Tales From Mephitis, Chapter 23: Planet Mutant
There were eight 55-gallon steel drums full to the brim with household batteries in the warehouse. Ray had them brought over and lined up near the garbage roll-off. Frank and Gill were instructed to dump two barrels into each garbage roll-off until they were all gone. The Burn Plant wouldn't accept them, so he intended to sneak them past this way.
The problem was how to dump them. The barrels easily weighed in excess of five hundred pounds each. While the skidsteer could easily knock them over, it couldn’t dump them because of their shape. They were faced with the task of manually digging out the batteries. That appealed to neither of them.
“I have an idea.” Frank said.
The first step was to get a barrel off the pallet it was on with three others. He walked up to one and gripped the far edge with both hands.
“Wait a minute. What are you doing?”
Frank said nothing, just pulled back with all his might. The barrel moved, but didn’t rise up on an edge.
“Goddamn it. When I put my hands on something, it is gonna move.” He muttered under his breath and clamped his jaw.
He pulled with his arms, his back, and his legs. The barrel slowly rose up on one edge. He carefully rolled it down off the pallet. The steel edge crumbled and rolled under the weight. When it dropped the four inches to the cement floor it totally flattened and crushed the concrete as well.
Gill jumped in the skidsteer and drove it up to the barrel. Frank repeated the lifting it up onto its edge. Now that he had a feel for the weight, he knew how much he needed to exert. The barrel rose smoothly, and Gill slipped the edge of the bucket under the barrel. He wrestled it all the way onto the bucket, and Gill drove it into the roll-off and tipped the barrel over onto the metal floor. Some of the batteries spilled out. But not many.
“Okay. Back out, will you? Give me some room.” Frank asked.
He waited as Gill withdrew, and then approached the barrel. He spread his legs, straddling the bottom of the barrel, reached down and hooked his arms around it, bent his knees, and lifted.
Nothing. He felt the anger rise again at being thwarted. That tapped a reservoir of power. The barrel began to rise, spilling more batteries. Each battery that fell out lightened the load more. He stood the barrel upside down and then pulled it back, emptying it completely.
“Jesus.” Gill breathed.
Both looked up. Rodney had been watching through the fence.
“He’s King Kong! He can pick me up with one hand and Anton with the other! King Kong!”
The County’s bright idea of using a “Swipe” machine was set up in Venice for a trial that month. Tonto refused to use it. He didn’t know how it worked and wouldn’t learn. Besides, he didn’t know how to add, which was a skill still needed to operate it.
The Board of Supervisors in their infinite wisdom also thought they’d try reversing the flow of traffic at the same time, in order to lessen the chances of people being able to throw garbage away unnoticed.
Gill was sent down there to fill in for a day during the trial. When he got back, he reported that it was a zoo; he never had so many people yelling names at him. The “Swipe” machine was kept, but the traffic flow was restored to its former direction, and Tonto still would not touch the newfangled thing.
“So what differences have you found about getting older? You’re in better shape than any sixty-something I’ve ever met.” Gill asked him one afternoon.
“Thanks. How good a shape I’m in, I don’t know. Shape for what? I guess the biggest difference I’ve noticed is the brittleness of my joints. I’m much more prone to tearing things in them. Other than that, nothing’s much different. It’s still ‘Use it, or lose it’. Oh, yeah. My hearing’s going, and I think I’m going to need bifocals. But for the most part, I like being this old. I don’t feel much different than I did when I was forty, or thirty. And seeing how there is a twenty-year latency period for chronic diseases, I can eat and drink whatever I want now...if I chose to. By the time a cancer or ‘Mad Cow’ develops, I’ll be dead of old age.”
“My grandfather says old age consists of the three ‘P’s: Pains, poops, and pills.” Anton observed.
“That’s pretty good. I’ll have to remember that.”
“But seriously, what do you think you can do to keep healthy.” Gill said. “I’m worried about this snuff sh*t. I picked it up because I quit smoking, but I’m worried about cancer.”
“Personally, I never give up something until the pain outweighs the pleasure. And the giving up of no vice is worth five extra years in an old age home.”
“Don’t you think tobacco causes cancer?”
“Don’t know. If it caused cancer, every smoker would have it. But the same methodology they used to ‘prove’ it causes cancer when used on oregano, basil, and black pepper, ‘proves’ they do too. Anything in high enough doses is toxic. Tobacco use is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers.”
“No sh*t? So what do you think is causing all the cancers and stuff now?”
