A Landfill is an Ecosystem unto Itself: a Treatise on the Organisms that call Landfills Home

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Looming over Colerain Township is Mount Rumpke, the highest point in Hamilton County, Ohio. Visitors are taken by bus to the top, and from the summit, you can see the valley below, stretching to the reaches of the mountain’s domain. The skyline of nearby Cincinnati sits hazily in the distance. Far below, bulldozers and dump trucks, the size of ants, can be seen developing more mountains just like it. Mount Rumpke, with its sweeping valley and majestic panoramas, is a mountain made of garbage.

Mount Rumpke represents approximately fifteen years’ worth of trash, a mix of municipal solid waste and construction debris collected from most jurisdictions within 60 miles of Cincinnati. The Rumpke Company operates the premier garbage collection network in southwestern Ohio. Mount Rumpke sits on the company’s 1000-acre property, the accumulated garbage rising 1,064 feet above sea level, ten feet shy of its legal limit. Much of the verdant valley is actually garbage, piled hundreds of feet deep but covered over with dirt, grass, and shrubs. The landfill, like most in the USA, is licensed by the EPA, who says it can take in up to 10,000 tons of garbage per day. The Rumpke landfill is the sixth largest in the country.

That much garbage in one place makes for a landscape unique in its composition. The concentration of man-made goods, harsh chemicals, and organic waste all rotting together makes for an environment that doesn’t — and can’t — exist anywhere in the natural world. It is alien in its harshness, and yet the landfill is teeming with life. A landfill provides abundant food and shelter that gives rise to its own ecology. Landfills, while ostensibly inhospitable, have become a biological niche, a biome based around humanity’s waste.

The guts of the average landfill are actively decomposing thanks to tens of thousands of kinds of bacteria and fungi. The spread of bacteria is facilitated in part by insects like cockroaches and ants. Mice, voles, and other small mammals pick from the trash and nest in the landfill’s periphery, while raccoons, coyotes, and dogs — even baboons and bears in areas with such creatures — scavenge the top. Crows, starlings, and gulls flock to landfill en masse, and are in turn sometimes scavenged by fiercer birds of prey. For many creatures, the landfill is the beginning, middle, and end of life, the stage on which they act out the primordial directive to eat and reproduce.

An organism’s ability to survive and even flourish in such conditions demonstrates the remarkable dexterity of the natural world. But how do animals survive in a landfill? Are there benefits to making a home there? How does the nutritional value of items in the landfill compare with more traditional food sources? What about the poisonous effluent that flows through the trash — have organisms developed a tolerance? This article takes a look at these questions, throwing the author (willingly) into the depths of a landfill to roam around the filth with its fascinating, industrious layers of life. The kingdom of garbage is an impressive one, an interdependent biologically functioning unit. In other words, a landfill is an ecosystem unto itself.

The putrescible groundwork for life — how a landfill works

Molly Broadwater, senior corporate communications coordinator at the Rumpke landfill, said the term ‘dump’ is pejorative. A dump implies a pit or a field where residents simply throw their waste, like those old-time trash piles way out in the country. Dumps typically don’t include any of the regulations or forethought that goes into the creation of the modern landfill, which is an engineering marvel. Landfills, also called tips and middens, don’t just hold trash but all the facilities needed to manage it. The Rumpke facility, for example, has a gas refinery to harvest the methane that builds up as garbage decomposes, a drainage system that funnels leachate — aka garbage juice — to a wastewater treatment plant, and space dedicated to the company’s trucks, including a garage, a workshop, and an area to wash off their tires so they don’t track waste from the landfill to the rest of the world.

Owing to the sheer amount of garbage delivered every day, a landfill has to think years in advance about where to store the unimaginable accumulation. When I visited the Rumpke landfill in April, the earthmovers seen from atop the mountain were preparing the next area on the property scheduled accept garbage. The site starts as a 13-acre, 200-foot deep pit, which isn’t expected to be full for eleven years. At the bottom is three feet of impermeable clay that acts as a natural barrier against leaks. The clay is followed by a plastic liner and then a geotextile cushion liner, which prevents the plastic liner from being torn or punctured by the layer of rock that comes next.

