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Monday, September 13, 2010

The Free Pole

My friend Tim and I went to see a performance by Stokely Towles called Trash Talk about garbage and garbage men just a few blocks away at the Shoebox Theatre.  The show had the feel of an anecdotal, casual lecture (Tim, who is a math teacher, said it was like a spiced-up college student presentation), complete with visual aids in the form of photos and illustrations placed on a magnetic board, samples of garbage and recycling in shiny mason jars, and a model "transfer station" (a.k.a. garbage dump) with a miniature fence, red pickup truck, and little people.  Towles had spoken to a lot of garbage collectors in his research and reported back what they had to say in the first part of the performance, telling us about the different kinds of dumpsters (or "boxes"), stinky and sweet (soap factory dumpsters); relationships between garbage collectors and their clientele, such as gifts of work gloves left on garbage cans, preschool children who waited at the window over the dumpster for the arrival of the garbage truck every week, and an incidence of a topless woman appearing regularly at a window of a house on the garbage route.  The second part of the show was a history of American garbage, from the time when people recycled as a matter-of-course from making old bedsheets into washcloths to taking a pail to the store to fill with beer, to the aftermath of WWII and America's affluence and the beginning of planned obsolescence.  In the last part of the show, Towles reported anecdotes from a transfer station, using toy people and red pickup truck to act out the disposal of chairs, buckets of sand, and an ex-boyfriend's clothing, among other garbage.  He ended by depicting his fantasy version of a transfer station in which a giant conveyor belt carried unwanted items around the perimeter of the garbage dump so people could take what they wanted and re-use it.  This made me wonder:  Didn't he know about thrift stores?  Actually, I know of a version of his fantasy dump.  On Lopez Island the transfer station has a covered area full of neatly folded clothes, shelves of shoes, books, tables with household goods and appliances, an area for building materials, old bicycles, and furniture-- all of it donated and free.

Closer to home, just steps away from the door to the Pistil office/warehouse, we have a "Free Pole."  It's a telephone pole on the sidewalk at the end of the alley and has become the neighborhood site for giving away anything and everything, from really good stuff to not-so-good, and whatever's left there almost always disappears.  Once a friend of ours who owns a local apartment building dropped off at the bookstore door about six boxes of really crappy books leftover from a former tenant --we're talking incomplete encyclopedias and Reader's Digest Condensed books, and much to my chagrin, Sean let him.  I hauled them all over to the Free Pole, and like magic they were gone by the end of the afternoon.  There's nice stuff left there too - we have a lovely handmade wooden table in our living room gleaned from the pole.  Actually, one of the "rules" of a free pile (should you wish to start one) is to only leave usable, working goods.  Currently, there's a somewhat damaged overstuffed armchair sitting at the pole that's been there two days; we'll see what happens to it.

Reading Notes
I just finished a very enjoyable comic novel, Deaf Sentence, by David Lodge.   The book takes the form of a diary written by a retired British linguistics professor who has a serious hearing problem.  This leads to some very funny conversations in which Lodge juxtaposes what the narrator hears with what is actually said.  Museum of Modern Art becomes "mum tart," for instance.  Since the narrator is a retired professor, he also has some interesting things to say about pop culture, art, and language, too.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Glean Team

In the late days of summer we find ourselves not just in good books but purusing with interest and appetite the local foliage as well.   Though we are very urban here, just a mile or so from downtown, there a good many fruit trees in the area filled with bounty that is dropping earthward.  We’ve been getting in the way some.  Troy and I climbed to the roof of a local abandoned building (easily accessible as it’s on a steep slope and one side is very low) and harvested apples and figs last week.  A few days later we ravaged an Italian plum tree in front of an apartment building just a block away.  And today Amy and I went with ladder and tarp to a local cherry plum tree, as Amy had procured a cherry pitter from her mom.  As with operations of the recent past, I climbed up the ladder and sometimes into the tree, and Amy worked the ground.  When we arrived there were a couple of urban hipsters already harvesting the tree we had planned to pick.  One was draped sloth-like across the lower branches and the other holding a glass bowl over his head like a Greek statuette one might pass on at a garage sale.  When we expertly unfolded our tarp and ladder, they examined our approach with interest and commented grudgingly on our “technology.”  There was plenty for all parties.  We tried both branch shaking and picking the fruit individually.  The tree was really heavy with fruit and it was fermenting all over the ground.  We left with two large bags full; Troy pitted them all, and we made plum butter. 

