Notes from the Waste Stream #4: Whiz Comics #2 (reprint)

Comics: An Overview

Up until a few years ago I knew the following things about comic book collecting:

  1. An Action Comics #1 will set you and your family up for the rest of your lives.
  2. Comic books take up an extraordinary amount of storage space, as they are traditionally stored in “long boxes” which cannot be stacked vertically lest they bend/crush the valuable things inside.
  3. Most of the books meticulously stored in these boxes are worth a fraction of the cost of an entirely incinerated corner of a page of Action Comics #1.

Now I know the following additional bits of information:

  1. It is well beyond extremely unlikely that you will find anything even approaching Action Comics #1, no matter how hard you look.
  2. The small possibility of finding undervalued treasures with lurid illustrations is worth the hunt despite #1.
  3. There are more efficient ways to store and search for comics than long boxes and a patchy memory.
  4. When a collector encounters the technology referenced in #3, your comic collection will grow at a much faster rate.
  5. Many of the new books you encounter will be quite good, challenging your “low culture” expectations of the genre.

The long boxes – at first there were only three or four of them – came into the house through our marriage merger. At first I put them in the same category as the baseball cards and the several boxes of Harper’s back issues. Surely at some point they would migrate into the attic, or go to a thrift store. They persisted, even as the baseball cards went upstairs to the long holding cell that prefaces the slide down to the very bottom of the value ladder (Still holding on to cards? Forget about it. Or come get some of the thousands in our attic, if you can pry them out of their owner’s warm, very much alive hands.).

0It seemed that, in principle, I would enjoy comics. I was raised on the pulpiest of the pulpy science fiction and started playing what I could figure was a probably-mostly-right version of Dungeons & Dragons before I was ten years old. But I’d never read a comic book before I was an adult. They were, perhaps, a little too expensive for us. I think being a girl might have had something to do with it, although my father never seemed particularly aware of gendered notions of parenting. I’m not sure that they sold comics at the military commissaries where we shopped, and even if they did, I can imagine Dad saying no. We were a library family. You could read as much as you could borrow, and only special occasions meant that you might own an actual book. Much less a disposable comic book.

So I had no context. I’d read some of the new things called “graphic novels,” when they became fashionable – V for Vendetta, of course, and The Watchmen (although I never understood that book’s particular brilliance until I saw how it operated as a critique). But aside from a love affair with Neil Gaiman’s wonderful Sandman in college, I’d never picked up a flimsy paper book to see what was inside. I began to ask about the boxes of comics. Where did they come from? Why were they here? What was their value to my husband?

He told me stories in response. Long, winding, improbable, sometimes cosmic and glorious stories about the characters in the books and their histories. Over hours of close questioning in cars and over meals, he revealed universes so bold but closely held that they stood alone as one of the most high-wire acts in writing. There were so many variants. You could be handed a character with decades of canon and the fans to boot and told to “make it new.” You might be assigned a book that everyone has always hated and told to “make it interesting.” You might be singularly motivated to turn a good title into something great and crazy and eye-popping. You might be a mad genius, inventing your own path with new characters or repurposed cast-offs to make something genuinely new. Or you might just spend a decade writing what was, essentially, a soap opera featuring people with special powers.

These stories are complicated. They span decades of feverishly creative minds and artists trying to sell as many people as possible on all kinds of crazy stuff. And although many of the stories intersect (there are team-ups, cross-overs, random cameos clearly designed to bait fans into picking something entirely second-rate off the shelf because ooh, Wolverine!), they occupy different universes. These days, that’s basically two (yes, of course, indie comics – not going to totally nerd out here). I mention this because even though I’ve been reading comics for a few years now, and even though I’m lucky to have a patient interpreter husband who will tell me the back story and then some (“Wait, what’s the deal with Bullseye?”), I still get DC and Marvel confused. I’ll say things like “Why doesn’t Superman just come in and waste this fool?” (Usual answer: wrong universe.) The more I heard, the more I read. The more I read, the more I wanted to read.

the collection expands

I’ve never especially felt that I wanted to collect anything, even comic books. The collecting impulse feels different from the way I curate my personal library. When you collect, you want the entire (original) run of G.I. Joe. When you curate, you recognize that Hugh Howey’s Wool is brilliant but the rest of the series is disposable. I didn’t want to collect, but I sensed that he wanted to. I was inspired to help this happen. First, I investigated the archiving technology. I found an app to allow him to keep track of his comics in real-time. No more guessing whether he already had Daredevil #312. The phone would allow him to monitor his collection. Second, we needed vertical storage. Research showed that the legal file cabinet was the key: side by side storage, no light exposure, high density. It seemed like only a little while before we went from a few long boxes to several cabinets. Storage somehow expands and accommodates demand. This has allowed us to have an entire room in our house now dedicated to comics – a room I’d initially seen as a place for sun and relaxation, a comfy chair and a martini at the end of the day type space.

We didn’t start off to have a expansive collection of comics. Looking back, it’s hard to explain the new influx except as the result of being, well, lost in Montgomery. You live here for a long time. Friends come and go; they have babies, or move to New York, or circle wagons with their work people. As you get older, it gets harder to make friends. You seek refuge in what makes you happy. If it’s not bourbon, it’s likely to be the euphoria of a well-told story. Whether that’s by Murakami or Remender, you’re operating on the same basic impulse. Some books are just shorter that others. And some have pictures.

I’m writing about the comic collecting ecosystem this month because it’s a fascinating place that hits all rungs of the value ladder. It’s also really how we started going to junk shops in the first place. We’ve come to see it as prospecting. This is a rationalization for canny consumption. But it still feels like an adventure.

On the hunt in Maine

Last year we were in Lewiston, Maine. We had a day or so to kill, so we thought we’d try to figure out where the town’s comics were held. Our operating premise is that every town has people who used to collect (intentionally or not) comics. Most have people who still do. Poking around in junk shops and used bookstores (if a place is lucky enough to have the latter) will give you a good sense of where the stashes might be. If you find a box, sometimes its owner will turn out to have a secret garage full of them. Or they may know a guy. At a junk shop, you’re likely to see two kinds of comics, defined largely by their pricing. Some are priced simply to move – a quarter here, a dollar for this one – by someone who either doesn’t know what they are worth or is too lazy/technologically inept to look up the going rates. Others are priced in a wildly aspirational fashion. They have been deemed “OLD” or “RARE” for no reason (people, being from the 1970s doesn’t make you old and probably not rare except in the all-people-are-special way, so why should some random Spider-Man titles be any different?) and marked way above market prices.