Trash dumping can start once these layers are in place. Garbage is trucked in and dumped in the assigned spot. Rumpke has a fleet of 400 of its own vehicles, some of whose routes include 400 stops. The trucks can hold 14 tons of garbage, or that of around 800 homes. Dozens of other trucks, private and commercial, visit the site daily. Waste haulers, construction crews, and homeowners pay by the pound to dump at the site. Big machines and bulldozers roam the piles, crushing down the trash with spiked metal tires. One of these machines can weigh up to 50 tons, and has the power to compact 1400 pounds of garbage into one cubic yard of space.

Trucks don’t dump wherever they feel like it. Trucks are directed to the “working face,” or the area where garbage is currently being dumped. Governmental regulations require that the working face be compacted and covered with a layer of dirt, partly to reduce odor and blowing trash, and partly to limit the amount of animals drawn to it. The layer or soil is around six inches deep, and is typically applied within 24 to 48 hours after the garbage is dumped. (Immediate soil coverage is often prescribed for food and plant waste.) As a result, there is more dirt but less visible garbage than one might expect in the landfill. A lot of the Rumpke facility looks simply an immense field of dirt, with patches of garbage here and there hinting at what’s below. But there are also the classic rolling hills of refuse: those surreal, grotesque piles that are repellent and fascinating in equal measure. Animals inhabit the calmer areas of the landfill while scavenging the garbage open to the world, taking advantage of the area’s bounty and the social opportunities afforded by the strange environment.

When a dumping area reaches capacity, layers of impermeable plastic are laid on top to seal it, sometimes including an odor control blanket, which uses odor-eating technology found in tennis shoes and trash bags. Broadwater, pointing out a five-acre expanse covered with such a blanket, said that a landfill is ideally a self-contained, leak-proof facility that should stay that way for decades. The leak-proof facility is then covered with a layer of rocks to prevent animals from burrowing, especially in the gas reclamation sites, which could introduce air and disrupt the process. Next comes a few feet of soil seeded with grass and other vegetation. (No trees are present, however, as mandated by state law. A toppled tree could rupture the top liner.) A finished, capped landfill looks at first glance like a park. The whole idea is that a landfill be “invisible at the property line,” disguising the garbage and minimizing its odor by burying it, and by employing a property-wide network of misters that vape out a vegetable-based perfume. And voila! The makings of the average landfill.

(The article that follows uses these kinds of tightly-regulated landfills as the basis for the landfills discussed herein. Many areas do not have infrastructure in place to construct landfills of this magnitude and relative self-containment. The unregulated landfills that exist elsewhere in the world (and which would certainly meet Broadwater’s definition of a dump) are vastly more open and dangerous, to organisms both inside and out. Here you have a true sea of garbage. More animals would likely be drawn to these sites due to their openness, and so the populations and distribution would be a little different than what is described below. However, the basic processes of bacterial decomposition and foraging behaviors, for example, are similar enough to paint a general picture of the relationships between organisms in a landfill.)

The Rumpke family has called the Colerain Township landfill home since 1946, as has the extended family of countless organisms that likewise reside there. Just as old William F. Rumpke seized an opportunity to collect garbage where nobody yet had a monopoly[1], the creatures in a landfill are able to exploit its resources for their own livelihood. A society has been established in the landfill in deference to the natural order, and to the natural course of life.

Into the microbial depths (of garbage)

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The odor of a landfill is a distinct indicator of the presence of the bacteria and fungi within it, as my aunt and uncle came to understand very well. A few years ago, they bought a house less than two miles from a major landfill. Either they were not aware of its location or were not told, but when the weather got warm, the gnarly odor of the dump came rolling down the surrounding hills and permeated their neighborhood. While the smell smelled partly like garbage, a very distinct component of the stench was sulfur, a compound present in the gas produced as garbage decomposes. The smallest layer of life in a landfill — a “robust set” of microscopic bacteria, fungus, yeast, and protozoa — consumes and digests organic materials in garbage, breaking it down like an enormous compost pile and producing huge amounts of methane gas as a byproduct of their activities.

An estimated 10,000 species of bacteria and fungi live in a gram of soil. Approximately 25,000 aerobic bacteria laid end to end would measure an inch. Bacteria, like pretty much any organism that wants to operate at optimum efficiency and comfort, are pretty picky about the conditions in which they live. Bacteria and fungi cannot grow if the temperature is too low, and they need waste with sufficient nitrogen content to make the proteins that allow them to grow. Fortunately, landfills are often porous enough to allow for the dispersion of rainwater and leachate. Leachate, shown to have a “unique geochemical composition” of highly toxic compounds[2], also contains high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, which are crucial to bacterial growth.

