You Stink

Longtime Lost in Montgomery readers will know how closely we’ve followed Lebanese domestic politics over the years, so it’ll come as no surprise that we’ve been fascinated by the unfolding protests over trash in Beirut. That’s right. It seems that the failing government there has neglected to pick up solid waste for a month, leaving piles of smelly waste all over the city in summer. Locals have mounted a protest campaign cleverly titled “You Stink!”

Montgomery has a lot in common with Beirut, but there’s a key difference here. The Lebanese get to see where their trash goes. We don’t.

A little history for those new to the saga (a longer version of the tale is in our Recycling FAQ):

Montgomery used to have curbside recycling. But very few people participated and it was very expensive. Mayor Strange cut the program. There was talk of a magic fairy technology that would solve our waste problem. A very expensive feasibility study showed that this plasma fantasy was not feasible. Then we were told that Montgomery was going to be “first in the nation” with a new kind of mixed-waste disposal plant that would take recyclables out of our trash and sell them. This plant would be operated by totally-not-a-James-Bond-supervillain “Infinitus Energy.” Once the (very expensive) factory was operational, we were told to leave our diapers, dead animals and pet waste on the curb (instead of in our trash cans) lest they jam up the cutting-edge plant. Nobody in their right minds did this. Time passed.

Some people from Zero Waste Houston contacted us. They wanted to know more about Montgomery’s waste disposal system. This was because they were fighting against the building of a similar system in their town. We learned a new vocabulary word: Dirty MRF. It sounds like a sex thing, but it’s actually short for “dirty materials recovery facility,” which also (if you say it in the right tone of voice) also sounds like a sex thing.

We read all about these Dirty MRFs and were shocked by how much we simply never knew about Montgomery’s sparkling new plant. We love recycling as an idea, but we were disappointed in Grandma Advertiser. A little bit of investigation would have revealed that major recycling industry groups actually oppose facilities like ours because they need usable diverted waste to make money, and dirty MRFs don’t create usable diverted waste.

It turns out that our professed “first in the nation” designation wasn’t even close to true. Facilities very similar to ours had been failing to meet recycling targets and losing money for years. One in Chicago failed to meet even a 10% recycling target. Another in California claims 50% diversion, but half of that is what they spread on top of the landfill to cover up what’s underneath. One in Illinois went bankrupt. One in Ohio doesn’t even meet a 20% target. You can read all about these plants and more in this report.

And yet, to be clear, we (the City of Montgomery) were sold a plant that promised 60% diversion. As fans of The Simpsons, we are compelled to imagine that the exchange went a little something like this (this clip will help you sing it in key):

Setting: Montgomery City Hall. A well-dressed representative of Infinitus Energy is speaking to city leaders.

Infinitus Energy: “You know, a town with money is a little like a mule with a spinning wheel. Nobody knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it. Name’s Energy. Infinitus Energy. And we come before you today with an idea. Probably the greatest idea … never mind. It’s more of a Wetumpka idea.”

Mayor Strange: “Now wait just a minute! We’re twice as smart as the people of Wetumpka. Just tell us your idea and we’ll bankroll it.”

Infinitus Energy (pulling a sheet off of a scale model of a tiny recycling plant made from a shoebox): “We give you … The Montgomery IREP Plant! We’ve sold dirty MRFs to Rockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook, and by gum it put them on the map!”

Infinitus Energy (breaking into song): “Well, sir, there’s nothing on Earth
Like a genuine, bona fide
Electrified, trash-eatin’ dirty MRF”

Mayor Strange: “I hear those things lose lots of money.”
Infinitus Energy: “It turns your waste to milk and honey.”
Mayor Strange: “Is there a chance the trash could spill?”
Infinitus Energy: “Not on your life, my mayoral shill!”

Citizens: “What about us brain-dead slobs?”
Infinitus Energy: “You’ll be given cushy jobs.”
Local Clergy: “Were you sent here by the Devil?”
Infinitus Energy: “No, good sir, we’re on the level.”

Mayor Strange: “The ring came off my pudding can.”
Infinitus Energy: “We’ll make it diamonds, my good man.”
Mayor Strange: “I swear it’s Montgomery’s only choice. Throw up your hands and raise your voice!”

Lone Citizen: “But the west side’s still all cracked and broken”
Mayor Strange: “Too late now – the mob has spoken.”

All together: “Dirty MRF, Dirty MRF, Dirty MRF!”

Evidently the folks in Houston and elsewhere fighting these plants had been trying and failing to get a copy of Infinitus’ contract with the city. So we went down to the city and got our own copy. Which we uploaded – you can read it here (Warning: it is very long and super boring). Based on this, the Houston folks produced a fact sheet about the Montgomery facility to use in their fight. That’s a PDF, and you can read it here. Here’s something shocking about the contract. Buried deep within is the possibility of, essentially, an incinerator. Even though we were told there would be no incinerator.