Reading Notes 
Gleanings in literature have included a very clean copy of Joe Sacco’s Palestine, the award-winning graphic depiction of his visits to Jerusalem and Palestine and the very gritty times he had there.  It’s a very real and accurate, often dispassionate look at the extremely sorry state of affairs there and the ease with which so much of the world, including the local Jewish population can overlook, or justify even, the prison-like atmosphere that pervades the region.  Sacco is a skilled artist and the pages sometimes rival Crumb for the minute and intricate cross hatching and complex layout.  Sacco has a thing for mouths though, and teeth, lips -- his own, notably -- that is a little hard to appreciate.  But it sinks into the experience he creates on a page and stays with one: all the talk, the hunger, the shouting and the words, the coarse manipulation lips can wrap themselves around when backed by the black steel of guns and concrete.  Edward Said impressively writes the intro, mincing about as few words on the matter as his long-time associate and co-author, Chomsky, who has called Israel a "pariah state," responsible not just for behavior that rivals anything ever done to the Jews short of gas chambers at home, but for supporting black operations and the most brutal of regimes with arms, equipment  and training all over the world.  It’s great to see the form broach such a heavy issue of our times with the poignancy that documented personal experience can provide. 

I’m also reading Death Beat, “a Columbian journalist’s life inside the cocaine wars,” an ARC that’s falling apart in my hands, by Maria Jimena Duzan.  It’s a pretty great story, told firsthand from an employee of  the paper El Espectador, who witnessed the rise of the cocaine economy in Columbia through the 80’s and 90’s with the likes of Pablo Escobar and the Cali and Medellin cartels doing battle between themselves, the government, the U.S. and just about everybody there.  She writes from a very classist perspective, and her opinions about the various players certainly are in accord with this; but she is a skilled reporter as well, and the sheer madness and lawlessness that grips the entire country as their economy gets sucked into an enormous battle of wills, with competing forces inside and outside the historical power structure all earning huge sums of money providing the U.S. with snortable goods is truly an amazing story.  It’s kind of like what the U.S. would look like if all the war and covert operations and economic manipulation we do throughout the world all happened within our borders.  As if the back room deals between the Contra mercenaries and coke heads and Iranian hostage takers and Israeli mercenaries and guerilla armies were to all center on New Jersey.  Imagine how  this would tear the fabric of this culture as tens of thousands of our most notable persons were gunned down by all sides and how it would shred the polite (comparatively) system of government we live with at home like so many stacks of El Espectador when their headquarters was bombed.  It’s a very lively and astounding tale,  just down the coast from the home we know. 

-- Sean

Friday, September 3, 2010

Chicken Soup

I started volunteering at the Chicken Soup Brigade kitchen last week.  My first shift was Wednesday afternoon and I helped package meals assembly-line fashion for an hour-and-a-half (there was a machine with a conveyor belt for putting plastic wrap over the paper food trays), and I peeled potatoes for an hour-and-a-half along with three other volunteers, two of whom had obviously been working there some time.  This was a big, industrial kitchen with seven paid staff who all looked like they were working pretty damn hard, and who seemed cool and friendly.  They make 450 cooked packaged meals and give out 450 bags of groceries per week, tailoring meals and food bags to meet different dietary needs.  The food looked appetizing, and the kitchen smelled great.  When I arrived, the lead cook was slicing fragrant roasted peppers.  We packaged Cajun chicken stew, brown rice, and a frozen vegetable mix, mostly broccoli.  The 160 pounds of peeled potatoes were going to be for roast chicken and mashed potatoes.

I first knew about Chicken Soup Brigade around eighteen or nineteen years ago when I shopped at their first thrift store in the Central District, near where I worked at Seattle Vocational Institute.  I was collecting stock for our future bookstore and storing it in the attic of the apartment building I lived in at the time.  Chicken Soup had paperbacks for 35 cents, or something like that, and I stocked up on clean fiction paperbacks.  For me shopping at thrift stores and yard sales started as a way to purchase books and quickly became the way Sean and I buy (nearly) everything, except for underwear, toiletries, and food.  On one side of the equation, such shopping promotes recycling and thrift, but on the other it's so easy to acquire things in the endless abundance of (slightly used) consumer goods.  We live cheaply, but we're certainly not ascetic or deprived in any way; quite the opposite-- in addition to kitsch and art,  we have three of all kitchen utensils, appliances, and gadgets.   Of course books are the ideal second-hand object, because they can be read over and over again.

Lifelong AIDS Alliance seems like a really good organization to support--besides feeding people, they help with case management, insurance, housing and AIDS prevention.  Lifelong is a big part of the Capitol Hill neighborhood and, lucky for me,  I can walk from home to the Chicken Soup Brigade kitchen in five minutes.

Reading Notes
I finished a book of short stories by Debra Dean titled Confessions of a Falling Woman.  I enjoyed the last story, "Dan in the Flannel Gray Rat Suit," about an actor who wins the role of a lab rat in a photocopier commercial.  I've also been reading Germaine Greer's The Change:  Women, Aging and Menopause.  I'm curious to find out more about Germaine Greer - I understand she trounced William F. Buckley on his own show, as he admits himself.