“I’ve thought about it, and I think it comes down to two things. Not just now, but at all times, there have been cancers, diabetes, and heart diseases. But not as many. Mainly they were rich peoples’ diseases. The peasants didn’t have them; they died of infectious diseases and accidents mostly. So I thought, what was the major differences between a peasant and a rich dude? Exercise, fresh air, sunshine, a lot of whole grains and starches, and little meat. So I tried to take the best of a peasant’s way of life. Like it says in the Tao Te Ching:
‘In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In business, be competent.
In action, watch the timing.
No fight; no blame.’”
“That’s cool! What’s that called?” Anton asked, eyes lit up with interest.
“The Tao Te Ching. An ancient Chinese text, ‘The Book of Five Thousand Characters’. Legend has it that it was written by Lao Tse about fifteen hundred years ago, at least. He was about to leave civilization behind for good, but the gatekeeper at the far western pass recognized there was something unusual about him. He wouldn’t let him pass until he wrote down his wisdom: The ‘Tao Te Ching’.”
“What’s it about?”
“About how to live in the Tao.”
“How do you do that?”
Frank laughed. “I’ve just been caught in my own net. ‘Those who know do not talk. Those who talk do not know’, it says. I’m not going to pretend I can explain it, because as soon as I open my mouth I’m in error. You’ll just have to read it. I’ve read the translation by Richard Wilhelm, but it’s in German. Forget about James Legge’s translation; he was an ass. Personally, I prefer the one done by Jane English and Gia-Fu-Feng in the seventies.”
What’s the other factor you were talking about?” Gill persisted.
“What? Oh, yeah. The chemical one. Never before has humanity been so saturated with chemicals it had never dealt with before. So, I decided to keep as clear as I could from the modern day’s chemicals…”
He looked around himself ruefully.
“Until now of course.”
“One more thing: Stay away from doctors. As Joni Mitchell once said ‘Doctors’ pills give you brand new ills.’”
“What do you mean?”
“Read about all the side effects. Talk to people who took them, or had operations, or had ‘tests’. The Medical Professions test not to make sure you haven’t got something: They run tests to find something. Then it’s more tests, more medicines, more check-ups, more tests, ad infinitum...or until you’re dead. That’s how they get rich.”
A customer passing by laughed. “Boy, have you got it right. I went in for a stress test, and they kept upping the dose of that drug they give you that speeds up your heart until they found something. Man, they had my heart pounding like a snare drum; anything will pop at that stress level! Then they wanted to catheterize me and put a stent in. I told them to f**ck off. That was fifteen years ago. I’m still here.”
“It’s always been like that. 2,500 years ago Heraclitus wrote that doctors cut, burn, and torture the sick; then bitch because they’re not paid enough. In Candide, both Martin and Candide got ill. Candide was wealthy, so the doctors were all over him and he damn near died of their treatments. Martin was poor, so the doctors ignored him. Consequently, he rapidly and easily recovered.” Frank added.
Two weeks after he got his license, Hoppin’ John passed the phone to him after he’d received his own orders for the day. Ray told him he had the White Truck run.
As he did the pre-trip inspection he reflected that it was odd that Ray would allow two of his three drivers the same week off for vacations. It was like this was ready-made for him. He called the other stations to see what they needed and loaded the supplies into the cab of the truck.
As he drove up the road he felt absolutely delighted.
“What a piece of cake! And they PAY these guys to do this? No problem! What a lark! Driving around all day in an air-conditioned cab, listening to classical music from an excellent stereo, and I don’t have to bale garbage, lift garbage, or drive garbage!”
Most of his day was actually spent on the road between stations. He took care of the stations west of Florence before he stopped for lunch, then fueled up at the County depot and did the two stations east of Mephitis in the afternoon. He saw a Bald Eagle over the lake and later a Golden Eagle to boot. The only problem he had all day was finding the Milan station. The directions Toad gave him at Genoa sucked. He wound up having to pull over and call them.
As he passed through that little ‘city’, he reflected that it looked like hell: Vacant buildings everywhere, sullen, dumb-looking poor everywhere. It was even worse than Cooper. The residents here had to drive forty-five minutes to Genoa or Wings Falls to do their grocery shopping because the only grocery in town, a Grand Union, had closed down a few years back and no others had opened up.
All Milan seemed to have were a couple of ‘Dollar’ stores, a Macdonald’s, a Cumbie’s, and a few bars. Rodney’s trailer park was right ‘downtown’, and it looked pretty awful.