Then we were tipped off to a brewing controversy in Moncks Corner, South Carolina. Seems that our little plant is being used to sell other monorails dirty MRFs. And some people there have been doing their homework. Reading their website, we’ve learned a number of shocking facts about our own facility – facts that we haven’t seen in any Alabama media outlet. The chart below is from the folks in Moncks Corner – you can see it as well as the original documents on their website (click to make the image larger):

Those numbers are astonishing. That’s a $12 million “miss” on their overall financials and a $6.5 million shortfall just this year. They seem to have actually recycled a pathetically small amount of material – less than 10% diversion, far short of the 85% they are claiming elsewhere. And the company hasn’t even made their first of 25 bond payments yet. Will they go bankrupt and stick the city with a giant pile of trash and hundreds of millions of dollars of our hard-earned money?

Why is nobody talking about this?

We hear rumors. We hear that the facility won’t let outside reviewers in. We hear that folks at ADEM won’t go on the record with their criticisms of the facility. We’ve certainly never been in there to look around. All we know is that people used to come and take the recycling from our curbs, and now we just throw everything away in one trash can and trust that our invisible trash overlords are turning garbage into money.

And all the while, a pack of slick hucksters go around the country showcasing the plant they suckered us into buying.

The Junebugs

I am standing at the large kitchen window overlooking our yard. It is almost 10 at night. While we look forward to The Daily Show and some evening rest, a substantial Alabama thunderstorm brews. The light from the repurposed gaslamp hanging from the ceiling gradually mutes until it reaches the wide outside sill where three junebugs struggle on their backs.

Junebugs are not the smartest insects. They fire their pale brown bodies like buckshot into evening wear from here to the nation’s capitol, careening off with a feint to race back into the night. If you’re out in a nice dress with a cool cocktail in hand, a junebug is a horror to be squeaked at. Here in the safety of my kitchen, outside of buzzing range, they are irreducibly sad. Their legs wave from pale undersides with feeble purpose. Is it a signal or the mute instinct of immanence?

I drink the remains of a cocktail. Thunder threatens, but nobody takes June seriously around here. The three junebugs fluster. I don’t claim to be a Buddhist, but at this moment, I think that I am just terrible. Why do I let these creatures suffer? Why do I pay someone to spray this window sill, and others like it, so that these tiny and miraculous bugs will shiver slowly into their deaths?

Maybe you are not someone who thinks on these matters too much. Perhaps you exterminate ants or spiders with abandon. As someone who bears an irrational fear of cockroaches, I can relate.

But they mean no harm. They strive only to feed, mate, and fly blindly about. Who of us doesn’t know a more evolved person who fits that description? An hour later, I return to the kitchen to refill my water before bed. A lone survivor twitches once, twice. It is trying to generate momentum for a reversal before the poison kicks in. I know this creature will be dead before I see it again. If it were in the house, I’d freak out for someone to evacuate it. Here on the sill, outside my reach, I find myself wishing someone would save it. Its robust junebug body has much to offer. Surely it could find a mate to carry on its genes.

On the second day I wake up remembering that bugs brought me to Alabama the first time. My New Mexico high school had qualified for the National Science Olympiad at Auburn. I was, improbably, the entomology specialist. Someone who is content to leave dead cockroaches under glass jars for days rather than pick them up herself (and this before reading Infinite Jest) seems like an unlikely fit. Two factors worked in my favor.

First: the insects were dead. There was no wiggling or flapping, which was important not just because I am skittish, but because insects are really incredible to look at when there is no risk that they will blindly land in your hair or crawl on your arm. You notice their colors, their interlocking parts, their alien eyes. Second: the task was merely organizational. You couldn’t bring a guidebook, but you could make one. I did not plan to memorize elaborate taxonomies, but I was happy to design an illustrated decision tree for bug identification in a spiral-bound notebook. I picked up and examined a lot of bugs. The last time I was this interested in insects, I’d run a short-lived childhood “roly poly” farm after discovering the armadillo-style creatures were attracted to geranium leaves. This turned out to be toxic, perhaps poisoning me forever for a love of insects. In any case, we didn’t win the Science Olympiad.

Through the next day the last junebug (Phyllophaga) lies there. It bakes in the sun. I think about how slight it seems. How should I read its final pose? Is it supplication or resistance? Where are its colleagues? Why hasn’t an enterprising bird – maybe one of our yard’s flock of cardinals – picked it up by now? Dusk arrives. Dinner is cooked and eaten. I do the dishes in the quiet of the laundry’s hum. And then it moves. The segmented legs pedaling up and down in the front, side to side weakly in the back. How can it be alive after all this time? What ancient instinct woke it at dusk to struggle once again?

I decide that I want it to live. More precisely, I decide that I can’t watch it die. I walk outside into the sweltering heat. I convey it to a shady part under our climbing roses. I watch, hoping it will right itself. I nudge a bit with the corner of the folder that once contained “AT&T BILL.” I notice that its head is actually a splendid, rich red sienna, a contrast to its duller body. I notice the delicacy of its legs, the way each surprisingly hairy part precisely moves in time with its partners. Its eyes are shielded, while its antennae slowly feel out the new landscape.

By the time we return from a baking hot dog walk, it’s gone. Did it walk off? Did one of the cardinals snap it up? Do I care because I am secretly obsessed with my own mortality?

Three days later there are three more junebugs on the sill, struggling against the coming storm.

Kymulga Cave (DeSoto Caverns)

We knew that there would be a friendly conquistador mascot.

His paralyzed rictus leered at us from billboards scattered across the state. His grin beneath his conquistador comb morion said “genocide” to us but nonetheless offered family fun to potential tourists around Alabama.