Like every other consumable, comics are worth exactly what someone is willing to pay for them. Unlike lots of other goods, there is, in theory, a master guide to comic book prices. It’s called the Overstreet price guide and it’s very rare to see someone haul it out to look up books. If you want to see that practice in action, visit the Collector’s Corner in Auburn. Be prepared for the smell of cigarette smoke. Most of the time, if you’re dealing with a non-expert, you can expect to either score some bargains or walk away from overpriced hologram covers wedged in between other OLD and RARE back issues of Life magazine. As with coins, condition is a factor – some comics have been poorly stored and get wrinkled, torn or crushed. So is scarcity. The oldest of the old comics are valuable not just because they feature the first appearance of some favorite character, but because there aren’t many around. Comics weren’t meant to be treasured – they were cheaply printed and cheaply treated in MUCH smaller runs than today’s big titles, so the restricted supply tends to drive up their prices, even if the demand isn’t as great as might exist for an early Batman.

Speaking of early Batman, the road to Lewiston had taken us from scenic Bar Harbor down a bookstore trail helpfully mapped out by the Maine Antiquarian Booksellers Association. We’d stopped at a junk shop not on the map in tiny Ellsworth, just to see what they had. We craved a coffee table made out of an old pinball machine and briefly contemplated driving it home to Alabama. We puzzled over a large collection of glass eyes. Then we found the comics, big racks of them, with boxes underneath. The owner knew he had his hooks in us pretty good, and even invited us to look in the “secret room,” which thankfully did not end in our grisly deaths. Although it could have – the precarious shelves of improbably balanced and unmarked boxes seemed ready to collapse at any time. Our stack grew. And grew. Finally we came to the end, the cash register reckoning, the inevitable dickering over the price of a few higher end things. And then he stopped, sizing us up a little bit. Seeing, perhaps, that maybe we were in it for something more.

“I have something else,” he said. “Something I don’t show to many people, but you…you might be interested in it.” He produced a metal army box from somewhere in the giant pile of doll arms, rusty trucks, baggies of costume jewelry and yellowing file boxes behind his desk. He opened it gingerly and turned it to face us with the kind of care I’d always assumed would be given to, say, the Hope Diamond. Inside was a Batman #4. This is not an actual picture of the book we saw.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 12.52.15 PMIt was in pretty good shape for a few pieces of colored paper printed in 1940. He wanted several thousand dollars for it. Gulp. Cash only. This seemed like an insane amount of money. But if it was real, if it was in good condition, well…it actually might be a bargain. We thanked him for letting us see it, knowing we would probably never see one in person again, and rushed to the car. To call our dealer. This is a strange thing in the comic world – you have a dealer. In our case, it’s the owner of our own Capitol City Comics. We got Rob on the phone to ask if we should buy it. Never mind that we hadn’t figured out how, exactly, we could make that amount of money appear. He talked us off the fence and we continued on. Because condition is everything, and we’re not experts. There could be any number of small things wrong with that book that we’d never even know about until we sent it off to have an expert grade it.

This is something I didn’t know about before comics – there is a whole professional infrastructure set up to evaluate condition. The way it works is that you send your books off to one of the grading services (the most popular is the Certified Guaranty Company, or CGC) and they give it a number between 0 and 10. Then they put the book into a slab (this is called “encapsulating”) and return it. Only the expensive stuff gets graded and slabbed; it’s not cheap to get your stuff graded professionally, and then the pesky things are hard to store.

We soldiered on to Lewiston. It’s a working class town; at least, it seems like it used to be. Along with neighboring Auburn (the locals call it LA, for Lewiston-Auburn), the metro area had a hard-up, post-industrial feel. Downtown seemed like it was emerging slowly from its wreckage – exactly the kind of place you’d expect to find a trove or two of undervalued comics. We were surprised to find two shops selling new issues, and equally surprised not to find boxes of back issues at either place. Where were the city’s comics? We found a used book store of the trade-in-your-genre type, staffed by a crusty man tending an even crustier aquarium. Gently sliding past a duo of elderly Nora Roberts aficionados, amid the macrobiotic cookbooks and right wing manifestos (you can tell so much about the politics of a place by looking in its used book stores), we found a stash. The owner was of the price-em-high school of thought, with an additional wrinkle: the bundle. He’d evidently decided that the key to getting high prices was to sell issues in sets of ten or so, all wrapped up so that you couldn’t judge the quality of the books. We passed, but thought perhaps this gentleman might be the key to the city’s missing stash. After some buttering up, he copped to having a storage unit, or perhaps it was a garage, full of comics. But we’d have to make a date to look through them, and we were scheduled to return home to warmer weather. So we passed.

shazam!

Lewiston aside, Maine was a bit of a gold mine for my husband. I didn’t get anything of note. I’d say that I don’t buy many comics, but that’s just not true. It’s just that I have discovered my own specific tastes. I’m not a generalist. Sometimes I just like the art – anything atomic or space themed catches my eye, especially if it’s got good mid-century styling. But I also found myself discovering authors who seemed to share my sensibility, or whose writing was similar to other (non-illustrated) fiction that I loved. I discovered China Mieville by experimenting with Dial H for Hero last year, just because I thought the premise was amazing and insane (you go into a phone booth, dial…yes, you guessed it, and become a hero). This led me down a rabbit trail of some of the very best science fiction I’ve ever read (or fantasy, or whatever, those genres are super-blurry at the cutting edge he’s writing from).

One of my favorite comics came from South Alabama, in a big multi-vendor “antique mall” called Mr. Bill’s. It’s near Mobile. The place somehow supported two vendors with comics – one guy with some more high-end “first appearance of some villain or another” type books displayed in Mylar bags on high shelves; the other a more “also I have knives and gently used heavy metal records” type with a couple of random stacks. Here I bought a reprinted version of the first appearance of Captain Marvel. I mostly liked the art. And the price – 50 cents.

I had no idea who Captain Marvel was, or that this particular story was so important in the comics genealogy. But the story, as I read it out loud on the car ride home, was so engaging and improbable that it has come to signify something especially wonderful about comic books. It is almost unnecessary to say that the premise is preposterous. We are, after all, talking about an industry where time travel is about as routine as romance as a plot device.

We begin with young Billy Batson, alone on the streets of the big city. He is homeless and selling newspapers. A mysterious stranger tells Billy to follow him, which of course he does – PSAs about this sort of thing evidently didn’t exist at the time.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 3.21.07 PMA mysterious subway ride later, and Billy meets an old man sitting on a throne. This guy is Shazam. He knows everything about Billy’s life, which he summons before the eyes of Billy and the reader through the amazingly named Historama:

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 3.28.24 PMThis turns out to be like the Cyclorama except more portable and personalized. Shazam is super old and also there is a giant block suspended above his head by a thread. He’s ready to pass on his powers to Billy, who learns that by speaking the old guy’s name (“SHAZAM!”) he becomes Captain Marvel, the “strongest and mightiest man in the world.” To become Billy, Captain Marvel speaks the name again. This second announcement somehow causes the block to fall on the old guy. There’s no time to mourn his death, because the next thing we know, Billy’s out on the street again selling papers. And he foils a plot, etc.