A host of other microscopic organisms like nematodes, protozoa, and archea feed on bacteria and fungi, and process the organic components of garbage into a product more nutritious and easily digestible by other creatures. Nematodes contribute greatly to the decomposition of organic material because of high food consumption and nutrient recycling rates. The microscopic nematodes — numbering at 106 individuals per square meter — are also known as roundworms and make up an estimated 80 percent of all of the animals on Earth, and live in almost every possible climate and location. Scientists estimate that there may be up to one million species of nematodes, while a full half of the known species are parasitic. Protozoa are single-celled organisms that are capable of propelling themselves around and feeding, while archea are microscopic organisms that exists as single-celled beings or clusters. The landfill is not an unusual environment for archea, as they are “extremophiles,” the creatures one often hears about living in deep sea vents, gorging on volcanic sulfur, or in areas with extreme salinity or extreme heat.

But it is the bacteria and fungi that are the most crucial decomposers. Imagine a pile of garbage cross-sectioned from top to bottom. The cross-section would show layers of garbage in different stages of decomposition, with different kinds of bacteria responsible for each phase. The first stage of decomposition involves aerobic bacteria, or bacteria that need oxygen to survive. They consume oxygen as they consume organic waste, effectively melting it on a cellular level. When the oxygen is depleted, anaerobic bacteria pick up the decomposition process, as they do not need oxygen to function. They get to work digesting the compounds created by the first bacterial phalanx. These are digested into acids and alcohols, making the landfill highly acidic. Nutrients dissolve as the acids mix with any moisture present, and are dispersed throughout the landfill.

The landfill becomes a more neutral environment as other anaerobic bacteria eat the acids they’ve created, allowing methane-producing bacteria to prosper. These bacteria produce methane as a waste product of the items they are digesting. Once methanogenic bacteria establish themselves, they steadily produce gas for at least 20 years, and sometimes even as long as 50. Generally, the composition of the gas produced by these organisms is 45-60 percent methane and 40–60 percent carbon dioxide. Other gasses, such as ammonia and oxygen, are present in small amounts. Weird little capped pipes come out of the ground near active garbage sites and in the otherwise nondescript grass hills and fields. These are vents that help outgas the methane. Most of the gas, however, is harvested and processed by the on-site refinery, or burned off via flares. (Towers with what appear to be everlasting flames are a common site at landfills.) The gas is sold to energy companies, and garbage gas is even used to power some of the Rumpke’s trucks. Methane is only about half as efficient as natural gas, but according to Rumpke, who has over 200 gas wells on the Colerain property, the landfill produces enough methane to power 25,000 area homes.

Aside from the pungent aroma of decomposing garbage, landfills are stinky because of sulfides present in the gas, which are produced by anaerobic bacteria. Comprising only around one percent of its volume, sulfides are nonetheless responsible for the garbage gas’s rotten-egg odor, which is why driving by a landfill often smells like weird gas instead of trash. All of the other gasses present are odorless and tasteless; the tiny percentage of sulfides is responsible for the smell that induced my aunt and uncle to move, and for the slap they likely delivered to their real estate agent for not telling them their house was near the county tip. Though in reality, they kind of lucked out it wasn’t worse — anaerobic bacteria also produce cadaverine and putrescine, which smell exactly as their names suggest.

The establishment of bacteria in the first place depends on the contents of the landfill. Organic waste is crucial to the process, introducing bacteria into the dump as well as nutrients like magnesium, calcium, and potassium, which help bacteria flourish[3]. Organic waste is abundant in the average landfill. According to industry figures, approximately half of the landfill’s contents are some kind of organic waste — restaurant food scraps, wood and paper, textiles, etc. According to one author, “fungi and bacteria are not restricted to decomposing leaves and other plant materials. They will decompose any dead organic matter, whether it is a cardboard box, paint, glue, pair of jeans, a leather jacket or jet fuel…made from petroleum, which is made of decomposed microscopic creatures from the oceans of the Mesozoic Era.” Bacteria and fungi are also introduced into the landfill via the soil dumped on the garbage at the end of every day.