“You still looking for a laptop? Here.” Gill handed him one when he got back. “I plugged it in, and it comes on, so I guess it’s alright.” Rod hovered over his shoulder, drooling enviously as he watched Frank reach out and accept the computer.
“Hey. Thanks a lot. Excellent.”
He took the laptop home; a Toshiba Satellite, 2004, last updated in July. It was in perfect working order as far as he could discern. Someone had also dropped off some books: ‘Fundamentals of Computing’, and ‘Mastering WordPerfect’.
“Once again; it’s as if there was something exerting a will of some kind to influence the direction I take. What is this? I guess it’s time I teach myself how to use this gift. It has ‘Word’ loaded too. I should be able to dope out how to use it to rewrite my manuscript. Hell; if I can find an affordable internet carrier, I can search for a publisher on line. Congratulations, you old troglodyte, you’ve just joined the 21st century. Yeah. Maybe. But I’m going to do it on my terms. ”
When he got in the next Friday the boys were abuzz about a rumor whirling around that as of the first of September staffing at the stations was to be reduced. All Part-Timers were being cut back to only one day a week; Saturday.
Anton asked him to drive 502 in to the shop. The last time he used it to go to Venice; he had told Anton on his return that it still had no speedometer or working gas gauge. Anton said Ray would follow him in his fancy, $60,000 red pickup the County had bought for his use, and then drive him back.
“I think I know the answer already;” Frank asked him on the way back to Mephitis, “but is there any work for me Wednesday?”
“No. As a matter of a fact the County’s having us cut back on our hours.”
“I’d heard the rumor. So, it’s true. When’s it begin?”
“Next Friday. I’m really sorry about that.”
“I knew the score when I hired on. It’s all right. I put my time here to good use by getting that CDL. “
Ray was silent for a moment.
“We’re probably going to lose Timmer totally because there’s already three permanent men there at Genoa.”
“Is Milan going to be closed then? That was part of the rumor.”
Ray hemmed and hawed a great deal, and it left Frank with the sense it might be. “This two men on Fridays thing; it’s just a trial, I don’t think it’s necessarily permanent…But it doesn’t look good; no one wants to buy the stations. None of the big corporate haulers need to: They’ll just wait and starve us out…I only got five years to go. I hoped I’d make it to retirement.”
“I’m sure they’ll find a place for you.”
“I sure hope so.”
“Goddamn it all.” He reflected later when he was alone.
“On the one hand, I was just beginning to relax and feel at ease finally. I had mastered the job.
On the other hand, I hate the work. I can see why Anton feels as he does here. I don’t want to wade in flies, mouse sh*t, Yellow-jackets, mosquitoes, pigeon sh*t, and rotting, maggoty bags of garbage; bales and mountains of it.
I don’t fit here. I don’t fit with these people. I don’t like them, the management, the customers, and the stenches. My lungs always ache now; I’ve got organic pneumoconiosis beyond a doubt. Even with a dust mask my cough is racking.
Maybe I needed to have this fire lit under me. I've stayed here at Mephitis now simply because it’s easier than finding another job and undergoing the learning period again.
Who knows what is good luck, who knows what is bad luck?
But now anxieties are back. How do I pay the taxes in September?
Ironic: For years now the employees have had to live with the threat of closure. For most of them, it became nothing but a boy crying wolf and they never moved from their vegetative state.
Now this time it looks for real and they are scared sh*tless.”
“You got the worst luck in the world. Now you’re down to one day. Nobody can live on one day a week.” Rod gleefully told Frank when he got back. “You may be a walking encyclopedia, but you got bad luck. I got lots a good luck.”
“The Russians have a saying that ‘No luck is better than bad luck’.” He replied, swatting at the flies hovering around them.
“Who knows what is good luck, who knows what is bad luck.” Anton interjected.
“Precisely. I now have more time to look for other work.”
“A man may be wise without display and without offense.” Seneca
That crack from Rod confirmed for him what he’d been sensing.
“Another repeating pattern, one that I’ll have to be on guard against.” He mused later. “I first noticed it when I got the van. Then I sensed it again, more strongly, after I got the CDL.
Just like everywhere else I’ve been, here at first, I was a novelty, an object of fascination, and then I was admired. Now that I’ve begun to show what I’m like, what I’m capable of, it turns toward resentment. Resentment because they feel I’m superior to them. Whenever they no longer feel superior, it turns sour.
This always marks the time I should leave. Before it degenerates worse and there’s trouble.