Captain Marvel didn’t last long- there were some copyright issues. A subsequent version had a doppleganger saying “Kimota!” instead to activate his powers – that’s “atomic” spelled backward, sort of, if you’re interested.

Here’s why this issue, with its stripped down and lovely artwork, appeals to me. First, the Historama aside, it doesn’t mess around with too much back story. We get right to the point. Second, it taps into a deep cross-cultural fantasy: that you were, all this time, meant to be something more than you are. As a child, I read A Little Princess by Francis Hodgson Burnett. This caused me to become deeply convinced that I, too, would be pulled from obscurity into better circumstances. I would often say to my mother that she’d be sorry for treating me in a certain way (demeaning stuff, usually, like washing the dishes) when “my real mother” found out.

Kimota!

So far in this series, I’ve talked a lot about how things burden us and can make us sad. I’ve written about consumption’s transient therapy. We grasp at things floating through the waste stream, whether uphill or downhill, as little patches for existential ailments. It’s easier to deal with dread when you have new shoes, or vindication as some kind of thrift store conquistador. All of us have giant blocks hanging over our head. All of us need magic words to get by.

Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I tell myself a story. It’s always a story I know well, so I don’t have to stay awake for the ending. Insomnia will make you crazy because it’s full of stories that have no end. Narrative is a good solution, letting the structures, characters and processes lull you into dreams that (if you’re lucky) transport you, down past the surface tension of worry and regret into the deep and hopeful structures of your imagination.

Lately, I’ve been telling Billy’s story. Which makes no sense. It’s not an especially good story. It’s not likely to happen to me (or anyone, especially as modern children are hopefully disinclined to follow strangers into subway stations). What Shazam provides is the murmur of destiny, combined with the idea that just one word could transform you. That’s the stuff of genius. No need to find a phone booth to change, no need to be some rich guy with a cave full of bats and gadgets. Just you and your bright future, separated by a few mystic syllables – all for just fifty cents.

_____

Note: If you’re interested in viewing free comics online, I highly recommend visiting Comic Book Plus and the Digital Comic Museum, free to register and chock full of wonderful old comics. Images above are thanks to the Digital Comic Museum archive.

Notes from the Waste Stream #3: One-Armed Silver Torso

It’s time again for those bells to ring in support of donation to the Salvation Army. I don’t give. I never give, and have been known to explain why to the bell-ringers in detail. But the bells persist, and they are everywhere. So I thought I’d talk a little bit about thrift stores this month. Lost in Montgomery started with thrift stores. Having moved here from the godless West, I wasn’t prepared for them to be closed on Sunday and was surprised that there wasn’t an online catalog of thrifting options. I furnished a Seattle apartment entirely from thrift stores, and went to college in Atlanta with friends who are thrift store ninjas (Pro Tip: Dress in leggings and tank tops so you can try clothes on at the rack instead of in the nasty dressing rooms), so I had high hopes for our local options. Sadly, they are not that great.

The modern thrift store is an artifact made possible in large part by the advent of garbage collection services. It’s strange for us here in the rich countries to think about the world before municipal garbage collection. We take it for granted that someone will regularly drive by and take our trash. We also don’t think much about where that stuff goes, other than sometimes caring about recycling because of philosophies of environmentalism or economy. But there was a time, not too long ago, when there was no such thing as a city sanitation department and we were responsible for our own waste.

In practice, this produced and sustained an entire secondary economy of people who picked through trash to make a living. It doesn’t seem to have been much of a living, and continues to be a miserable way of life for people in the majority world who live without basic sanitation services like clean water, let alone the fancier business of trucks to whisk away our dinner scraps and Amazon boxes. But it was big business, especially among poor and immigrant families. It was also dirty business, often populated by needy children picking fiber scraps and other waste for bosses to aggregate and resale. But it was a kind of self-sufficiency for the poor.

In her wonderful book The Victorian House, Judith Flanders describes one of the innovative advertising strategies used by “rag-and-bone men”:

The youthful Sammy, dressed in light-blue trousers, gamboge [bright yellow] waistcoat, and pink coat, is throwing up his arms in rapture at the ‘stylish appearance’ of his sweetheart Matilda, who, like Sammy himself, is decked out in all the chromatic elegance of these three primary colours, while the astonished swain is exclaiming , by means of a huge bubble which he is in the act of blowing out of his mouth, ‘My gracious, Matilda! how did you ever get that beautiful new dress?’ To which rather impertinent query the damsel is made to bubble forth the following decided puff: ‘Why, Sammy by saving up all of my old rags, and taking them to Mr. -, who gives the best prices likewise for bones, pewter, brass, and kitchen-stuff.

Here are some of the things I love about this advertisement. First, it illustrates the link between dress and class so perfectly. Second, it mirrors today’s emphasis on thrifty clothing purchases. I continue to be surprised at how common it is that upon complimenting someone for their clothing, you get a report on how much it cost. My grandmother – heck, even my mother, who sewed most of my clothing while I was growing up – would have called such talk gauche. To say what you paid for that scarf or those boots? So rude. But now it’s a measure of your canniness to say that they were only $15 at TJMaxx or whatever. And you don’t have to save up at all. These days, we’re more Macklemore than Matilda.

Garbage collection destroyed the trash-picking industry. Partly on purpose. Progressives were appalled by the piles of waste littering the streets and, in particular, the homes of the poor. Susan Strasser’s book Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash shows how the municipal waste collection movement was energized by often plainly racist and xenophobic language about the unclean lifestyles of immigrants and annoyance with their domination in the secondary waste market. Immigrants were so associated with trash that they were even described as waste on the Statue of Liberty (“the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”).

Along with municipal waste collection, charitable donations meant that trash would not be left outside, or reused in the household, or dickered over. Some was donated for a better cause – to provide jobs for the poor, and a place for old goods to travel down the value ladder. Here’s Strasser’s take:

Donating to charity, the better-off could free themselves from the social discomforts that might arise from identification or intercourse with beggars, scavengers, and ragmen … The organizations also fostered new ways of thinking about the sorting process: people could now avoid the trouble of repair and remaking and get rid of unwanted things without having to define them as worthless.

