The Column

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Here's a thought o'the week, begorrah!

According to legend, St. Patrick chased the snakes out of Ireland.

Neat trick? You bet. But here's a better trick that I'd especially like to see:

Will someone please chase the baboons out of Congress?

Lowcountry facing trash disposal issues

It's all just a part of living in this thing we call a civilized society. Growth happens, and then trash happens.

In Charleston County, a gang of consultants and committees are trying to figure a way around that truth.

I like how consultant Mitch Kessler put it: "Garbage is kind of special. We all produce it, but nobody wants it."

In this county, 70 percent of the trash is shoved into an incinerator on the banks of the Cooper River and burned, with a bit of electricity being generated in the bargain.
Now, there's talk of shutting the incinerator down. The nearby residents (amazingly, there are some) don't want it, and Kessler's consulting firm says the county doesn't need it. Time plays a role here, as the county's 20-year contract with Montenay Charleston Recovery Resources to run the incinerator expires this year, and the area's Green Committee on Thursday recommended the county opt out now rather than re-up for another 20 years. Better to figure out some other way to get rid of the trash.

OK, like what? The county's big landfill on Bee's Ferry Road has, according to Kessler Consulting, another 12 years of space in it without the incinerator. With it, capacity can be stretched out to 20 years.

The Bees Ferry landfill was one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time. Even 12 years ago, there wasn't much out that way. Nothing but forest, anyway, and Bees Ferry itself was a two-lane road that didn't see a lot of use. I used to see a lot of whitetail deer and the occasional bobcat out there. Now, it's a whole different matter. Bees Ferry is one of the new growth centers of the Charleston metro area. Several neighborhoods sprouted up there over the past decade, with thousands of new homes. Wal-Mart set up a supercenter there, and there is talk of building what amounts to a second downtown at Bees Ferry and the Glenn McConnell Parkway. All of this is within sniffing distance of the landfill.

The landfill itself can be stacked to a height of 172 feet, which Kessler said still can't be seen from the nearby homes. This part is important, you understand. If it can be seen from the neighborhoods, then folks might guess that big hill is really a garbage dump and think twice about buying a home there, while the existing residents will be screaming for the city fathers to vaporize that landfill, move it somewhere else, do something with it. I hate to say it, but while the People's Republic of California has more or less cornered the market on NIMBY types, a few of them have leaked out to the Southeast along with all the people from Up North.

Grab and growl

Of course, I like the idea of recycling. For years I've railed about man's wasteful nature, and I try to put my money where my mouth is whenever I can.

Currently, about 10 percent of Charleston County's waste stream (I keep visualizing rivers of trash here) gets recycled. Kessler believes the county can bring that number up to 40 percent in five years, though I honestly don't see how. Not without great expense anyway.

According to figures by Kessler Consulting, the current trash configuration (incinerator, landfill, 10% recycling) costs about $15.5 million a year, while taking out the incinerator would bring the cost down to $14.2 million. With recycling stepped up to 40 percent, annual costs would be $13.2 million with the incinerator and $11.2 million without. I don't know where the consulting firm gets those numbers, and it's obvious they're seeing something I'm not (as I'll explain later in this essay). Maybe it's because they're inhaling all that methane gas.

Charleston County does have an interesting setup for trash collection. Every Tuesday the garbage man comes by (and of course I feel duty-bound to tell him I don't need any, thanks) and bulky waste is also picked up at that time. A good part of the local recycling goes on with the bulky waste, though the county probably has no numbers to support this.

It goes like this: In Charleston County, if you have something too big to go into the trash can, you set it at curbside. The tacit understanding is that if someone else sees something interesting in that curbside pile, he can dive in and snag it. No questions asked. In-the-know county residents know when the bulky-waste days are in the more affluent neighborhoods, and then go exploring. The neighborhood is important here; you're more likely to find good stuff on the Isle of Palms than, say, Stall Road in North Charleston. But you get the idea. Grab and growl, no questions asked. We're talking about major bargain shopping where you don't even need to bring your wallet.