P1060421We were pretty sure we’d be troubled by some parts of the two-day Native Heritage Festival. The billboard at the gas station by our house promised a special event at DeSoto Caverns — a Native American Festival of some sort. We were familiar with the blurred lines between “offensive” and “fascinating” that accompany so many ostensibly educational opportunities here.

We also knew that Alabama had some beautiful caves. Some are featured on the “Caves of Alabama” episode of the indispensable show “Discovering Alabama” (which can be seen in iTunes here). Some are, like DeSoto Caverns, privately owned, like the sadly-recently-closed Sequoyah Caverns.

So, yeah, we had some expectations.

Then, upon arrival at the cave outside of Childersberg, we encountered the following words: “laser light show is Biblically themed.” Six simple words printed on a laminated card next to the gift shop cash register. Six words that changed the game.

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First: laser show. You drive an hour and a half to see a cave mentioned on billboards all over the state. Marvels of nature are a particular category of thing, linking us to the scores of humans that across the eons have gawked at some waterfall or geyser or hole in the ground. But there’s going to be a laser show? Will the enormous men on mobility scooters (themselves marvels of nature) clad in bald eagle print shirts survive a laser show? Will the multiple American flags affixed to said mobility scooters?

Second: Bible-themed? Why? What did this have to do with one of Alabama’s most famous caves? Our stomachs slid as we forked over almost $25 apiece to see the cave. We also received ten “credits” to be used for visiting the park’s other attractions, which were mostly assembled out of some country fair’s leftover bin — as if the majesty of God’s Cave™ were alone insufficient to justify dragging the kids away from their video games.

We decided to pass on the “pedal-powered go-karts” and mini golf. We immediately got in line for the 2:30 cave tour. This was less a line than a hundred sweaty people bumping into each other due to their inability to simultaneously text and guzzle giant cups of sugar water. Seen from above, it might have been a fractal. Seen from human-level, it was a showcase of all the worst tee-shirts imaginable. Amid the usual “Bama gear,” there was a Deadpool-themed basketball jersey and a tank top that contained an image of every single AC/DC album.

Among us there wandered a few upbeat high school students wearing official green DeSoto Caverns “staff” shirts. They used a pen to mark off physical tickets brandished by random passers-by. This seemed ineffectual. Say what you will about the modern American theme park, but most are fairly efficient at dealing with the whole “buy the ticket, take the ride” part of the experience. DeSoto Caverns was free-forming it, perhaps awash in unusually large crowds. It was the day of the Native American Festival, after all, whose drumming we heard as we waited in line for the cave tour.

As the previous tour filed out, the caving rules were explained loudly by our bored teen guides. No smoking, no eating, no touching the rocks (because the “olls” (rhymes with “tolls”) in our hands would “stop the moss from growing.”)

We’ve seen some caves before. Last year we made reservations at Carlsbad Caverns. The National Parks Service online registration system offered several choices of tours organized by length and strenuousness. We booked a tour for a specific time, ensuring that no tour would be over-crowded. We could pay online with a secure service. Despite the many claims we hear in Alabama about the comparatively crisp efficiency of private industry relative to its idiot government cousin, the privately-owned Desoto Caverns website offers none of these things. You just buy a ticket at the gift shop, along with a slab or three of award-winning fudge, maneuver your stroller into battle mode and ignore everyone else around you. You can go on any tour you want, as long as it’s the same one as everyone else. Depending on the day and time, some may be intimate while others are massive stampedes.

While waiting to enter DeSoto Caverns, you might kill time by staring at the mural leading into the cave entrance. It depicts friendly Conquistadors (the titular DeSoto) and an accommodating Native American pointing into the cave. The corrugated tunnel leading into the cave may remind you of the mailed-in parts of locally run haunted houses. It leads onto a ramp that is not as slippery as advertised. The descent is pretty brief. The cave is implausibly tall and almost vaulted in the matter of European cathedrals. At this moment, however, your job is not to wonder. It is to find a seat in the 16+ rows of cold metal bleachers. The movie is about to start.

A giant television tells us that nobody really knows how Earth’s caves were created. It says that one popular theory is that they were caused by a giant flood. Our ears prick up. Perhaps not only the laser show is bible themed? The video on the cave’s history features a syrupy accented actor playing Hernando De Soto. If the movie is correct, the famed Spanish explorer sounded a lot like the guy from the Dos Equis commercials.

The film talks vaguely about the people living here before De Soto rolled in with his megalomaniac bloodlust. The history of DeSoto Caverns is really told mostly from a kind of corporate promotion perspective, including a friendly introduction to the current CEO and a look at the prior owners’ strategy to exploit the cave’s resources in various way. The film does not say how old the cave is. We find this odd, until we remember that we’re still waiting on the Bible Themed Laser Show.

Then they turn the lights off. We had been hoping for a few minutes of primal pitch darkness. The idea of not being able to see, of the uniquely immersive experience of cave dark, appealed to us. Complete darkness is biological and irreducible. Unfortunately, appreciation of inky silence is evidently too unnerving for the modern teen tour guide’s psyche. Within seconds of extinguishing the light, the jokes broadcast over the PA system began: “Wave your hand in front of your face. Touch your nose. Now, touch your neighbor’s nose without picking it.” This was evidently needed for the crowd to relieve the tension generated by the agonizing sensation of temporary absence of visual stimulation.