The truth is that most of the clothing we find at thrift stores is cheaply made. That’s because we’re turning over unbelievable vast amounts of clothing every day to charity to make room for more stuff – stuff which, in turn, is more cheaply made than anything our parents wore. Most of us donate clothing to thrift stores under the assumptions that someone else will wear and cherish it. This is pretty far from the truth. Elizabeth Cline’s book Overdressed shows that an astonishing 80 percent gets sorted out into the waste stream. Some things end up for resale in poor countries, undercutting their ability to develop indigenous textile industries.

We’re living in a world of surplus fabric – something that might amaze the American colonists, whose rag shortage was so acute that citizens did their patriotic duty by saving rags to make paper in support of the Revolutionary War effort. What would they make of the millions of tons of fabric now entering landfills across the world?

I can remember feeling amazed by thrift stores when I was younger – set free from my parents to be my own economic agent. It felt empowering to have things. I couldn’t walk into the mall and buy anything, but here I could leave with everything: plates, cups, lamps, a coffee table, a dresser, a coat, gifts for friends.

And then something happened. I’m not sure what, exactly, but I think it had to do with reaching peak stuff. I got married, and we merged our households, and suddenly we had boxes and boxes of things I could not identify. Then there’s the aging factor – as you get older, you have more things. Even if you’re diligent about patrolling the piles on your coffee table, you accumulate: letters, ticket stubs, gifts, furniture, shoes.

The tipping point was unraveling the maze of things that filled my mother’s house. Once they were sold off and distributed, I still had a truckload to drive across the country and deal with. She collected Lladros – you may not know the name, but you’d recognize their distinctive blue and white finish if you saw one. She bought them in Spain, one by one at the military commissary. Most of them had the original box and price sticker. Having grown up poor, she treasured each of them for their delicacy. They must have seemed unspeakably rich to her, the fineness of the hands rendered just so, the tiny flowers sometimes strewn across the base. They were seasonal, particularly the Christmas ones we brought out every year to arrange on the mantle. And it was my job to sell the lot of them. Partly because I promised my brothers I would, partly because they’ve never been to my taste, and mostly because I simply needed to be rid of them.

There were other boxes, too – so many files that needed reading, shredding, saving, weeping over; the records of our childhoods mixed in with postcards and lost gloves. All of it occupying space in my home like an unwelcome but surprisingly bulky ghost.

I used to enjoy thrift stores, but I really don’t any longer. I fear seeing things from my childhood home there amid the coffee cups. I worry that I will find my mother’s robe and slippers or a familiar lamp. I know that there are people there who are shopping because they must, not because they can, and somehow this fills me with shame. Because I want to be freed from the things I have, the keepsakes that seem to keep me instead, and when I remember that the plague of too many things is not something most people in the world will ever experience, I feel deeply sad.

After all this, I bought a life-sized one-armed silver torso for $6.99 at the Goodwill over by Maxwell Air Force Base. We were there to see if they had comic books (a subject for another post). Finding none, we poked around listlessly to explore the contours of our city’s waste stream. The faceless model spoke to me from across the room somehow. Seeing the price, I felt like it had to come home with us. Even the cashier was bemused.

TorsoAs I write, I can see him (I have come to think of it as male, for no particular reason) in the living room wearing a Santa hat. I have no good explanation for this purchase. I think it spoke to me because it had absolutely no utility – an improbable decoration, a bizarre addition to the household, an admission that it’s okay to have things that you love.

At some point we will probably tire of him and find him a new home. If we put him on the curb, as folks in our neighborhood sometimes do with their non-torso items, he’d be gone in a minute. If we sold him in Brooklyn or Austin, we might be able to make a hefty profit. For now, he reminds me that not all stuff has to have a purpose or memory as impossible freight, and that’s a good enough reason to keep him around.

Notes From the Waste Stream #2: Fathers and Children, Ivan Turgenev

Everything enters the waste stream. If it’s your precious heirloom, lovingly treated in your will, maybe it’ll get a prized place above a fireplace or in a gallery that will take about 40 percent of the list price. If it’s something less remarkable – a popcorn maker, a blue mixing bowl, a gently used comforter – it’s anyone’s game. Once the initial transaction is set, presumption will always point toward the initial estimate of worth (plus depreciation), barring some kind of Antiques Roadshow moment. Some things gain value with time, but most don’t. Dented and bashed, they shed value in an obvious way. Rusted and out of fashion, things lose value slowly and imperceptibly, just like we lose our childhood memories.

When we buy things, we don’t consider their demise because optimism is the whole point of acquisition. We are bullish on utility and aesthetics. By the time we dispose of our things, they have lost either or both of these qualities. We dispatch our stuff to the landfill or to new hands. Our things migrate past us to an unknown future, normally in a slow trickle: We throw away a chipped plate here and recycle a few old magazines there to keep our homes in an approximation of order.

Piece-by-piece has its exceptions. Consider estate and garage sales, mostly distinguished by whether the owner is present at the sale. Generally, an owner stages a garage sale to clear things out. They get to choose the sale items, prices and presentation. The condition that makes the estate sale possible is exactly the opposite. The owner is absent but their things linger on, with heirs hoping to find some value after picking anything they want out of the pile.

About two years ago, I found myself picking a few things out of an extremely large pile. More specifically, I was looking for something to read. I was also trying to dispose of more than 2,000 square feet of stuff. My mother died while folding laundry one night (mostly small decorative hand towels, by the look of the basket), and as the eldest child, the job was left to me to deal with her estate. Executing an estate engages skills from conflict resolution to advanced math. It is not a task for the infirm or the organizationally challenged. Me, I was thousands of miles away from the house in question and responsible for making sure my two younger brothers got their share.

What counts as a share? What counts as value? It’s hard to say when confronted with a storage area the size of the main house chock-full of every toy, seasonal decoration, hand-made computer part, possibly-working lamp, leftover bit of china sets past, and piece of correspondence or child-made art accumulated in the time since before your parents were married.

You stare down the piles. Because your family has entirely and recently disintegrated, the idea of pricing is the furthest thing from your mind. There are two warring strands that pick apart each box. First, there is the urge to photograph and archive every single thing. Second, there is the impulse to destroy or sell it all without consideration. The more boxes you look at, the more you will be suspicious of the tension between these reactions. As you look at even more boxes, you will be overwhelmed by the overlap and become both enamored of and deeply hostile to the idea of selling it all off. At this point, the possibility of mental illness starts to seem like a warm reprieve.

Gripped by this particular psychosis and flummoxed by the house’s seemingly endless supply of desks, forks and blankets, I called in the heavy artillery. More specifically, I hired a team of former airline attendants to manage the sale of my mother’s estate.

