in Consolidated Scavenger’s Oakland office.
Doug scowls at me, his eyes narrow. “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.”
“That’s off the record.”
I watch the cans roll uphill. “Sounds like the 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 conveyor belt opens, and a new batch of cans falls 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 chest. “That’s it, you’re hot for her.”
“Hot for Barb?” I say, pretending to be confused. Then I decide not to be. “I like Barb. I’ve always liked her.” Truth is, I’ve lusted after Barb since the moment I met her, but I keep that to myself.
“You stay away from her, Hunter, I’m not finished with her.”
“She apparently is finished with you.”
“It ain’t over until 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. You’re pussy-whipped. That’s why you’re scared to expose Con. You’re afraid to piss off Barb.”
“OK, 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 measured. “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.
I drank beer one night at the Albatross with Doug and he told me his parents took him to the courtroom when he was a kid to watch them defend Black Panthers and union leaders and criminal defendants, and that that inspired him to work for justice and fight for a better world. Fight was the key word. That’s what he learned from his parents, he told me. How to fight.
“Doug, please. Listen to me.” My tone is soothing, earnest. “You and Barb were together for a long time. Tight for a long time. Her leaving must mean quite an adjustment. People understand that, they do, but you’ve turned their sympathy into animosity. If you’d let up on all this demonizing, 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.
I recoil, but then he 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 scream echoes off the warehouse roof.
All of a sudden, I feel the surface under me moving, and I’m being carried up by the slanted conveyor belt that feeds the baler. I try to climb out, but 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, yank my body to it and throw my legs over the side. 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—” 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. I wasn’t going to let anything happen. I wouldn’t. You know me.”
“No, I don’t know you at all.”
3. Follow the Money
The most pivotal city council race in Berkeley pits challenger Sarah Gluckman, a lawyer/child-care-worker advocate backed by the left-liberal Peace and Justice Coalition (PJs), against incumbent Sheila Womack, supported by the more moderate Neighbors and Families for Berkeley (NFBs). At stake is downtown development, rent control, and the future of Recycle Berkeley, the embattled organization that runs the city’s curbside recycling service.
—Daria Reeves, San Francisco Chronicle, October 12, 1998
The next morning, I follow the money to Emeryville.
I call James Wilcox at work, but he’s out, so I decide to try a face-to-face interview. I learn more in person. That’s because 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 Doug, who’s nowhere near handsome, but memorable with all his sharp angles and jerky movements. I’m five nine in hiking boots, skinny as a sapling. Back when I played guitar in a hard-driving 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 kind, bouncy quality.”
I’m not feeling so 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.
I don’t want to ascribe too much meaning to being attacked and hurt twice in three days, but I don’t want to ignore it either. If the trend continues, I’m liable to get gunned down in an alley.
But I give myself some credit. I wouldn’t be getting myself into trouble if I were sitting at my desk, tracking debits and expenditures. (Yes, some of my clients are in arrears in their bills, but not enough so that they, or their bookkeeper, is going to get whacked by a picket. Or shoved in a baler.)
It’s eerily quiet as I head out. My office is in a low-slung wooden 1920’s warehouse, a warren of art galleries and furniture-makers and there’s often a toxic-sweet scent of petroleum products wafting through the low-ceilinged hallways. No one seems to be stirring this morning, at least in my wing of the building.
I know that Maya, my glass-blowing neighbor, spends the night here sometimes. Now and then when I pad to the bathroom around midnight, I see her stove burning orange through the partly ajar door. But she doesn’t live here. 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 software startups, yoga studios, consumer boutiques, rug importers, pottery collectives, and publishers.
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. “Frigging 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.
That’s why they’re called transitions. They don’t last. Except for mine.
Emeryville, ten minutes from my studio, has already “gone over to the dark side,” as one friend says.
When I first came to the East Bay in the mid-’80s, this little city of 5,000 residents was invisible. Now it’s bursting with cranes and construction. Berkeley and Oakland want developers to pay mitigation costs, build responsibly, create public spaces. 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 malls, and 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.”
The block where Brady and Wilcox live didn’t get the memo. The row of shabby one-story townhouses has the charm of Army barracks, only less so. The Brady/Wilcox place is not as ramshackle as Doug described, though there is a house with knee-high weeds and a clunker on blocks down the street.
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 complexion with black horn-rimmed glasses, she wears her hair crew cut short in front and long 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 reporter for a weekly newspaper in Oakland called the East Bay Beat. I’m writing about the upcoming election and I wonder if I can ask you a few questions.”
“I don’t know anything 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 says, gripping the door as if she’s ready to swing it closed. All I can see is her face and neck.
“It says here that 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 law and you could go to jail. Two of the checks are from you. Could they have been made out 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 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. As I remove my foot and she closes the door, the Beatles start belting out “Bungalow Bill.”
I’m used to professionals like the Scavenger press reps, who never flinch, so it feels unsettling to scare someone. I could get to like it though.
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 can run my own life, sweetie,” he says. “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.”
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 motorcycle helmet.
I met Sykes once at a solid waste commission hearing. He wore a double-breasted suit and a diamond earring, and the other six of us were in jeans. 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’m just looking both ways before I cross the road,” he says. “Lots 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 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 emerald earrings, catches my eye before I turn. I arch my head toward the board and 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 to myself about not being timid, and she’s not carrying anything hard to hit me with. So I turn to face her. Wow, she’s gorgeous. Delicious lips with a whitish-pink gloss, long pale legs with a sparkling 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, out with it, but I’m skeptical.
“Well, I saw you walk 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 pocket and stand poised to write her number.
She relaxes her face, then squeezes out a tiny smile, as if someone were twisting her arm behind her back. She pulls sunglasses out of her enormous purse. The smile disappears. “Stop stalking me, or I’ll call the police.” She hurries down the stairs.
I grin to myself, pleased with my impromptu performance. Not only did I disarm her, I managed to practice my flirting. So unlike me. 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 contributions to Womack’s campaign.
“Not now. Hunter, right?”
“Right. Brian Hunter. 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 get in front of him. “I have evidence that it’s Con’s money, Consolidated Scavenger, and that Wilcox and Brady are fronts. Which means their contributions are illegal.”
He stops with one hand on the railing and his feet on different steps. Is he going to answer me, slip around me, or plow through me?
He folds his hands across his chest and his frown melts into a smirk.
“If you’re so concerned about corruption,” he says slowly, “you might ask around about the Re-Be slush fund.”
“Tell me more.”
“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.”
Wasted is set to launch on September 21, 2015.