Relieved of the need (or capacity) for introspection, we awaited the next spectacle. First we were treated to the opening lines of the Old Testament. The lights emitted from behind the inflatable screen that had just shown us the information-free film, from a formation that seemed to be slightly modified to resemble popular illustrations of the Ark of the Covenant. Instead of ghosts, streams of colored water were sprayed at suitably momentous intervals while lasers did their thing against the back of the wall through lazy bursts of smoke. Then, ooh, ahh, the blue laser MUST be God traveling over the firmament, and everyone gets the point that we are totally talking about the Wonder of Creation here.

But then it goes on. And on. Genesis as sledgehammer. All of the days of creation, each enumerated and detailed. A voice intones that each day had a morning and a night. Some people applaud when it’s revealed at the end that God rested on the last day.

Seeing this low-rent razzle dazzle in explicitly Biblical framing helped us to understand more about why the flag scooter people parked outside the gift shop’s bathrooms (“Chiefs” and “Maidens”) had been ranting so vociferously about the need for greater militancy in the ongoing struggle of the War on Christianity.

We are brow-beaten. The lasers die off and we stand up, confused, lurching into sub-groups loosely defined by the numbers of un-numbered bench rows. Still reeling, we meet our guide, Caitlin.

“This is our wishing well. Also known as the Confederate Well.” We look at each other to see if she just said that last part. If we’ve already gone full monotheistic cave history, we might as well hitch our carts to some kind of polemic about the War of Northern Aggression.

People dutifully pitch change through the roped-off steel grate into the beautifully clear illuminated water below. We are led into a spectacular part of the cave full of low overhangs that weave toward a surprisingly vibrant waterfall and the roped-off back part of the cave.

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MA WISH FOR CHARITY

Caitlin tells us that there once maybe was a bootlegging tunnel that led all the way to Talladega (12 miles away), and that there are lower caves that “only the professionals” go into. We will never be introduced to the vocabulary word “spelunkers” or any other actual parts of cave exploration on our visit. Seriously, you can (and will) do the entire cave tour without knowing that there are people in this world that engage in recreational cave exploration, much less study them in a variety of academic contexts. Interestingly, the site’s online educational materials designed to lure students there on field trips are quite detailed on the scientific foundations of the cave’s formations and nowhere mention young earth creationism.

Our next stop on the tour contains some bootlegging equipment. Evidently, Caitlin tells us, “they” think that the cave functioned as a distillery and night club during prohibition (first the “Cavern Tavern”, and after a series of horrific underground barroom brawls, “The Bloody Bucket.”) Caitlin’s shoulder shrugging, “nobody knows” ethos seems at odds with her claim that actual people have showed up at DeSoto Caverns and told stories about how it used to be an illegal club. For Caitlin, the myths about the cave are just about as accurate (and vague) as the established facts.

We proceed a few paces to the left. Here we see a rock with “WRIGHT 1715” scratched into it. It looks as if there are human remains sitting here. Caitlin tells us a story about an 18th century trader who wandered into the cave seeking shelter only to be killed by the locals on account of it being a sacred burial site. She notes that these are “fake bones” next to the rock.

Indian burial ground. The game changes again. Stephen raises his hand to seek clarification. “I’m sorry, did you say that this is an Indian burial ground?” Caitlin seems nervous. She is worried about going off script. We will have to sit through an overly-detailed explanation of Confederate gunpowder manufacture in the caves before we can hear more about what seems to have been the oldest and most important use of the cave. All of a sudden the whole rest of the tour takes on a horrible and obscene cast. We’ve been marched down a ramp, subjected to terrible promotional materials and an EXTENDED READING OF PART OF THE CONQUERING RELIGIOUS TEXTS WHILE LASERS SPARKLED, and only now do we learn that all of this has happened in a sacred burial site? And today is the Native American Festival?

Are we walking on graves? The tour’s explanation of the discovery of the human remains makes virtually no sense – they’ve just finished telling us a story about some guy who sought shelter in the cave for a night in 1715, carved his name in the wall, and was killed for invading and desecrating a holy site – and now the story is that “until recently” nobody knew this was a graveyard? It’s clear that they used to display bones. “Then they decided they didn’t want that,” says Catitlin. Never mind that we don’t now know who “they” are — presumably the relatives of the people who lived here for a thousand years before “we” arrived and deported them to Oklahoma. It’s notable that the matter of grave desecration (and robbing?) was framed as something that is to be “liked” or “not liked.”

So here’s the upshot: In 1965, archeologists from the University of Alabama entered what was then known as Kymulga Cave and discovered a 2,000-year-old Native American burial site that held the remains of (at least) five people. At some point afterwards, these bones were on display for tourists to gawk at. At some point after that, representatives from a tribe came and buried the bones somewhere in the cave, presumably behind the rope barrier blocking us from going up some steps to the area where the remains were found. No further information about this is provided.

We were standing in a sacred cavern which had been used for burials. This cavern is now both a privately-owned money-making scheme and a crass effort at spreading religious dogma. We were now staring at the cave tour’s second plastic skeleton.