For someone like me (OK, I'll say it -- cheap!) this is a great source for all sorts of household goodies. I've outfitted apartments from the piles. That's where I got the desk I use now (never mind the fact I broke my ankle hauling it to the house). And I've picked up several computers, fixed them up, reprogrammed them, and given them away. (Personal note: My eyes are now peeled for a laptop, but I'm not giving that one away. As soon as I rebuild and reprogram it, I'm keeping it.)

Lunch at the dump

Years ago, when I was a distinguished member of the press in California, I sat in on a luncheon held at the San Bernardino County landfill. Odd place for lunch, sure, but the county's solid waste section was under new management and they had something to show us.

A bit of background here: Back then (late 1980s), California was faced with its own trash crisis. The Inland Empire was the fastest-growing region in the nation, and landfill space was dwindling fast. Because of this, some really interesting scenarios were being tossed around, and some were more harebrained than others.

One company proposed building a trash-to-energy incinerator (which sounds an awful lot like the Montenay facility here), but the residents didn't want it. Something about air quality. Another company talked up the idea of a plant to burn waste tires for energy. The company went so far as to say that waste tires collect rain water, which becomes a fine breeding grounds for mosquitoes -- and suggested those critters can carry the AIDS virus. No kidding. One of the company's executives tossed off one of the best quotes I've ever heard in the business: "The mosquito that bites you tonight may have spent last night in West Hollywood." That angle didn't help the company's cause any; once everybody stopped laughing and regained their collective breath, they shouted the whole proposal down anyway.

Another idea that was under serious consideration was to reopen an old exhausted coal mine in the desert and turning it into the mother of all landfills. Send the trash out there by the railcar. To this day, I don't know if this trash-by-rail proposal is still being bandied about, but it was one of the better ones.

Of course, someone had to suggest stepping up the recycling efforts, and that's why we were having lunch at the dump.

Again, this was in the late 1980s, so things may be a bit different now. But the folks running the San Bernardino County Landfill had set up a demonstration of how on-site recycling would go. Set up a conveyor belt. Have a few movable bins within tossing distance -- for different kinds of paper, for plastic, for kitchen waste, for whatever categories of trash you wish to recycle. Have a bunch of people at the conveyor belt rummaging through the piles, picking and tossing. In fact, that's what these employees would be called -- pickers. Anyway, all the trash that was dumped on the conveyor belt ended up in one of the recyclable bins; nothing left over. I was quite amazed. Even the butt of my after-lunch smoke went into one of the bins, though I can't remember which one.

Give credit to the good folks in the San Bernardino County solid waste department for trying. I could see, though, that the concept needed an awful lot of work to be anything viable. The trash-picking process was slow, and incredibly labor intensive. To keep up with the mounds of swill being generated in San Bernardino County you'd need a lot of conveyor belts and an army of people to do the picking. Even with economic times being as they are, you'd be hard pressed to find enough people willing to pick through the garbage. And even if you rounded up all of Southern California's illegal aliens, put them at a conveyor belt, and paid them the prevailing illegal-alien rate, the cost will still be enormous.

For recycling to be done right, it has to be at the individual or family level, and that's where you'll see some pitfalls. Many people just want to dump the stuff, not analyze it. Even I'm guilty of this; once something makes it to my wastebasket it's just trash anyway.

But I did find some interesting Web sites on recycling all sorts of random things a few years ago. Some of these sites lean toward the hippie-dippie audience, but you might get a few ideas on how to reuse or get rid of at least some of your junk there. A Google search might, uhh, unearth a few of these if you're interested.

Meanwhile, I'm looking for that slightly used laptop ... at least 256M of RAM and a wireless card ought to do it, but I can be talked into 512M ...


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Spring rites: Glow-in-the-dark legs curable

I'm ready for spring, and it looks like it may have already started in Charleston.