It turns out that the same skill set that qualifies you to effortlessly dish Diet Cokes to a metal tube full of twitchy weirdos helps you convince wandering passers-by to buy anything from costume jewelry to antique English wardrobes. I had been to estate sales before and found them deeply sad affairs where a mix of the nosy, poor and exploitative poke through dim rooms of smelly and vaguely-priced detritus. I did not want that for our family home. At the same time, I needed it to be emptied. I wasn’t looking to make a profit so much as I was looking to find new homes for my parents’ treasured things. There was the Thai teak dining room set we oiled every month as children, the collection of Russian dolls, the cookbooks, the hats … everywhere you looked, there were more things, and the idea of all these things came to terrify me as much as it comforted me.

The ladies worked the same kind of magic on my mother’s house that they’d used to subdue thousands of surly airline passengers. They turned our frown resolutely upside-down, waved some sage, attached price labels with string and sold off the whole lot, including the broken laundry machines, non-working lamps, carpets of dubious cleanliness, tea sets and hideous art. It was astonishing to see our dusty piles of heritage-grade stuff transformed into displays of assorted merchandise and moved out the door with systematic fervor.

Not that I was able to see the sale. They wouldn’t let me come. They have a policy of not letting clients come to the sale itself, as we were likely to get involved with the goods – cling to them, perhaps, or try to bargain to get them out the door. Which meant I needed something to read while I sat in my hotel room.

I was done with the one book I brought with me: David Mitchell’s wonderful The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoot. For some reason, I thought a historical novel about immortal baby-eating Japanese monks and their Dutch would-be oppressors would be just the thing to get me past my mother’s funeral and back home again. No dice. A few days before the sale, I rummaged through the paperbacks in bins. I picked Fathers and Children by Ivan Turgenev, an old paperback of a 1948 translation wedged between a bridge manual and my middle school American history textbook. Ten cents.

IMG_3271The sale boasted a surplus of Russian fiction. This was what remained of my father’s collection. He was a military man with a graduate degree in Russian Studies. He never got to travel to Russia – security clearances kept him out of the Soviet Union and its successor states. His Russian was well below fluent by the time I was old enough to ask after it, but he retained an enduring love for the Russian novelists. I made my own collection of them over time, lifting a few things from his library here and there: a lovely copy of And Quiet Flows the Don, a few battered Solzhenitsyn paperbacks, whatever Dostoevsky hadn’t made it onto my shelves by the end of college.

My mother had majored in English. As an adult, her tastes had turned to Stephen King and the mystery ecosystem, but she retained a missionary enthusiasm for Charles Dickens. I still have never finished David Copperfield. This is largely out of spite. In retrospect, between the forced Dickens and coerced Tolstoy, it’s a miracle that I developed any love for reading serious fiction.

I had dinner with an old family friend the first night of the estate sale. Over beer, he remarked on the Turgenev: “You’ve never read it?” I worried this question in my mind for some time after. What did he mean? Was I just now finding a work like Moby-Dick or East of Eden, revealing my lack of grounding in the canon? Did he mean something deeper? Did the book had something to say about his long-time friends and their children? I never got a chance to ask, but I continued reading the story through multiple late night solo dinners at a rotating cast of restaurants, always retiring early to the Residence Inn and getting to the house by 6 the following morning. It blurred for me, this time. I was also trying to sell the house, so there was the day the water heater needed repair, the day the basement might have issues, the day of the bathroom vent, the day of the pool cover, the day of the attempted robbery.

Through all of it, I followed the young student Arkady’s visit to his family. Having not been home in some time, he brings his friend Bazarov as a kind of protection. Fathers and Children (sometimes translated as Fathers and Sons) is probably most famous for putting the notion of nihilism into print. Arkady describes his school friend’s nihilism this way: “A nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in.” His family is neither impressed nor shocked, as his uncle Pavel says: “There used to be Hegelists, and now there are nihilists. We shall see how you will exist in void, in vacuum; and now ring, please, brother Nikolai Petrovitch; it’s time I had my cocoa.”

This was my father, pitch-perfect. On every holiday, I’d bring home some new idea, some cutting-edge theorist to try out at the dinner table. His engineer’s brain was never impressed – the question was always how it worked, an empirical issue unable to be settled in argument but necessarily examined over time.

By Arkady’s definition, my mother was a bit of a nihilist. This didn’t mean that she was impressed by my intellectual gymnastics; on the contrary, she tired quickly of the kind of flight from authority to authority that my philosophy degree engendered.

All of this was dithering. I killed time while projecting onto a 19th century Russian novel in a hotel room and waiting for the call that my family’s belongings had been sold off. I envied Arkady’s family and thought him foolish for his youthful desertion. I loathed Bazarov, even as he reminded me of at least half a dozen ex-boyfriends. Mostly I tried to etch the inventory of my mother’s house into my brain, Matteo Ricci-style.

On the last day of the sale, I wandered through the nearly empty house. I was waiting for the consolidator to arrive. This sounds like a Jason Stathem role but turned out to be just a person who comes in after an estate sale to buy what’s left. Some goes to charity, some to the landfill, the gems into the market. Seller gets a check for the lot.

Thousands of things had already entered the waste stream, priced to sell and settle into their new homes. The hat my mother had worn to my grandmother’s funeral; the Cabbage Patch Kid that had been a Christmas highlight; a marked-up Betty Crocker cookbook; a set of tiny screwdrivers – all of it gone, the house’s corners squeaking back at you for the first time in my memory as I paced it. The consolidator made a pile of what was left and offered me an amount of money that only my spreadsheets remember.

I wanted at this moment more than any in my life to be exactly Turgenev’s nihilist. The empty house was a showcase of ghosts, shelves heavy with what was once there. I wanted all of it back. If only the china hutch and plant stands would repopulate the dining room, I would bow down to their authority. I would take the leather sofa on faith. I would extend reverence to anyone who could keep these in my life without cost, allow me to walk among and page through them. Instead, I shrugged off principle and paid a man to take our leftovers away – a once-glamorous rug, a few lamps, a set of hard-worn tools, boxes of clothing, all things that once were worth something and now were reduced to value.

Notes From the Waste Stream #1: World’s Fair Ticket Plate

Collinsville Trade Day is a good place to take the temperature of the struggling American economy. Every weekend in northern Alabama’s DeKalb County, thousands of people converge on rows of stalls and crowded parking lots. Within these acres you can buy everything from goats to grey-market cell phone covers in a rich mix that includes popcorn machines, chipped yellow plates, children’s clothes and leaf blowers. It’s overwhelming, especially with cold lemonade in hand and the smell of funnel cake in the air. It’s not a fixed market, but an organic commercial ecosystem that seems to shift by the hour as people come from miles around to sell things out of their vans and trucks, on card tables and blankets. Although some of the vendors are selling modern plastic goods still in their original boxes, the basic principle is as timeless as an ancient souk or bazaar.