Before you get too cynical about the private holding of a natural wonder (to say nothing of the genocide part), it’s also worth noting that the cave’s first white owner was a pretty impressive woman. Long after the natives had been expelled (leaving behind a few of their ancestors), and long after the Confederate gunpowder had been cooked up, Ida Mathis and her husband bought the cave. And she was a pretty impressive lady!

It’s for the best that their plans to mine the cave for onyx went bust. It’s probably not for the best that her relatives (still owners of the cave) changed the name of the place from Kymulga to DeSoto in 1976. And the current incarnation of the place as the host to the Native American Festival? Well, you’re 2200 words into this piece, so let’s talk about that.

We weren’t sure what to expect from the festival, since the DeSoto Caverns website offers more typos than substantive information. All we could gather in advance was that this was the 50th year of the festival, and that there would be five tribes present. Alabama has only one federally recognized tribe, the Poarch Creeks (Andrew Jackson having gotten rid of just about everybody else some time ago). We were interested to see what other groups/nations would be represented. But the park offered no leaflets, educational materials or other documentation. There was just a sign with the day’s schedule – several performances repeating from 9-5 on the big stage. On the way in, we’d seen tents that seemed to be set aside for tribal members to sell wares that included bows, arrows and dreamcatchers.

This last made us cringe. We’ve always associated dreamcatchers with a particular vein of products and representations that both appropriate Native cultures for commercial consumption while flattening them out to homogenize the many peoples who used to live across the Americas. The dreamcatcher is in fact a meaningful part of Ojibwe culture (they’re up around Lake Superior and also extend into Canada), most often seen these days hanging from the rear view mirrors of folks who may also wear airbrushed “wolf howling at the full moon” shirts and overly-dangly earrings with feathers and fake turquoise. In the first instance, if you’re dreaming while in your car, you’re probably doing it wrong. In the second, what is up with people who don all kinds of “Native” apparel and affectations? Sure, there’s the racist name of the Washington pro football team, and the racist name and chants of the Atlanta baseball team. There’s the horrible racist-sexism in Peter Pan. Those are the easy prey. There’s also “Native” as fashion statement – Urban Outfitters selling “Navajo” print underwear, people wearing replicas of ceremonial headdresses to music festivals (or here at DeSoto Caverns, where hundreds were for sale in the gift shop). Nothing says dominant group privilege like being able to adorn yourselves with the bits and pieces of groups your people systematically subordinated.

We emerged from the cave desperate for refreshment. Next to the stage where the Native American dance program was happening, we found a cart selling popsicles from Birmingham’s excellent Steel City Pops. We sat at a picnic table in the tiered outdoor amphitheater. While a child bounced behind us and massive people waddled by with precarious tubs of fried food, dancers from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians took the stage. We can’t judge whether they were good or not, because we’ve never seen any Choctaw dances before. We did like the dancers’ seeming enthusiasm. Some of the dances seemed like they might even be fun to do, and we could see how they performed unique social functions. But sitting there watching the tribe’s dance performance unit go through its paces on a stage just a few yards from the entirely desecrated burial ground of a related tribe just felt wrong somehow.

A few years ago, we had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian’s fantastic National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. The day we visited, a musical expert was leading a seminar in the main hall. He played a repeating four-note drum beat familiar to most people living in the US. He said that comprehensive study proved that this was actually not a beat or chant that existed in Continental Native cultures. It was entirely invented. It was also the first sound we heard at DeSoto Caverns.

Unless you are some awful brain-dead idiot and/or withered chainsmoking super-patriot, something is wrong with you if you don’t feel at least a little conflicted watching a nearly-exterminated people perform their ancestral dances for your edutainment. It’s troubling that our representations of indigenous Americans are always stuck in the past. Imagine if whenever we saw Mark Zuckerberg it was in the clothes of his ancestors, performing their sacred rituals. It’s also troubling that we are on the “prevailing” side of said genocide, able to choose what will be suitably entertaining and therefore worthy of applause while summoning colonized people for occasional entertainment.

The willing and conscious performance of dancing can also be seen as a willing and conscious performance of roles in a script, a script authored and engineered by centuries of violence. As consumers of their cultural offerings, we had our own prescribed roles in the script too.

The line between education and entertainment is always fuzzy, but downright wooly here, with so much depending on how you define exploitation and where you draw the line. “Entertainment” contains multitudes, some horribly offensive to the sturdiest sensibility. Other examples of “entertaining” cultural learning involves sharing delicious food or having horizons broadened. And the edgiest examples of the genre may well change the way you think about everything.

Of the Mississippi Choctaw’s dances, we liked the Snake Dance the best. It seemed like it might be the most fun to do, a shoulder-bumping series of tight spirals performed in a single-file line. But we’d reached our limits: too much heat, sacrilege, and uncomfortable suspicion. We were pretty alienated from our fellow tourists, and we had a lot to chew on.

P1060422We decided to cruise through the rest of the DeSoto Caverns theme park before returning home through Historic Childersberg. After discovering that the gift shop contained no books or pamphlets about the history of the cave, we decided to check out the “attractions.” The Butterfly House was only a disappointment for those who had hoped to see actual butterflies. We did see an exhausted woman almost abandon a three-year old, but family unity prevailed, at least while we were watching. We struggled to take in the Gyroscope, the Climbing Wall, the Pan for Gold, the miniature pony rides. The disc golf course was bleak and abandoned. Children screamed, splashed, ran, earnestly sifted wet sand, posed for pictures. Every step felt static, the world scrolling past us as it must.