It’s time for me to stop talking. Whoever behaves like that are no friends.”
The last day in August was also Gill’s last day. Anton got a call and he passed the news on to Frank, Rod and Gill that someone was needed to go work in Turin. The foreman, Charlie, was off and Austin had moved up.
“I don’t care which one of you goes. Decide among yourselves.” He stood there and waited.
“I’m not goin.” Rod stated flatly.
“I’ll go.” Frank said simply. “Never worked there before, might as well see what it looks like at least once.”
The real reason he left unsaid: He could see Gill didn’t want to go. As it was Gil's last day, and as he had given him that laptop, Frank considered it the decent thing to do to volunteer.
He took 502 and drove off. Lost in thought, he barely noticed the passing scenery.
“I get it now. In a sense it’s my own fault. I’m the one who triggers this in others by standing out so much. It makes them feel inadequate and they resent that. They eventually hate me for it, and gloat when I trip or fall.
It is nothing I’m doing intentionally, even when I restrain my pride and don’t strut my stuff, it can’t help happening because I am who I am.
I don’t even feel I’m better than any of them…okay, most of them. I’m just different.
I forgot myself and relaxed my guard. I became familiar and friendly. I should have been only friendly, never familiar.
Apparently I cannot be who I am, all that I am. In order to get along, I’ve got to hide my light under a bushel basket. But how do I hide my physical presence? How do I hide my mind? By being silent around them? Or return to solitude and avoid these people? Which is the same thing: Not showing myself to them.”
Before Ray had gotten his promotion, he had been the foreman at the Turin Station. It always had the highest volume of traffic of any of the transfer stations, so Frank assumed he’d be humping today.
The surrounding area was an enclave of liberal, progressive citizens. Most had settled there in the 60’s and 70’s; hippies looking for a rural lifestyle.
Frank’s quick first impression when he arrived was that while the place looked clean upstairs, downstairs was filthy. And it seemed poorly managed; the barrels were in strange places, and everything was overflowing and ‘contaminated’.
As he assumed, the clientele were mostly Baby Boomers, and surprisingly, very ‘cost conscious’ about their environmentally-conscious garbage dumping. He quickly discovered that garbage bags go for less here than anywhere else.
The two fellows he was going to be working with strangely seemed almost anxious to meet him. Austin Bolger, the acting foreman, was twenty-three and had just been made ‘permanent’ last year. He was of average height, sturdy if not muscular, with short, dark hair and eyes not quite aligned. Frank had been told Austin had a chip on his shoulder for authority figures. Seems he got into it twice with Tonto, getting right up into his face and calling him a “lazy motherf**ker”.
The other fellow was a part-timer, named Mike England. Charlie always referred to him as “the Retard” and constantly called him names. He’d been at the Turin Station for two and a half years and was, in Hoppin’ John’s words, “As dumb as he is ugly.”
A little shorter than Austin, with close-cropped salt and pepper hair, his head was shaped like an octopus’. He had thick, slack lips, mossy teeth, and was knock-kneed, a sloucher, swaybacked, slump-shouldered, and a mouth-breather. He was married with four kids and had a reputation as a Bar Fly.
He used to be a dairy hand and he loved that work, but, as he told Frank bitterly, only Mexicans get hired now by the farmers because they’ll work cheap.
Frank soon realized that he was not stupid; but intelligent, witty, and well-spoken...if treated as a human. But, he too was a lazy worker. Like Rod, he deliberately fouled up jobs and like Timmer; he could make a snail seem cheetah-like. It once took him a full eight hours to make one just one bale of cardboard, a task that normally was done in a half an hour or so.
Neither of them had anything good to say about Charlie. He’d been supervisor of the Station since Ray’s promotion four years ago and was notoriously lazy. Both Austin and Mike swore he didn’t give a damn about his job and never left the office; except to paint signs for his golf tourneys. Apparently, he was a fanatic golfer.
In a culture where considerate speech to employees was non-existent, he stood out as one who talked especially poorly and insultingly to his subordinates. Frank had only seen him once. He remembered he looked like he was between forty-five and fifty; a skinny, slouching smoker with a mustache.
“I been cut back to one day a week. And I can’t find work anywhere else.” Mike complained to Frank.
“Ha! And ya not gonna find jobs in bars, and those are the only places you go to!” Austin scoffed. “Hey you want this?”
He tossed a huge, overgrown cucumber to him. It hit the knee wall of the garbage hopper. Mike picked it up and looked it over. Frank saw one end was banged up and judging by its size and color, it was going to be seedy as hell.