Someone made these things, most likely far away. Then someone bought them. And now, perhaps many owners later, they’re available for sale. The collapse of the American manufacturing economy isn’t news, but it does seem that we don’t make much any more. Our parents, and especially their parents, worked in jobs where goods were made. Durable goods. As in, not Big Macs. At Trade Day in rural DeKalb County, some things are made: soaps, tea cozies, lemon bars and, in a strict sense, the goats and puppies. But as the name suggests, it’s about trade.

They used to make things in Fort Payne, just a few miles from Collinsville. More specifically, they made textiles and (weirdly) opera. While both industries are defunct, each has museums open to visitors at odd hours. Also, there are shops that sell socks by the pound. The enormous mills of Fort Payne, once famous as the “Sock Capital of the World,” died out and at least one eventually re-emerged as an “antique mall.” Jobs in the sock factories dried up with outsourcing. Now antique and junk shops traffic in the remains of the faded prosperity.

America is full of cities that have learned to define themselves not by what they make but by what they sell. A few hours south of Fort Payne, the small town of Brundidge rebranded themselves in the 1990s as “antique city,” only to see the various secondhand stores shut down a few years later. As the guys on American Pickers say, there may be “rusty gold” in people’s trash, but the gold standard has always had its limits – especially for poor and working class people.

After a few years in Montgomery, when you’ve seen all the museums and the monuments and stacked them up against your lived experience, official history starts to seem both heavy and unsatisfying. This has increasingly sent us looking around the margins for the unofficial versions. It’s always risky to reach outside of canon. In the first place, there’s the stuff generally left out of history books, like Paul Robeson and Bayard Rustin. That’s important. But that’s what rises to the top. If you really want to dig deep and understand how people live and how their families have lived, you’re going to have to step out of the museums and into the state’s best (and free) museums – its junk shops and trash piles.

We were in DeKalb County for the scenery. We’d been staying in a cabin in the hills that pass for Alabama’s mountains. On the way out of town we decided to check out local junk offerings. It was a Sunday, which limited our options. Evidently Jesus was not a fan of, or at least did not want to compete with, junk shopping. So we drove around. A shop with OL’ BUZZARD stenciled on the side in three-foot high letters caught our eye. Getting in was tricky – we’d arrived in the middle of a complex operation involving several well-muscled young men and a huge grand piano that looked dubiously balanced in the back of a rusty pickup. A tall man offered to give us a discount on anything we found inside if we could help to get the piano indoors. We agreed to the deal. While the men tried to thread the shop’s needle with an 1890s Steinway, I poked around indoors.

There are two major ways to taxonomize junk shops: the identity of the merchants and the place of the merchandise in the overall junk economy. Shops are either solo operations or group ventures. The solo shop can be full of absolute crap or tastefully decorated with expensive things. As you browse, you come to believe that you’re exploring a kind of reflection of the owner’s mind. Pick up a doily. Consider that it’s been grouped with a pig-shaped cookie jar and a ragged book about the Knights Templar. Why these particular objects in these arrangements at these particular prices? It’s like a walkthrough MRI. Of which parts are for sale, perhaps for negotiable prices.

If a solo shop is an autobiography in capitalist cross-stitch, the collective approach is social history in a small town phone book. Within the country’s former big box stores and defunct furniture factories, collectible-minded folks have found each other and mustered their various wares in partitioned and leased sections. Each stall has its own number, pricing scheme, hidden rules of negotiation, and theme. Although stalls compete with each other for your attention, they also cooperate to keep the lights on while vigorously blurring the definition of “antique.” This Life magazine with the missing back page? This 16th century English stoneware? Pitcher shaped like an astonished frog? Jimmy Carter and family paper dolls? All antiques. Because this is an antique mall, that’s why. No more questions. But there is a discount if you’re paying cash.

Trash is something destined for a landfill. An antique is something that someone will pay a lot of money for. Everything for sale in every junk shop in America occupies a place in this spectrum between liability and worth. What place, exactly? Like most interesting questions, the answer is: It depends. The owner of a pawn shop (themselves unique niches in the second-hand universe) taught us some things about worth. An expert in collectable coins, he explained that value to numismatists depends on supply, demand and condition. In that order. Some people fetishize objects in mint condition, and robust debates can ensue about perceived flaws in any object and how that impacts value. But the condition of an object doesn’t matter if there are enough out there to meet the demand.

All of which is to advance a universal truth about any commercial transaction, but especially true of America’s antique and junk economy: A thing is worth exactly what someone’s willing to pay for it. The effort to separate buyers from their money causes junk shops to sort items up and down the trash ladder. Some stores are sad and damp, the kind of places where cast off clothes change hands as “new for school,” and the moldy book shelf is mostly composed of self-help and romance novels, the reading of one genre perhaps leading to the reading of the other. On the trash ladder, you’re close to the yard sale and the dump, where the most valuable things are old Nintendo cartridges (hipster nostalgia) and chipped glass-top dinette sets (lake house).

At the high end of merchandise, you get posh and crisp (think Victorian, Colonial) or hip and therefore expensive (mid-century modern, ironic 1970s kitsch). If you’re engaged in that most American of pastimes – trying to get something for close to nothing – neither end of the ladder is likely to whet your whistle. What you want is someone in the middle. Preferably, this will be someone who doesn’t really know what they have or care to price it effectively despite the Internet’s copious advice about “real value” (whatever that is). Often these are sellers for whom eBay and Craigslist either expose fundamental Internet illiteracy or reflect a series of stories of betrayals.

The man supervising the piano lifting turned out to be the actual Ol’ Buzzard. His shop was somewhere in the middle of the junk ladder, perhaps because he’d only been open for a few months. This inspired hope in our buyer’s hearts, as it might not have been long enough for the predators at the top of the junk ladder to buy out the good stuff, either for keeping or re-selling in tonier shops. There was a lot to look at, curated but still several steps above the junk ladder from the bargain bins at Trade Days just a few miles away. The piano eased in the door with much huffing as I weaved between stacks of National Geographics, three decades of vinyl, a dozen pewter trophies and kitchen machines that defied description or need.

photo 1 photo 2High up on a shelf I saw a piece of metal covered with small versions of an iconic American image particularly familiar to fans of The Simpsons – the Sunsphere from the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. A closer look showed that the plate, about two feet wide and a foot and a half high, was engraved with admissions tickets to the Fair. This was likely to be a souvenir rather than a plate used to actually stamp tickets, but it was still awfully cool – and after our piano-moving discount, only $20. Sold.