We mused about the geologic wonders beneath our feet and headed home. As we get in the car to leave, we reflected on Alabama’s vast natural beauty, whether state parks or private land. What we layer on that natural beauty is often disturbing. We’re pretty sure that everyone at the park loves Alabama. So do we. But it’s how you love Alabama that really matters.

Presenting an Alabama driver’s license or other testimony pretty much elsewhere in the world will often earn you a cry of “Alabama!” You will likely hear this in the same pitch and register as “Honduras!” or “Ebola!” You’re slotted into the role of the exotic other, the pivot point where the progressive and triumphalist history identifies the real possibility of escape velocity. Here at DeSoto Caverns, Alabama residents are freed from this burden. They are surrounded by others at all sides and comforted by their friendly domesticity (not to mention squirt guns). Meanwhile, the “exotic other” lies literally under their feet, while their descendants perform an annual showcase of ancient rituals.

If this layered meaning seems confusing to you, consider that our state can’t even agree on whether CSA flags should be allowed in a Union Springs cemetery, much less whether the bones should be moved to be closer to a water gun fight maze. Some mazes can’t be resolved with water guns. Some caverns are deeper than Kymulga.

Weird Montgomery

Editor’s Note: I have been reticent to post here recently because doing so would involve interrupting the astonishingly good series of posts by Kate about the waste stream. Fortunately, with the power of the Interwebs, all of her brilliant posts can be linked in a single place, and I can post my thoughts on that rare encounter that makes us feel just a fraction less Lost in Montgomery. But before I do, seriously, go read her series. It’s probably the best stuff we’ve ever had on this site.

When I was growing up just south of Montgomery, it was “the big city” to me. My small town had a college, but that was about it. Montgomery had the book stores. Montgomery had the comic shops. Montgomery had two indoor shopping malls, which contained stores where music could be purchased. For the rare “fancy” date, Montgomery had the Olive Garden. My narrow horizons were made slightly less narrow by driving 45 minutes north. It’s laughable to someone who grew up in a place like Chicago or Atlanta, but even a city like Montgomery could have hegemonic cultural and economic power over the surrounding provinces.

This was especially true in the days before the Internet, when access to a well-curated book store or music shop could represent a portal into a vast universe of new and complicated ideas. Today, the most outlandish conspiracy theories and subversive concepts are available to anyone in the most desolate and rural areas. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we knew a kind of hunger for novelty (and edginess) that is likely unimaginable to today’s young people.

Thus it was that I came to covet a publication called Discombobulation, which was acquired on periodic trips to Montgomery. I still have those tiny black and white photocopied bits of the DIY ‘zine era. It suggested punk rock, skateboarding, and a big “fuck you” to the anti-fun normals who feared the threat posed to the corporate economic order posed by dyed hair. The content might be foolishly naive if I were to dig those issues out now, but it represented something provocative to me then, and most importantly, it suggested that I could make my own media.

Although I had access to a copy machine, I never could figure out who else would conspire with me on such a project. But the concept of self-publishing was embedded long before the technology that makes this little essay possible.

That’s why I was excited this year to discover Weird Montgomery, a physical hand-out, a ‘zine, a thing you could pass around to your friends. It’s online too, sure, in a format governed by Facebook and Herr Zuckerberg’s trillion dollar life monitoring kit. But I was mostly excited that they were making a print edition, leaving them around town in comic shops and bars, hopefully inspiring some teenager from a few towns away. IMG_3963

Let me be clear: When I say “they,” I’m not sure who I’m talking about. It’s not clear who publishes Weird Montgomery, and I’m ok with that. The current issue I’m holding says that it is a product of collaboration with the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project (APAEP), which is already a cool thing. Good job Auburn. I’ll give you that one.

It’s a really small thing. It’s really just five pages, not counting the cover and the back. But it’s there. It’s in my hand. I can save it and show it to someone.

Maybe they’ll change the format and do more pages and staple it together. Maybe their budget is limited. There are no ads. It seems like a labor of love, produced by someone (or some folks) who just want to have a space for ideas to circulate. IMG_3965

The Facebook page is sporadically updated, with a lot of it being publicity for events around town. It’s certainly good to have a curated event calendar, but I was hoping to see a bit more of the creative content online — things that wouldn’t fit in the ‘zine.

Maybe it’ll grow. Maybe it’ll vanish, as authors graduate, get frustrated, or simply move on to other adventures. It’s already infinitely better than any of the other “free periodicals” that you’ll often find around town in bars and restaurants.

We’re still here, lifting at the edges of a city that we want to be better. And we’re heartened to see that — at least for now — someone else is doing the same.

Notes From the Waste Stream #5: Squash Blossom Necklace

The shop is dim. It feels older than the modern exterior lets on. The cases are full of sparkly and shiny things, all the price tags turned down so (as is usually the case in jewelry shops) you have to ask about any item you see. I wasn’t there to buy, though. I was hoping to find new homes for some of the jewelry I inherited when my mother passed away. Not anything super-expensive, just a few pieces that aren’t to my taste but might suit someone else just perfectly. I’d asked around and someone I trust had recommended this place. I was there with three necklaces and a bracelet, all New Mexican classics, most set with turquoise.