Never mind what the calendar says. It's spring when people start venturing outdoors with looks of wonder on their faces. It's like, hey, I lived through winter, and the world is a beautiful place. The coming of spring is intoxicating; people will wander out into the middle of the street, just taking in all the seasonal changes and never noticing the grille of the SUV bearing down on them (and of course the driver of the SUV is not paying attention; same reason). I have no statistics to back my claim up, but I'll bet there is more human roadkill during the first "real" week of spring than at any other time.

As for me, I'm loving it. As I write this (Saturday, about 1 p.m.), the sun is out. The temperature stands at 76 degrees, with a humidity of 43 percent. My front door is open, and I've got shorts on. About time. My legs are now so white they glow in the dark. Must do something about that.

I knew this was going to be any day now. A couple of days ago I was doing some preliminary spring things, sitting out in the front yard, cool drink and a book in hand, door open, stereo playing loudly enough for me to hear outside. With the dog outside on her run. That's when I noticed the weeds that were overtaking that growth I call a lawn. So I was up, in a rather inspired (for me) frenzy of activity. A half hour later I'd filled my garbage can, and the weeds were gone. They pulled out easily, and the lawn now looks like a herd of wildebeest passed through. Oh, well. It'll grow back. 

But I'm loving it. Enough of this freezing my butt off. Enough of the below-freezing weather, with wind bringing the final temp lower than that. I was ready for spring since December, even before winter started.

All of y'all north of the Mason-Dixon line -- not to mention those living above the snow line -- are probably laughing right now as I give my account of winter here. I do have some regular readers in Minnesota, and I'm thinking about them as I write this. Well, kinda sorta.

The only real problem with the cold weather -- besides the fact I'm less tolerant of it as I get older -- is that I spend much of my day out in it. Most of my work is outdoors, catching the full blast of wind. Yes, my coworkers and I have been seen huddling over idling truck engines to keep warm. I'm not going to deny that. Plus, I bicycle to work, but that's not as much an issue as you might think. After about the first half mile I've got some personal heat going.

Earlier this week we had what (I hope) is the last blast of winter. Even a few snowflakes floating around, and those sightings are extremely rare in the Lowcountry. And, of course, I have been dressing for it:

- Long johns
- My standard jeans and T-shirt
- Sweatshirt
- Hooded camo jacket, military issue
- Hard hat on the job, worn over a do-rag. This last part is espeically crucial at all times of the year, because the plastic liner of the hard hat gets pretty uncomfortable on a head that gets balder every year.
- Scarf around the neck.
- Two pairs of gloves -- a fingerless leather pair, plus a full-sized glove on my right hand. No, I didn't lose my left glove, but I tried running my handheld computer with a gloved hand and it just doesn't work. The keys are about a quarter of the size of a desktop computer's keys, and I really need to feel them when I'm working. Of course, after a few minutes my exposed left hand won't feel anything anyway, so that probably doesn't make any difference. On extremely cold days I've kept a handwarmer in my left coat pocket, and it's like a campfire in there.
- Plus in my locker I keep a few other things: an extra sweatshirt, and my "monkey suit," zippered quilted one-piece coveralls.

A few days ago, the morning was particularly chilly, so on my way to work I was dressed out to the max -- including a black ski mask. Now, on my way in I'll usually stop on a bridge overlooking the rail yard to get a handle on what I may expect at work that day. I'm sure the folks are used to seeing me up there at a few minutes past 7 every morning. But ...

... with the ski mask I figured it might not be a real good idea to stop on top of that bridge. I'm not sure exactly what led me to that conclusion, especially because I'm not all that lucid at that hour of the morning. But instead of stopping I kept moving, looking over my shoulder at the rail traffic, hoping railroad security doesn't shoot me off the bridge. With my luck that'll be the day security is actually paying attention.

The sweatshirt is in my dirty-clothes hamper now, along with the scarf and ski mask. The camo jacket is hanging on the back of my office chair, and I may soon wash that and put it away. The extra sweatshirt and monkey suit are still in my locker, and I should probably keep them there through the rest of the month. If nothing else, Lowcountry weather changes a lot.

Grand Canyon or ... Dora the Explorer?