Revoltingly, industry figures show that soiled diapers make up four percent of any landfill’s intake, providing their own pungent breeding ground for bacteria. (Remember, Rumpke takes in 6000 tons of garbage per day — four percent of 6000 tons is 240 tons of dirty diapers — every fuckin’ day!) Moreover, landfills are generally able to accept carcasses and other animal waste from slaughter plants. Thus, while not common, it wouldn’t be impossible for animal remains to be mixed in with municipal solid waste, which would certainly introduce bacteria of its own. The Franklin County Sanitary Landfill, serving Columbus, Ohio and its surroundings, “will accept animal carcasses for disposal,” provided the attendant is notified and the carcasses are “disease free and in heavy bags, if possible.”[4] These remains would be dumped in the current working face of the landfill.[5] Medical waste, with its attendant bacteria, is often present as well.

The microscopic organisms create heat as they do their dirty work. Bacteria are the organisms most responsible for the entire decomposition process. They energize themselves with carbon and grow by consuming nitrogen. Their activities are powered by oxidizing organic material, and this oxidization is what causes the heat. Signs of biological activity are temperatures between 90 and 150 degrees — high temperatures facilitate the breakdown of proteins and complex carbohydrates like cellulose, the most abundant compound in modern refuse. Bacteria can withstand the surprisingly high temperatures reached by composting garbage. In fact, thermus bacteria has been found in decomposing waste: thermus has also been found in hot springs in Yellowstone National Park and deep sea thermal vents.

Coupled with the flammable methane gas coursing through the landfill, Broadwater said that one area of the Rumpke landfill was decomposing at such high temperatures that a massive fire broke out and burned for at least a week. This is roughly equivalent to your compost pile churning with such vigor that it spontaneously bursts into flames. Rumpke was unable to figure out why this area was decomposing at an elevated temperature, and the section continues to be mysteriously hot to this day. Coupled with the presence of the methane, the combustible garbage is a strange hazard to all denizens of the dump.

Worms, Roaches, “Filth Flies” and other insects

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Insects are important to the decomposition of garbage because they eat a lot of trash and tunnel their way through it, which mixes and aerates it. They tear up material into smaller pieces, which is readily eaten by microorganisms. Bacteria often digest their feces. Insects are of course also food for other insects and larger creatures. Rove beetles feed on the maggots of flies, for example, while centipedes often eat worms. Further afield, the garbage grasslands contain the insects one might expect in grassland — grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies.

Some insects find their way to the trash, while some are inadvertently brought to it. Infrequent collection, loose lids, and holey containers are the prime culprits when it comes to infestation from the outside. An estimated 60 percent of city garbage containers are infested with fly larvae; fruit flies can fit through openings a millimeter wide. In another interesting case of filth in reverse, cockroaches are often found in landfills, as they hitch a ride in the belongings humans have discarded. And to make matters more unpleasant, there are mosquitoes. Standing water often found in containers or used rubber tires is an ideal breeding ground.

Insects that eat wood can also carve out a niche in the landfill, given the high percentage of organic material in the dump. Microscopic organisms and termites process the wood into a product more nutritious to other wood-eating insects, such as tree borers and beetles. The presence of termites depends on the relative moisture and nutritional content of wood, which, contrary to cartoons that show termites devouring everything in their path, they are quite selective about. (Good wood is high in both.) Like cockroaches, the presence of wood-eating insects in waste sites likely stems from the introduction of wood already infested more so than independently relocating to it.

In one Calvin and Hobbes strip, Calvin relishes being a fly at a picnic table, much to the chagrin of his parents. “Filth! Pestilence! Contamination!” he says with glee (and accuracy). Flies are a ubiquitous presence in areas with any kind of decay. The whine of thousands of flies generally augurs something gross, which acres of wet, stinky trash certainly is. The common housefly is the most abundant insect in landfills around the world. Flies eat decomposing garbage, sucking up liquid waste and spitting saliva on solid items so they can be digested. Flies lay their eggs in garbage too, and are capable of reproducing up to five times over the course of their life, laying over 100 eggs each time. The emerging maggots burrow into garbage and eat it, and a few days later pupate into adult flies, where they live for a matter of weeks. Flies can also breed in cesspools and sewage sludge, environments that can probably be likened to cousins of a landfill.