The man sitting at the desk said that the owner wasn’t in, but would return shortly. We made small talk while I waited, idly browsing. A rheumy dog watched from an elevated perch.

I’ve lived in Montgomery for seven years now, and probably one out of every three people I encounter asks me where I’m from, especially if the conversation lasts longer than, say, handing me a purchase or some change. Though I use useful terms like “y’all” and “fixing to,” my accent still gives me away – I’m not Southern. I explained that I was from New Mexico and had lived in town for a few years now.  He said he was relatively new in town himself. We got to talking about how we liked Montgomery. I said some version of what I always say: “Very affordable, nice people.” As I fingered some ornate flatwear, he agreed.

“Too many blacks, though.”

I put down the spoon.

I’ve had more anti-racist training than most. I’ve even had my share of anti-bullying messaging, as I spend a lot of time in grade-school classrooms with signs and posters urging students to be “upstanders” instead of “bystanders.” Even so, I was paralyzed. We hadn’t been talking for five minutes before he felt comfortable enough to lead with overt racism. Was there something about me (my whiteness, presumably) that made him think I’d be similarly prejudiced? Was this just how he operated in the world, his biases aired freely for everyone to see? Like the dim shop full of discarded trinkets, it felt out of place and time.

This is foolish, obviously, because the reality is that few places on Earth are so steeped in racism and its consequences than Montgomery. The only other places I’ve experienced this level of background radiation from the hot glow of historic and persistent racism are South Africa (for obvious reasons) and Qatar (because Doha is basically being built by slave labor). And yes, I know that lots of other places are racist – that’s just counting from where I’ve been.

I think my body language alone was enough for him to veer away from the topic. I should have said something. I should have left. But I didn’t really know who this person was, and was hoping for a smooth transaction once the owner returned. It is hard to explain the emotional turmoil that had brought me to this point. After two years of fretting and moving jewelry from box to box, I had finally worked up the nerve to sell some of my mother’s things. I wasn’t going to be deterred by this guy.

Finally, after some awkward chit-chat about the going price on old china sets (very low) and Waterford crystal (likewise), the owner came in. We sat at her desk, she looked over my things. The man offered various comments and produced a scale. I learned the going price of silver (pretty low at the moment). As one does in this small town, I learned where they lived – just a few blocks away from us. Price estimates flew; I tried to keep track, not getting distracted by the sadness that felt likely to drag me down past the metal rim of her desk to the carpet below.

Just as the owner began to fill out the contract, she felt moved to tell me a story about a time, many years ago, when she bought a house to resell and was choosing among competing bids for purchase.

“I said to the agent, look, I know we’re not supposed to talk about this…what was your address again, sweetheart? Anyway, I asked if any of these offers were from those people who all look the same?”

I had heard this sotto voce racism before – it reminded me of the way league softball players out at Lagoon Park would talk about the black teams.

What she was suggesting, without elaborating and unpacking all of the unstated implications, was that she was asking the real estate agent to to steer the transaction to white people.

I had to leave a copy of my drivers’ license. The man volunteered to make the photocopy. As he disappeared, she explained that this man was her husband, newly moved to town. Both of them newcomers, their racism a ready conversational gambit with me, a stranger and a potential client.

Must everything in Montgomery have a dark and racist element to it? Years ago, when we were new in town, we took the dog to explore Greenwood Cemetery. It’s over by the Ann Street Wal-Mart, and it’s where George and Lurleen Wallace are buried (along with lots of other people, obviously). Just around back, we discovered Lincoln Cemetery. In 2010, it was a terrible and depressing mess – the untended black cemetery around the corner from its shiny white counterpart. This story had a happy ending: The Advertiser ended up raising a fuss, and the cemetery has by all accounts been fixed up after some fundraising and legal wrangling.

The other uncountable stories of racism and its consequences here remain largely undercover and unsolved.

Maybe that’s because we don’t talk about race much here, except in private conversations with people we assume are like-minded. That, and the reprehensible comments section on Al.com. Or, perhaps more to the point, we talk about race a lot. I have never lived in a place where white people feel compelled to flag someone as black when this seems to have no bearing on the story (“A black fellow, he was real nice, helped me move a box.”). This post is not the place to hash out why race is so hard to talk about or even how to talk about it. It’s just a place to describe the reality: Even as Montgomery becomes more progressive and inclusive, we’re segregated in places beyond churches, schools and cemeteries.

Close to the place I was trying to sell some jewelry, there’s a bar where lobbyists and government types are known to gather – especially when the legislature is in session. A few years ago, I invited one of my friends to have a drink there. She declined, saying, “Every time I go there, I integrate that place.” White privilege means many things, including not noticing when an environment is all-white.

I wish I could say that I took a stand that day – that I grabbed up my jewelry and stalked out. Perhaps I found a teachable moment, delivering a lecture? Nope. I wasn’t any kind of social justice hero. I walked in overwhelmed by the idea that I was about to sell multiple Valentine’s Day gifts from my father to my mother (both dead). I sat there, dazed, as a price was set. I let them photocopy my license after I bargained for a fair price. Then I left. And stewed.