“Yeah. I’ll take it home.”
Here, as in Venice, they couldn’t add, because they too wrote down “2,2,2,1,1,3,2,,etc” when they took tickets for the garbage and then used a calculator at the end of day to add them all up.
This was still a dairy farming area as well and Austin told Frank that a local dairy occasionally came in and dumped huge amounts of spoiled milk in cartons down the garbage baler.
“Makes a hell of a flood downstairs. Stinks like hell.” He observed.
“They dump milk? How do they expect you to bale milk?”
“They don’t give a sh*t. Then there’s the chicken farm that dumps their spoiled eggs right down the hopper.” Mike added. “You ain’t smelled stink till you’ve smelled that.”
A private hauler came and dumped his truck four times that day. Frank helped him offload the truck each time. The man was extremely hyper; he talked fast and moved fast. He kept glancing sharply at his watch.
His dress was most unlike what a garbage man would wear in Frank’s opinion. He wore Bermuda shorts, a nylon Hawaiian print shirt, and a paisley print cap.
When they were done unloading, he gave Frank four slips of paper. After his last load of the day, he rubbed his hands together nervously.
“Okay. How much do I owe you?” He asked Frank.
“What do you mean? How do they usually do it here?”
“Okay, okay. Here...Here....They charge me by weight, not volume here. I stop off at a truck scale before I come in with a load.” He sputtered impatiently, looking at his watch over and over. “Here’s the total of my weights and they charge me a hundred and eighty a ton. Okay? Just tell me how many stickers I owe you.”
He pulled a huge roll of stickers from his baggy shorts pocket.
“I see. Sure.”
As the man watched, Frank simply added up the weights, divided the total by two thousand, multiplied that by one hundred and eighty, and divided that by the cost of a sticker. He told him how many stickers he owed.
“Holy sh*t! How’d you do that?!” He was astounded. “Show me again!”
Frank walked him through it.
“You’re a genius! Show me again! Why does that work?”
Frank patiently showed him it all again.
“You come in every week? How do you normally find out how much you owe if you don’t figure it out this way?”
“Well, a sticker cost me $2.25, so Charlie or Austin just use a calculator and keep adding $2.25, $2.25, $2.25; until they get close to how much I got charged for weight total. They keep track of how many times they added $2.25 with ‘tick marks’ and that’s how many stickers they charge me. But this, this is much faster!”
Stunned, Frank realized that meant that neither the garbage hauler, nor Austin, nor Charlie, knew how to multiply or divide.
Before he left, he looked in the book Gaylords one last time.
“This is unbelievable.” He said softly to himself. He picked a copy of the “Tao Te Ching” as translated by Jane English and Gia-Fu-Feng out of the box. He brought it back and gave it to Anton.
“Great! Thanks!” He said excitedly.
He immediately opened it and began to read.
“’The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.’
What does that mean?”
“I can’t explain it. No one should. Live with it for a while. Maybe something will flash. I can tell you this much: Lao Tse had in mind not only to say what little could be said of the Tao, but also how to live. You can open it anywhere and start there. None of it is easy to understand, especially for us Westerners.”
Anton did just that.
“’The wise student hears of the Tao and practices it diligently.
The average student hears of the Tao and gives it thought now and again.
The foolish student hears of the Tao and laughs aloud.
If there were no laughter, the Tao would not be what it is.’
“Sometimes that happens. But not often.”
Frank made an appointment at the Doctor’s office for a DOT physical so he’d be able to drive non-governmental trucking jobs. It cost him one hundred and sixty dollars: Cash only. They would not accept checks or charge cards, which he thought odd. The young female Physician's Assistant had never done a DOT physical. She apparently never did a check for hernias either, because she turned bright red as she did so and became very flustered.
When he started trying to put out his resume anywhere or apply anywhere, he rapidly discovered that most places only accepted “On-Line Applications”; no one took personal, hand-filled out ones.
A critical societal dividing line it seemed was not only a touch-tone phone, but also computer access. Without those two items one was unable to navigate society effectively any longer. And yet statistically the same amount of the population had regular internet access as twenty years ago at the start of the self-proclaimed “Information Age”: Thirty percent. One can assume a more affluent thirty percent. So where did that leave the seventy percent without access?
He went to the County’s Employment Opportunity Center and used their computers to apply on line for work.