Fisher-Price's announcement that the company will no longer produce scenic View-Master wheels fills me with a pang of nostalgia.

As a baby boomer in good standing, of course I had a View-Master, with a bunch of the wheels. Those things were great, because you could see places you're probably never going to visit in dazzling, 3-D color.

You just might remember what I'm describing here. These wheels have (give or take) seven images, 14 tiny photos (actually miniature slides), and you load them into a cheap plastic viewer. The wheel typically has two notches, which tell you where to start viewing -- when they're in the up position in your top-loaded viewer, you're good to go. To see the next image, you click on the viewer's slide. The twin slides gave each frame a 3-D effect, just as twin speakers give you a stereo effect. In fact, the viewer and wheels were first sold to promote 3-D photography.

I think my View-Master was also one of the toys I did not dismantle as a kid. I can't tell you how many Etch-A-Sketches I've torn apart because I was mystified how they worked (the usual result is a gigantic mess of some possibly-toxic gray powder). But the View-Master, there's really nothing to dismantle. What's in there? The workings to the advance lever? Low tech at its finest.

But these wheels fell victim to our instant-gratification, animated, gotta-have-action society. You could go onto a computer and see just about anything you want to see (and probably some things you don't want to see) live, in action, and all that. The View-Master wheels? Boring, kids say. And the sales figures showed that much.

Fisher-Price, a division of Mattel, stopped making the scenic reels in December. But the View-Master is not dead; the company is still marketing reels of animated characters like Shrek (I know who that is) and Dora the Explorer (I'm drawing a blank here). OK, pop-culture marketing.

Maybe it's my age, but I think I'd rather check out views of the Grand Canyon, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, and the Pacific Northwest than Shrek.

Oh, well. Another casualty of our times.

I'll miss 'the rest of the story

I can't remember the first time I heard him on the air. I know it was a long time ago. He'd been a radio presence since I was soiling my diapers, and I'm not a young guy.

But last Saturday, I got word that Paul Harvey died at the age of 90. My first thought was, another real journalist left us. There are just not that many left.

I'll rephrase something here, about his longevity. Paul Harvey had been at the microphone since the 1930s, when radio and newspapers were the only media game in town. Despite battling throat problems in his later years and working a reduced schedule, he hadn't lost much of anything even as he approached his 90s. And in a society that introduces all these new technologies while paying zero respect to history, Paul Harvey stayed on the air all that time, kept himself from obsolescence, and kept a following.

It wasn't until my Arizona period that I started paying more attention to Paul Harvey. That was when I worked as a freelance writer for the Bullhead City Bee. The Bee was a small, crusadsing weekly newspaper with an all-star cast. That's where I really got to know one Richard Kaffenberger, who was in exile after being the first city manager in Bullhead City to get fired. As manager, Richard served at the pleasure of the City Council, and the council's pleasure was to carve on him with sharp objects and attach electrodes to his privates. Or something. Richard was biding his time, doing a little writing, and running a talk show out of Needles, Calif.

Anyway, one of my assignments with the Bee was to put together the weekly crime report, which was something any good journalist would call "pennance." The job consisted of sifting through the police department dispatch logs, and writing a short paragraph on each item , and compiling it into something readable. The readers love those crime reports, but they are a pain to assemble. What made things even more tedious was that those phone logs also included officers calling in to say they won't be to work on time. (For the trivia-minded, that's where we got our word "copulate." Or something.) It was a boring assignment, the equivalent of being in the seventh level of Hell, though it was an assignment where I had a lot of latitude.

I was pretty selective on what went into the weekly crime report. Anything involving an arrest, any reported burglaries and assaults, any felonies went in. Plus, I threw in all the strange police calls -- things on the order of someone being attacked by killer monarch butterflies, for example.

It turns out my editor would pick out some of my better oddities and call them in to Paul Harvey's show. I understand a few of these were read on the air, too. So, if you were a Paul Harvey listener around 1992 and remember hearing of some bizarre crimes from northern Arizona, you now know who first dug up the reports.