I’ve been interested in the history of the World Fairs since reading Erik Larson’s marvelous Devil in the White City. While the scope and ambition of the Chicago World’s Fair is amazing in historical hindsight (the first Ferris Wheel! An ice pavilion!), it’s not that different than what we’d seen at Trade Days. Under its varnish of global citizenship and culture, the World’s Fair was essentially a set of vendors with big names like General Mills and Ford. The brass tickets I bought symbolized a profound optimism for the global economy. But even the most visionary World’s Fair booster probably could not have conceived of a world where a monkey playing cymbals made in Taiwan (in its original wrapping) would be for sale next to a live pig and a dented crescent wrench.

What was the brass plate worth? Exactly what I paid for it to sit on my mantle. The Internet turns up no images or auction records for something like this, but I’m not looking to sell. Each carefully numbered ticket reminds me that someone’s always trying to sell me something, especially if they can dress it up with monumental sculpture, the promise of an exotic provenance, or at least some cold lemonade.

Election Mysteries

The primary is tomorrow, and I wanted to make sure I was making good decisions when I vote, so I pulled up the sample Democratic ballot for my district. I was pretty sure I wanted to vote against Thad McClammy, because I despise his actions on the House Financial Services committee stalling payday and title loan reform. Also, I’ve sent him several hand-written letters this year and haven’t received a single response from his office. But I wasn’t sure how the other candidate, City Council member Tracy Larkin, felt on the issue. So I pulled up his website. No answers there. And I called the number listed. Nobody answering the day before the election, and the response I got was “The mailbox belonging to Tracy Larkin is full and is not accepting messages at this time.” Hmm. If he can’t empty his mailbox, is this really the person I want to represent me?

There’s a bigger puzzle on the ballot, though. Evidently I’ll be asked to vote for positions on the State Democratic Executive Committee. I wasn’t sure what district I was in or who the candidates were, so I investigated. I pulled up the website for the Alabama Democrats and browsed around their collection of stock photos. Should be easy to find out at least what district I’m in, right? Nope – the link takes you to information about the Randolph County Chair. I think I’m in District 76, same as my House District, but I’m not sure, and there’s no information on their site about that. Neither is there information about the folks running for the various slots. Why? I looked online in vain for their policy statements or any information that would help me make a decision about who to vote for. Nope.

I called the party offices to ask about this election. A nice man named John told me that yes, my district was the same as my House district. Good to know. I asked how I would find information about the candidates to make a decision about who to vote for. He said he had no idea. “Not a lot of people put any effort into it,” he said. “You might check their Facebook pages.” Hmm. I asked what this office involved. “They vote on bylaws and help shape the party. They don’t receive a salary.” I got the distinct impression that I was one of the only people ever to have asked about this. I checked their Facebook pages. As best I can tell from their private Facebook pages, Montgomery’s Fred F. Bell likes Dole and uses an app called “Glu.” Clint Daughtrey works for AEA and has a profile picture posing with a topiary made to look like Goofy. Now that’s some quality voter education.

No matter what you think about Alabama politics, most people agree that it’s a good idea to have at least two functional parties to spur competition over ideas and policies. In the modern era, most people get their information online. It’s terrible that the Democratic Party website is so bad. Their last blog post was in February.

Anyone out there have an opinion on the race between Fred F. Bell and Clint Daughtrey?

 

Montgomery Recycling: FAQ

Recycling! It’s been a favorite topic of ours here at Lost in Montgomery since the city’s curbside pickup program was discontinued years ago.

In case you’re new to the story/city, a brief recap: Time was, you’d put your recycling (paper, metal, low-number plastics only) out on the curb in special bags. Those would get picked up and the contents recycled. In theory. Turns out that not many people participated and what waste was submitted didn’t much actually get recycled, plus the operation cost a lot of money.

This was a time of fragile orange bags and frustration that the city (for some reason) couldn’t recycle our glass and high-numbered plastics. The burden for sorting the recyclables of our state’s capital city was literally handed to developmentally disabled people, who, over-matched by the volume, sent most of the stuff to the landfill anyway. Little did we know that this would be our city’s most progressive era of recycling.

bildeMayor Strange, seen above posing with what we can only assume is his environmental adviser, cancelled that inefficient curbside pickup program and promised a fancy new plant that would ionize our waste, or something like that. A very expensive feasibility study concluded that this was in fact science fiction, as we’d all suspected. Back to the drawing board!

Meanwhile, the small microscopic percentage of Montgomery residents who cared enough/had the time would save and haul their recyclables to a set of bins scattered around the city. These bins were often overflowing and meant that recyclers would devote a corner of their house or apartment to vast heaps of newspapers, magazines, Amazon boxes and milk jugs.

Then, lo, it was announced that a new facility was completed that would allow everyone to mix their recyclables into the trash, as they’d be sorted before they went into the dump. This was supposed to help the environment while making money for the city (and, not incidentally, the company running the $37 million facility). We’ve got a more in-depth summary of that project here. Click the exhaustive links in that post for a multi-year history of us blogging about this subject with increasing dismay.

Things started to unravel a bit once the facility was opened. We waited anxiously for some kind of mailing, door hanger or other municipal announcement about what to do with our recycling. And waited. Then a slow trickle of information began to leak out like garbage juice from the bottom corner of a cheap trash bag. You can click here to see the comments on our previous post and get a flavor for the confusion. To clarify the new status quo for our readers, we’ve produced a helpful FAQ based on information we’ve received so far:

Q: So, we can just put our recyclables into the plastic green trash can now, leave it by the curb and they’ll be sorted out by Infinitus, right?

A: Well, no, not exactly. There are some things that the company doesn’t want thrown into your “regular” trash because it gums up the works of their pristine new magical recycling sorting plant.

Q: Wait, I can’t just throw everything away? What can’t go in the trash?

A: Well, here’s a list on a city website. Among the things you might be surprised to learn that you can’t put in your trash can anymore: dirty baby diapers, used cat litter, insulin syringes, and the sacks of dog poop you collect on dog walks because you are a responsible and good person.

Q: Wait, what? I get that you can’t throw a tire or a laptop into the trash can because those are a lot closer to very rare examples of hazardous waste. But we generate a lot of diapers, cat and dog poop, and needles … all for legal and sane reasons. What are we going to do with all that stuff?

A: “All of these items should be bagged and put in a box or other container and placed on your curb for pick up on your regular yard waste collection day.”

Q: Bagged and boxed? In what? Is the city issuing unique bags and boxes?

A: No.

Q: So I’m just going to put a cardboard box or plastic trash bag full of dirty diapers on the curb and wait for “yard waste collection day?” I don’t even know when that is!