While he was there, the receptionist mentioned that he was eligible to collect unemployment. He was astounded. Though he’d never collected it before, the last he knew you had to be laid off, not just have your hours reduced. The woman told him that had been changed because so many employers were now just reducing employees’ hours rather than laying them off.
“Didn’t they tell you that where you work?”
“No. Must have slipped their minds. Thank you for telling me though. I’ll make sure the other part-timers know about it.”
He sat in the van after, lost in thought.
“God. Should I do it? Should I apply? Or be too proud to? All my life I’ve been so proud about never needing a hand-out.
Bullsh*t on pride. I’ve been there and back. It gives you a warm feeling, but leaves a bitter taste. And we simply cannot pay our bills on one day of work a week. And I just got that Goddamn life insurance! No. I’m not going to leave Melissa with nothing again. That clinches it: I apply and take it while I’m looking.”
He went back in and applied online for unemployment compensation and for the direct deposit of his unemployment checks. Then he checked his E-mail for any responses to his applications before going out to apply for more jobs.
Before he left, a counselor stopped in and suggested he go to Social Services, that he may also be eligible for food assistance.
“Oh, God. Not that too. Don’t make me have to do that too…. God? Who the hell am I talking to? There’s no one there.
It’s is a matter of numbers now, pal, not of reputation. What difference does it make? Everyone knows how low you’ve fallen.
What is this? Do I for some reason have to experience all these things I hadn’t before, that I’d managed to avoid? Or is it just chance?”
He asked for directions to Social Services. As he navigated the seemingly endless corridors, he found he could stop relying on the directions. He could find his way to Social Services blindfolded; simply by following the strong trail of the rank odor of stale cigarette smoke.
“At ten bucks a pack, how can poor people afford to smoke? But it’s as if they all do.”
The room he found was dingy from smoke stains. There were about two dozen permanently linked chairs which faced a wall with two large, thick glass windows with a phone alongside each one. He realized to talk with a receptionist you had to use the phone, like in a prison.
Every now and then a locked, heavy door would open, and a person’s name would be called out for the next appointment. All the county employees he saw there were women and vastly overweight. He picked up a phone and the woman on the other side asked what he wanted. In a few minutes he left with a packet of application paperwork that had been passed out through a slot.
The people in the room seemed resigned to spending their whole day there. Mostly they were obese young women alone with their little children, though some were accompanied by young men. The men he saw were about fifty-fifty very fat and very thin. They all wore baggy sweatpants or jeans and hooded sweatshirts or baggy t-shirts.
The few slim young women all had oddly shaped figures; usually long torso-ed and short-limbed. The fat women were both pear-shaped and beach-ball shaped. All the women, regardless of size, wore skin-tight tights or jeans and tops. The many racially mixed couples he saw were of black males and white females, never the other way around.
All of their clothes were in need of a washing. That is a major distinction between the ‘classes’: The relatively clean appearance and crispness of the clothes of one versus the other. And most of the poor have bad complexions and bad or no teeth, and lank or frizzy hair.
As he drove through Cooper on his way to look for more work, he reflected that the area had turned into a ‘Planet Mutant’.
“As you drive around, all you see walking or being pushed in wheelchairs, or grouped at bus stops, are the strangest, most grotesque assortment of people: Grossly overweight females of all ages, many in wheelchairs. Bald, neurotic men with bulging eyes and Tourette’s Syndrome. Depressingly dull-looking young single mothers pushing strollers with infants, all decked out in skin tight jeans with rhinestones. Grandmothers pushing strollers for 4 kids. Fat, stupid, malicious looking elementary kids waiting for the school bus. This is worse than a third world slum.
I remember seeing paintings from the Middle Ages in Europe that depicted stark physical differences between the Aristocracy and the peasants. The one was refined and handsome, the other brutish and loutish. I thought that was a self-serving exaggeration of the elite. But I am seeing the same exact thing here.
Yet all have cellphones, and are texting and talking, oblivious to all around them. Cheap technology is not progress.”
Many also hate those who help them. Melissa and Frank had always donated food to one of the food pantries in Wings Falls, even while they were penniless themselves. The tired man who ran it said the recipients were picky about what they would eat; no carrots, only iceberg lettuce, and they wanted more ham on the sandwiches. They got indignant if what they were offered was not to their taste.
When asked, he said no, he had never been thanked by those he was helping.
This year Melissa decided she also wanted to grow vegetables for a soup kitchen as well. They set aside a few rows specifically for the kitchen.