I always liked Paul Harvey. Although electronic (radio & TV) types are just not considered in the same camp as print journalists, Paul was a true wordsmith. He crafted his words with care, just like an old-style print guy. His "Rest Of The Story" feature, which began in the mid-1970s at the sugtgestion of his son, was a great vehicle for this skill. He was a master of building his story, with all the pauses and re-re-repeats for dramatic tension. And of course, with my own taste for what some people would call "useless information," how could I not love the rest of the story?

Of course, when someone like a Paul Harvey dies, there are plenty of tributes and perhaps his character is magnified considerably. Even if a guy was a drunken lout who regularly beat his kids with a switch made from barbed wire, you're just not going to talk about that in the days after he dies. But from what I understand, Paul Harvey was a good guy. A caring guy.

His wife Angel died less than a year ago, and they were together for more than 60 years. It says a lot about a person when he leaves this earth so soon after a spouse. For some reason I keep thinking of Johnny Cash here. His wife, June Carter Cash, died in 2003, and Johnny followed her within months. OK, theirs was sometimes-stormy relationship (and life with Johnny wasn't always easy), but you can bet his life was a lot less sweet without June around.

And without Paul Harvey around, radio is not going to be as interesting.

Goldbricks and screw-offs continue in bad times

You'd think employees would really step lively in such an uncertain time, with mass layoffs everywhere and unemployment approaching double digits.

It ain't necessarily so.

It doesn't seem to make much difference. It appears a goldbrick is always a goldbrick, and screwing off goes on regardless.

A friend of mine works the overnight shift at a local marina. Not the greatest job in the world, he admits, and there's a lot of dead time. But he's raising a family from this gig, he does have benefits, and he enjoys what he does. He finishes up at around 7 a.m., but it's anybody's guess whether he'll really break out of there at that time. It seems the day crew consists mostly of college-age folks, and it's not easy to get a college person to be in an upright position at that hour. I know of what I speak here; I was that way at that age. But his relief is often late or absent, and it's a crapshoot whether these folks will actually call in first.

His wife was telling me about him working another unscheduled, extended shift the other day, and I suggested there's something wrong with that picture.

"Some folks don't have jobs and they will work," I said. "These people have jobs and don't work. Maybe they ought to trade places."

I shouldn't kick, though. I was on a reduced schedule for a few months, and thanks to someone blowing off a job, it looks like I may be back to 40-hour weeks. And, I think I can put my mind to rest about further cutbacks at work; this did give me more anxiety than a grown man needs.

A caveat: Nothing's official, so I'm not counting my chickens right now. My household budget is still pitched around my old, post-cutback numbers.

It goes something like this: We have four gate clerks on the job, plus a fifth who is on a semi-permanent leave of absence. Of these, only one was working 40-hour weeks. One who works the closing shift, is a 30-hour man, but that's his choice because he has a second job. The other two (I'm one of them) are on 30-hour weeks; enough to keep the benefits active. Plus we have a load planner, who decides which containers go on the next train.

Anyway, the load planner had been doing her level best to lose her job. This week, she pulled a no-call, no-show two days in a row, meaning legally that she had abandoned her job. The full-time gate clerk slid into the load planner's slot, and the other two (again, I'm one of them) are getting a lot more hours. I'm helped here because I show up ready to do my job every day, which kind of stands out in an industry where people will "lay out" for just about any reason.

Meanwhile, I can breathe a little easier. We've had a few other cutbacks, and some of the yard employees were laid off. Of the gate crew, I'm the one with the least seniority, so of course every time the ax fell somewhere I'd feel the breeze from it. But my department has already been cut practically to the bone.

There's scuttlebutt the other gate clerk may come back off permanent perpetual leave in a week or two, so as mentioned there's nothing official in my standing. I do have an edge, though. That person (who has seniority over all of us) had raised goldbrickery to an art form.

Although I have this tendency to worry about things, and even invent a few new anxieties if everything's looking good, I can probably go about my job without thinking of the ax.