A few weeks later, I’d had it. I decided that the right thing to do was to go and remove my things from this shop. Why should these people, whose views I despised, profit from my family’s hard-won things? Even though my mother was known to have the occasional offensive view about people of color (particularly the “gang-bangers” of New Mexico – the American West has its own unique racist flavors), I could not put her tokens of love in an atmosphere of hate. I readied myself. My plan was to arrive with my contract and secure the items. Once my things were in hand, I would explain why I had decided to take my business elsewhere and leave.

I was not under any illusions that whatever little speech I made would change either their minds or their business practices. Prejudice is deep-seated and extremely hard to uproot. Even targeted re-education over the long term has little effect on folks who cling to views of racial (or gender, or religious, or other) superiority. This is because bias isn’t just a matter of facts (“Actually, not all Asians are smart”); neither is it purely individual (because our beliefs are not entirely our own – they are the product of social relations). Bias is remarkably persistent, as anyone who has been in a conversation about the “good blacks” and the “rest of them” will attest.

I just wanted them to hear a countervailing opinion. I wanted, in short, to be an upstander. Sure, this was a little narcissistic. Anyone who says it isn’t is just kidding themselves. “Upstanding” works as a motivational tactic precisely because it appeals to the ego, to a sense of self as a person who wants to be the kind of person who does the right thing. This turns out to be a lot more complicated than grabbing back some silver and giving a speech.

Having talked myself into righting my previous (and cowardly) wrong, I approached the storefront before closing time. I’d imagined that I’d be alone in the dim shop with their full (if probably dismissive attention) as I symbolically dropped the white progressive anti-racist mic before being buzzed out.

I locked my car and strode toward the door. Another woman crossed in front of me at the last minute and buzzed for entrance. She smiled at me. Under her felt hat and dark wool coat, I could see that she was beautiful, gracefully aging, and black.

Inside, the light carved a swath through the front windows, spotlighting the dust around the cabinets and counters. The owner and her husband were blinded at first, but recognized the woman before me.

“Where have you been? Working hard? We haven’t seen you in so long!” This was the owner, emerging from the back room. Her husband was arranging items in the rack, barely turning around.

“Oh, I’ve been working.” The woman removed her gloves and reached into her purse to remove a much-folded yellow receipt. “I’m here to finish my layaway – I bet y’all thought you’d never see me again.” She had an expression of longing and finality. I think that I have seen that look before, when something you’ve desired is about to be yours. I found myself wrenched with curiosity about the thing she’d waiting for all this time.

“Oh, we knew you’d come back. It’s been more than a year now.” The owner directed this to the waiting woman as she noticed me for the first time. She asked how she could help me. I explained that I was there to pick up items I’d left to consign and had changed my mind. I gave her the contract copy, but explained that there was no hurry – I suggested she should help the woman first.

“No, I can help you now. Just give me a minute.” In the time that ensured, I tried at every opportunity to get behind this layaway transaction in the queue. The jewelry was dumped into my hands, the countersigned agreement photocopied, even my copied drivers’ license rooted out and returned to me.

I did not expect this. I had considered the possibility of another customer, and had thought I could wait a while. But the owner was not about to let me wait – probably because settling up a layaway would be more complicated than my transaction. Or maybe I was watching white privilege in action – I was being served before the other woman, who had come in before me, after all. In any case, when I thought about being in the store with another customer for the “big moral showdown,” I did not think about the shine in their eyes that a final layaway payment brings; the last chunk of a well-earned thing of beauty. I have had object lust. I know what it’s like to imagine the ways that the perfect thing will make your dreams come true.

My jewelry appeared. The contract to sign again, annulling our previous transaction. At every turn, I tried to defer: “Y’all can help this other lady first, that’s okay.” But the owner persisted, even as I asked for the copy of my driver’s license back. So there I was – everything I had asked for, ready to leave. I was taking my business away from them, not allowing these racists to profit from my jewelry. They never asked why.

There were three parties involved in this transaction. Me, of course, the righteously angry person with nothing in particular at stake except my own sense of self. The owners, who a) were comfortable with prejudice-as-ante; b) were relatively big-time jewelry dealers who needed my business so little that they didn’t even ask why I was taking my items away. And then there was the other customer. I knew how I felt about the owners. I was quickly trying to decide how she fit into my planned morality play.

IMG_1353I had two major options. First, I could declaim in front of all parties. Second, I could find some excuse to wait and talk to the owners without the other client present. The second option was basically off the table. They wanted to hustle me out, no matter how much I protested, and I didn’t want to linger amid the dust.

The first option seemed like the braver one anyway. I’d have the opportunity to shame the owners in front of a client, much less a black client, creating awareness and multiplying my impact. It also seemed like the worst option. Who was I to create a scene of racial conflict in front of this woman, perhaps imperiling her layaway payments, perhaps second-guessing her ability to interact with retailers like an adult? Who grows up black in Montgomery (or in the United States, for that matter) without knowing that racism informs all transactions? What if she lost her money? What if she had waited months for her shiny thing only to walk away because I had heard some blowhards say some hateful things? I couldn’t do it in front of her.

I left, the door jangling behind me, with my father’s promises of love to my mother safely in my purse. I made no speech. Now, I suppose I am able to sell this necklace online – safely insulated from the potential prejudices of anonymous buyers. And maybe that’s also what white privilege looks like.

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.