When they dropped off produce there in the morning once a week the ‘clientele’ that was gathered around outside waiting for serving to begin looked at them like they’d like to kill them if they dared; like surly dogs, afraid of their master, but hating him. There too, the ‘poor’ felt not as if they were receiving temporary help, but their permanent due, and were picky about what they’d eat. When Frank and Mel saw the fruit and vegetable platters, the artisan breads, and rest of the menu offered free to these people, they were astounded. The clientele was being offered things they couldn’t afford for themselves. And here they were sweating in the sun to bring in foods these people turned their noses up at.
Up until the Reformation, the occupation of beggar in the west was an honored one. To be a beggar was to give those better off a chance to be Christians and show charity, thus increasing their chances of going to heaven.
But Frank had come to see the generational poor here as parasites created by tradition, poor education, and human nature. These “Lumpenproletariat” are not nice people. They hate “do-gooders”, “nice people”, and those who have more than they. There will always be System Cheaters. The only way to avoid that is to cut off all help to everybody. Then you have failed those who really need a temporary helping hand to get back up.
He was sure a “New Lanark” couldn’t be replicated on any sort of scale. It would always need a Robert Owen. Without the benign dictator, which Owen recognized he was and hated the idea of, his attempts to create another without him failed miserably. There are victims of life, and there are also victims who chose to become demons in their own hells.
As a young man, he had accepted the ideal of “Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality” as a truism, despite what he had seen first-hand. He had clung to that hope of its being true for decades. Now he saw it as just that, a hope, an ideal; not reality. The reality was that though we are all equal in our rights to basic freedoms and help, we are not equal in either our abilities or worth. To pretend otherwise is to lower humanity to the lowest common denominator.
Democracy, Americans have been taught, ideally is the best form of governance; but in practice it is no better than any other. A good argument could be made for it being worse. The mass of the people are swayed, pushed, pulled and prodded by a sophisticated public relations machine designed to have the “Yahoos”, as George Bernard Shaw dubbed them, do exactly what those using the techniques want them to. The electorate are more like sports fans than informed citizens.
Henry George had it right when he observed:
“...Given a community with republican institutions....in which the few roll in wealth and the many seethe with discontent as a condition of things they know not how to remedy, power must pass into the hands of jobbers who will buy and sell it as the Praetorians sold the Roman purple, or into the hands of demagogues who will seize and wield it for a time, only to be displaced by worse demagogues.”
Anton took Saturday off and Toad was in to cover. In the afternoon a British couple came in.
“How the hell did they ever wind up here?” Frank wondered.
Both looked like they were in their early thirties. He was fat, tall, and balding, but spoke a gracious upper-class British. She was a little butterball with badly dyed blonde hair and a bad complexion in a low-cut shift of blue and white stripes that came down only halfway on her chubby thighs.
She kept bending way over to retrieve articles from a box of mixed recyclables she had put on the ground. Toad whispered breathlessly that she wore no underwear and frantically fumbled with his phone trying to sneak a picture up her skirt.
After they had gone, bidding them all farewell in that smoothly cultured dialect, Toad showed Rodney a portfolio of women’s asses he’d snuck cell phone photos of. The two of them discussed some Milan women they knew.
“You should her give her a good f**kin. She’s your type: Fat and ugly.” Toad said of one of the women they were talking about. “And I’ll bet you haven’t gotten it in years now; have you?” he asked sneeringly.
. Frank noted Rod agreed by not disagreeing.
“IIII don’t think so. She’s been with a Mexican, who would want her now? Also; she has four kids, limps, and walks with a cane.”
Frank had found he could easily deduce what was popular in food and drink by the frequency with which brands showed up in the bins. Microwaveable meals were very popular, but pizza far and away outnumbered all other foods. Tremendous quantities of frozen or take-out pizza were eaten. Based on all the prepared food containers, he had to infer that his fellow Americans didn’t cook anymore; they heated things up or got take-out.
As far as what salad containers there were, the premixed baby greens and spinach won hands down. Blueberries were bought in large quantities, for their reputed health benefits apparently. He was surprised to see how much Spam and Poptarts were eaten.
Low fat milk was the winner in dairy, and it seems no one trusted tap water anymore: The amount of bottled water containers was staggering. Obviously, the public missed those studies linking water in plastic bottles with the feminization of males and the precocious puberty of females.
One could tell other things as well; like that this was a bad wasp year, simply because of all the empty wasp poison spray cans showing up. And at this time of day there were myriads of yellow-jackets swarming around the soda bottle deposit barrels.
