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.

EatSouth and Kudzu-like Unease

Alsomitra macrocarpa is a tropical climbing gourd native to Southeast Asia. Its seeds are the ultimate gliders, drying up and circling the forest floor on “wings” that can grow up to 5 inches long. They drift on wind currents, seeking to propagate the species (also known to us as the “Javan cucumber”).

And so it is with Montgomery’s EatSouth, which is losing has lost executive director Edwin Marty for the hipster-rich soils of Austin. He’s off to work for the City of Austin, which is ironic because a lot of people have been curious for years about EatSouth’s relationship to the municipal government of Montgomery. Like the javan cucumber seed, he is floating away on the wind to spread the brand of Earth-friendly sustainability and civic-corporate well-being.

Marty was only at EatSouth for a handful of years, but even before his arrival in 2011, a lot of observers were curious about the Hampstead Institute, of which EatSouth is ostensibly some sort of non-profit subsidiary side-project. The Hampstead Institute is a non-profit too, but seems to neither be an “institute,” nor much else that is readily identifiable.

We do know that the name of said “institute” comes from a housing development called Hampstead, which is a sort of master-planned community to the southeast of Montgomery. If you haven’t been out there, think Seaside in a cow pasture. It’s less Truman Show than wannabe-Aspen, but it also has a farm. And a windmill. And a lake. And all the other trappings of rural living without the inconvenience of actually having to labor on their three acre plot or put up with the visual clutter of people living in mobile homes. It’s just like rural living except there’s a Tipping Point instead of a Dollar Tree.

And that’s all fine and good. Rich people have every right to buy cow pastures and build Fantasy Land in them. We like wine bars too. You want to circle the SUVs around a fake 20-acre lake? Go nuts. Fill your house will all the Italian imports (or Panama City Beach imports) that you can afford. Deforesting and colonization is Manifest Destiny, so build away.

Where it gets interesting is when you start asking who’s selling these escapist slices of cow pasture. On the “contact us” page for Hampstead (the real estate thing, not the “institute”) you’re directed to contact Jim Farrior, Director of Hampstead Commercial Leasing & Sales at Colonial Commercial Realty, Inc. He’s also featured over at Colonial Commercial Realty’s website, where he is listed just above a guy named Josh Lowder, who is the vice-president of CCR, in addition to being on the Board of Directors of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority. You can learn more about this young corporate exec in this cheerful RSVP Montgomery profile.

What does all this have to do with EatSouth? We’re getting back to it. Josh isn’t the only Lowder in this tapestry. There’s also his dad, Jimmy, who was described in 2008 this way:

Mr. Lowder has served as chairman of the board of The Colonial Company and its subsidiaries since 1995. He is a current member of the Home Builders Association of Alabama and the Greater Montgomery Home Builders Association, and he serves on the board of directors of Alabama Power Company. Mr. Lowder is the current chairman of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, a past board member of Leadership Montgomery, past president of the board of the Montgomery YMCA and past chairman of the Montgomery Area United Way Champaign. The Montgomery Area Business Committee for the Arts presented The Colonial Company with the 1997 Business in the Arts Award and in 2000 with the coveted Frank Plummer Memorial Arts Award for lifetime achievement. Mr. Lowder was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Greater Montgomery Home Builders Association in 2004. He graduated with the highest honors from Auburn University with a Bachelor of Science Degree. Mr. Lowder is a member of the investment committee of the board of trustees.

High roller, eh? He is also featured in this amazing photo, which tells you his lineage and connections to a gigantic 2009 bank failure — the sixth largest bank failure in American history, to be specific. More on that here.

There is a lot to enjoy about this ad. The pic of the three grinning brothers, looking like they just got away with something; the ad copy, calling the bank a muscular child; the assurance that "dad" lurks in the background. From the May 1982 issue of Alabama Magazine.

So we’ve got young Josh Lowder living in the Colonial real estate subdivision, trying to get you to buy a house out there at Hampstead where they have an urban farm. Colonial also has the A&P Lofts, which is home to True, that restaurant that is featured in nearly every issue of Made. Made is run by another local Lowder (Anna) and her husband Harvi Sahota.

Oh, and according to the documents filed with the IRS, the Hampstead Institute (doing business as EatSouth) was founded by three folks, two of whom are married to each other. That’s right — Harvi Sahota and Anna Lowder. Sahota runs a “design and communications” company based in the aforementioned A&P Lofts. His company, called Matter, seems to design and produce Made, as well as do design and PR work for nearly every above listed entity, including Eat South, True, Tipping Point, and the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce.

There’s one other interesting connection that implicates you, a concerned tax-paying Montgomery resident. As of last summer, we have a new civil servant in town. Mac McLeod became our city’s “director of retail and commercial development.” His previous job? President and CEO of Colonial Group. From whom did the city government use $1.95 million of your tax dollars to purchase the land upon which to build the new east Montgomery high school? Correct.

Did you know that EatSouth is actually EAT South because EAT is an acronym standing for Educate, Act and Transform? And certainly it’s a good thing to give presentations to local kids about healthy eating. It’s good to show people how food is grown and to talk to them about food waste and organic farming and sustainable agriculture. It’s better to have a downtown urban farm than a toxic Superfund site.

But it would also be better to have a local food awareness group that was promoting vegetarian potlucks and environmentalism that didn’t feel like a greenwashing campaign for a gigantic corporate real estate holdings with fingers in nearly every pot of money for miles.

Speaking of good eating, who doesn’t love biscuits? According to the March 2014 issue of River Region Living magazine, the Poarch Creek Indian casino (Wind Creek) will give $5,000 to EatSouth for every Montgomery Biscuits home run hit in 2013. I’m no minor league baseball historian, but the Biscuits hit 72 homers in 2013. That’s 72 homers x $5,000 = $360,000. That’s a sweet pile of syrup for Edwin Marty (who is by accounts a pretty nice guy) to be walking away from.

EatSouth’s website says that such numbers only reflect a small portion of their operating budget. Their funding website says that 20 percent of their income comes from produce sales (we understand they run a legitimately great CSA), 20 percent grants, 25 percent corporate support, 20 percent individual donations, 10 percent events, and 5 percent program service fees. The only event of theirs we’ve ever been to out at Hampstead  was some kind of beer tasting. It was pretty good.

We live in a world where image is everything, and a lot of good people think that having a food-centered non-profit is a good rebuttal to the existing stereotype of Montgomery as a crime-ridden blight factory. But if it’s important to look beyond the superficial image of Montgomery as dumpy, it’s also important to look beyond the image projected by alternative narratives. It’s crucial to be clear-eyed about tangible results being created and what money is creating them. And in that sense, EatSouth is leaving us hungry for more.

Biscuits Beat Rays

We went to see the Montgomery Biscuits hosts their pro affiliates, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (we’re never dropping the “devil,” no matter what the marketing people say). The minor league guys won!

It was a nice day for baseball once the gray clouds passed by and the sun broke through. The stadium was full (early reports say this was the 6th largest crowd in Riverwalk Stadium history). Everyone was in a good mood.

Rather than write up the game, we’ll hold off on saying a lot more about the new season because Opening Night is Thursday. We might say more then. The Biscuits have a new manager and a bunch of new faces on the team.

Until then, go back and read the tremendous volume of writing (and robust conversation in the comments section) from our season preview from 2012. Enjoy!