A: Weekly yard waste collection days vary by neighborhood.

Q: I usually just leave my limbs and leaves by the curb and they take them away and I don’t think more about it. Now I’m going to leave these bags of pet turds and baby doo doo out by the curb overnight until the city comes to get them?

A: That’s right.

Q: Whose idea was it that a “clean city” involved packs of wild dogs ransacking piles of dirty diapers, strewing them all over the neighborhood?

A: Um, Florida?

The future of Capitol Heights?

The future of Capitol Heights?

Q: Wait, what if people aren’t actively reading the city’s website as part of their daily life routines? What if they keep throwing tires and diapers in the trash?

A: Well, then the magic new recycling sorting plant will break. And we’ll never see the day when all of the solid waste will be fed to magic bacteria that will break it all down and turn it into the fuel that will be used in the city’s garbage trucks. You know, like the company told us all when they built this amazing one-of-a-kind facility. (That link is a PDF).

Q: So a special space amoeba is going to eat all of our garbage and turn it into fuel for city trash trucks and other “private vehicles?”

A: ….. Um, yes — only if you have no further questions on this subject.

Q: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s go back. So we can’t throw dead animals in the trash either?

A: No.

Q: Didn’t the city just tell people last year that they COULD put dead animals up to 50 pounds in the trash?

A: Those were the old days.

Q: So if there’s a stinking, reeking, maggot-filled smashed possum on the road in front of my house, I need to pick it up and bring it inside until my weekly “yard waste collection day?”

A: Yes. We suggest wrapping it in fabric softener sheets and spraying it with Febreze™ to help with the stench.

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 12.49.54 PM

Finally, a use for those horse-drawn carriages! Downtown living!

Q: And if the family pet dies and I have an apartment and don’t have a place to bury it, I can’t put it in the trash, I have to leave it on the curb in a special bag or box that I provide until the city comes around some time next week to get branches and limbs and leaves?

A: We are sorry for the loss of your family pet. Hopefully your children will not be traumatized when roaming packs of dogs spread its ichor and bloody remains across your welcome mat.

Q: So, again, the rules are changing about solid waste collection, but the city didn’t do any kind of brochure or series of commercials? Did they just send out a passive press release and assume that a city of hundreds of thousands of people would just understand the new rules?

A: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. The Clean City Commission actually said on its Facebook page that it isn’t the city’s fault if the media chooses not to make a huge deal out of the press releases that were emailed out, so let’s all shrug our shoulders and blame the local newspaper and TV stations for not doing a multi-part breaking news all points bulletin on how to throw away trash. Clearly, it can’t be a leadership fail or a PR lapse on the part of the city. Clearly. Surprisingly, the company running the new sorting plant had to go to the media after the fact due to confusion and tell everyone to please stop putting tires and microwaves in the trash because they are “clogging” the new center. If the city and the media and Infinitus all point fingers at each other for the public’s ignorance, the garbage piling up on the curb will probably turn into special fuels that you can put in your car. Just be patient.

Q: You realize this makes us look like idiots, right? That we kill curbside pickup instead of improving it, and replace with with some kind of corporate sweetheart deal for fantasyland tech we may never see, and now are telling the public to fundamentally change their waste disposal practices in nonsensical and seemingly arbitrary ways? You know that people will look at our city as if it were run by a bunch of backwards morons who can’t figure out simple municipal services like recycling? That this company’s sorting plant is probably less amazing than anticipated if it can’t handle an initial level of “sorting” that removes dead animals, tires and appliances from the waste stream? You know this is why people say that cities like Nashville and Atlanta represent the new South and cities like Montgomery and Jackson are seen as backwards, primitive provinces run by old people, where smart and progressive people flee at their first opportunity, and what are we really going to do about the diapers and cat litter all over the street?

A: We’d be happy to offer you a tour of the new sorting facility and you can see it in action. Just kidding. You can’t do that. It’s private property. Please keep producing trash though. Just kidding. You don’t have any choice.

Wasabi

You’re a tuna. You’re arcing through the Pacific on a path older than time. You sense an enticing glimmer, feel a violent tug, and are now dying on the deck of a boat.

You catch fish for a living. You know you’re over-fishing the oceans, but the endlessly chomping mouths demand the fruits of the sea. Plates in Omaha, El Paso, Des Moines, and Montgomery, Alabama, require tuna and salmon and eel. You try to think of the happiness that the flesh of your catch will bring to some famished diner, honoring your labor. You try not to think of business guys shoving vast quantities of sashimi into their laughing gullets.

You’re opening a Japanese restaurant. Your market research tells you that the average consumer of Japanese food in this area is mostly interested in a birthday party surrounding a hibachi grill — the kind where the chef tosses a shrimp high into the air and puts on a funny show. You are taking a risk by opening a new place. You add more water to your miso soup, hoping to stretch it a little further.

photo 2

You like going to restaurants. You try the new Japanese place shortly after it opens. The food is limp and depressing. The service is a step or two below that. To be kind, you decide not to write a review because it’s hard to open a new place and get it firing on all cylinders. You decide to come back when it’s a little more established. Maybe they’ll have everything worked out and you can give it a fair consideration.

A co-worker proposes going to Wasabi for lunch. Another co-worker vetoes the idea because the online reviews are so scathing.

A work lunch eventually brings you to Wasabi. It wasn’t your idea, but this is where you are told to meet. You are excited to finally get to see the restaurant on a representative day. Scan the menu’s “Prattville rolls” (fried shrimp and cucumber topped with lobster salad) and ponder those who will identify themselves according to stated preferences for the “Roll Tide roll” (lobster salad and avocado topped with tuna and avocado) or the “War Eagle roll” (tuna and avocado topped with salmon and avocado and the “chef’s special spicy sauce”). Idly wonder if the lobster is langostino.

photo 1Your food is again very poor. You struggle to communicate with your server, who seems unfamiliar with the permanent lunch specials. You try adding the restaurant’s namesake spice to your food, in hopes of stimulating your tongue. Nothing. Fortunately, your companion picks up the tab.

You’re describing a cucumber roll to a friend. “The rice was so dry, it reminded me of a certain snapping, crackling and popping breakfast cereal,” you explain. “The slices of sashimi may have been brightly colored bits of a leather belt from Wal-Mart, chewy but flavorless — as if they had perfected an alchemical process in the kitchen that removed the unique taste of fresh tuna and left behind some kind of pink simulacrum.”

You ponder the future of The Alley. Although nearly empty at lunch, maybe traffic picks up at night. Maybe folks don’t mind, or even enjoy Wasabi and the reprehensible Jalapenos. Maybe restaurant owners will get rich and customers well-fed well, fed.