Rod picked up a two-liter plastic bottle from a barrel and began bopping them. He was manic, focused, quick, and persistent. He ignored the customers in his pursuit of the wasps, even sometimes hitting some one that ventured too close to his swinging.
A man dropping off garbage told him that the wasps with yellow faces were male and wouldn’t sting. Looking closer to see their faces, Rod noticed that the live wasps were interested in the carcasses of the dead ones.
“Hey! They’re visiting the dead ones and ‘doing them’!” He squealed delightedly.
“There’s a word for that; f**kin a dead chick.” Toad observed sagely.
“Necrophilia.” Frank spoke before he thought. He grimaced, instantly aware he should have shut up.
“What?” Rod asked.
“Never mind. Forget it.”
“’Necker-filly’ or something.” Toad tried to reproduce the word. “Sounds good.”
“What does?” Rod asked, looking confused.
“You dumb f**k…Imagine getting hold of a beautiful babe you’d never of had a chance with, and being able to do anything you wanted to her.” Toad sniggered. “Wouldn’t you give her a last shot?”
” I’d pull her legs apart and say ’Lesse what you got here. Then I’d f**k her up the pee-bag.” Rod responded, his eyes narrowing.
“You’re a sick little f**ker, you know that?” Toad’s lip curled back in distain.
Further discussion was curtailed by the arrival of the Baker with huge, maggoty, leaky bags of garbage in his delivery truck full of bread. Rod and Toad scurried out to their cars; each with armloads of free bread after the Baker had dumped his free garbage.
Bridget came by with their coffee and a bag of Dunkin Donuts. Her and her boy quickly scanned the pile Rod had set aside, throwing what they deemed sellable in the back of the truck. Her son appeared to be in his early twenties; pleasant, but unkempt and obviously uneducated.
“Got anything else, Rod?”
“There are a couple of lawnmowers and gas grills by the metal bin.”
“Great, thanks. We’ll take a look. Hey, guess what? I’m finally gonna get my teeth!”
“Yeah. I called up and complained because the insurance dropped me before I could get em. But the woman said I wasn’t dropped, an if I was, it was a mistake, I was still eligible. So now I get teeth!” she crowed happily, then turned wistful. “Oh, how I miss fried chicken. What’s a matter? You don’t look too good.”
“Hangover.” Toad groaned. “Don’t remember how I got home.” He said holding his forehead as he headed for the office.
“I know what that’s like. I woke up in a hotel room alone and pregnant and had no idea how I got there!” Bridget laughed. “Now I’m forty and ain’t had it since. Too bad I can’t remember it, huh?”
“What do you do with this stuff?” Frank asked, thinking it was high time to change the subject.
“Clean it up, fix it up, and sell it on E-Bay.”
“You owe me twenty bucks, buddy!” Rod gleefully informed him when he saw Frank the next Saturday morning.
“For what?” he asked. “Now what hare-brained thing has he got in his head?”
“Because I called off Tuesday, and so you got called in, so you owe me twenty. Pay up, buddy!”
“You called off just so I’d get the work?”
“No, Della an me went to a concert.”
“Then why should I pay you?”
“Cause they called you in. C’mon, Pay up!” he nagged like a second grader, holding his hand out.
“Unemployment pays almost as much as I get working. My base line was three days of work a week. If I work only one day, unemployment pays me a portion of what I would have gotten working for the two other days. And I have the day free to look for other work or cut wood. You’re actually costing me. Maybe you should pay me twenty.”
“IIIIIIII don’t think so! Come on, buddy, pay up or it’s ‘Whammy’ time! I ‘whammied’ a woman at Syco into a broken ankle once!”
“Save it. I ain’t a kid like Gill to be scared of your stories. It don’t work on me.”
“I’m gonna show up at your house. I know where you live. You’ll open the door an there’ll I’ll be! What’s for dinner tonight, buddy?”
Frank looked straight at him.
“Where did you say you wanted to be buried?”
Toad laughed out loud in delight.
That was the end of that.
“Bene vixit qui bene latuit.” Frances Bacon (The hidden life is best)
“The ancient masters were subtle, mysterious, profound, responsive.
The depth of their knowledge is unfathomable.
Because it is unfathomable, all we can do is describe their appearance.
Watchful, like men crossing a winter stream.
Alert, like men aware of danger.
Courteous, like visiting guests.
Yielding, like ice about to melt.
Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.
Hollow, like caves.
Opaque, like muddy pools.”
Tao Te Ching