As mentioned, the soil placed on top of the garbage at the end of every day is in part a pest control measure; only a serious application of soil can help reduce the amount of flies, as they need sufficient oxygen to live. However, emergent houseflies are capable of making their way to the surface through over nine inches of soil, while flesh flies and blowflies can emerge through double that. Dr. John Wenzel, an entomologist and Director of Powder Mill Nature Reserve, said that flies have a “punching bag” on their faces when they emerge from their cocoon. They use this to punch out into the world, and then head-butt their way through layers of soil and debris. Upon busting their way out of their confines, the punching bag hardens into a proper head, allowing the flies to go about their normal fly business. Flies can travel almost two miles from the trash site, and like birds and other organisms that exist in abundance at landfills, are considered pests to neighboring areas.

Also existing in abundance, to the tune of 10,000 to 100,000 individuals per square meter, are springtails, insect-seeming creatures that aren’t really insects but exist as a class of their own. Their class Entognatha includes a few other groups of creatures, though it seems almost like a catch-all for otherwise unclassifiable creatures. Some scientists maintain that the members of this group are as genetically far removed from each other as they from are insects. Their name comes from the coiled and wound apparatus that allows the insect to launch itself away when in danger. They are omnivores and microbivores that tunnel through organic material, furthering its decomposition by breaking it up and transporting nutrients and other microorganisms through the waste. Springtails are often food for other insects, like millipedes.

The hardiness of insects is in part what makes them such obnoxious pests. Insects would be more bothered by the constant disturbances of a landfill — the trucks, dumped trash, etc. — than by the potentially toxic environment of a leachate-drenched food supply, Wenzel said. Studies of gun ranges and other environments pregnant with similarly harmful heavy metals have shown that the metal-loding of lead-infused soils didn’t seem to have any effect on the insects’ day-to-day life. However, flies can pick up PCBs in the landfill and transmit them to other parts of the environment. While the environment wouldn’t necessarily be toxic to the entomofauna themselves, they could be to other animals that eat insects romping around in what is essentially toxic waste.

Living in garbage has been shown to have some odd behavioral effects. I’m not one to question anyone (or anything’s) sexual proclivities, but thanks to the ubiquity of garbage, a strange romance developed between a species of beetles and beer bottles. The Australian jewel beetle finds mates by feeling for small bumps on their paramour’s rear-end. The bumps on a certain beer bottle were so similar to what the beetles were looking for that they began trying to mate with bottles. Fortunately, however, once this phenomenon was discovered and its implications for species survival were realized, the beer company changed the design of the bottles, and the jewel beetle went back to feeling the bumps of other beetles, not something man-made.

Loafing, foraging, socially interacting: Birds

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Kestrels, sandpipers, killdeer, and doves flutter and glide majestically overtop the acres of landfill — those are some of the bird species that call the Rumpke grasslands home. Birdsong mixes with the rattle and hum of machinery to create a cyborg symphony that represents the in/organic mix that is the landfill itself. The small rodents and reptiles that live in the garbage grasslands make for a good meal, and the landfill itself provides abundant resources for creatures to consume. Kestrels, the continent’s smallest falcon, can see ultraviolent light, which means it can see things like the urine trails left by small mammals, which live in abundance on a landfill’s grounds. Kestrels hide their prey in small cavities like grass clumps, bushes, or crevices in man-made structures, which likewise exist in abundance on landfill properties.

Birds flock to the landfill to eat and socialize with their brethren. Their acute senses and fearlessness allow them to eat as the humans and machines work, excavating waste not buried deep enough. A landfill in Virginia reported that it attracted 25,000 birds per day, and its daily take was only 900 tons of garbage (vs. Rumpke’s 6,000). “Loafing or social interacting” among herring gulls nesting near landfills near the Great Lakes was found to be the most prevalent activity in areas other than exposed refuse, though “aggression” was common too. Foraging was (understandably) the most frequent activity in areas with open garbage.

Landfills can provide a stable and food source for birds. As we’ve seen, organic waste makes up approximately half of the midden’s contents. One study found that a landfill in Vancouver might have contributed to the survival of bald eagle populations over winter (or at least sustaining more eagles than could normally be expected) due to the food available in the landfill. The study noted that the overall number of eagles peaked during rough weather because the landfill is protected from the wind, is slightly warmer thanks to decomposing garbage, and has fairly minimal human activity.

But the victuals in a landfill are significantly less nutritious than the food that a bird might naturally consume. Food from a landfill is literally junk food. The trade-off is its convenience, but this also means any other creature feasting on a landfill has to consume more to get the nutrition they require. This is especially true for birds, whose energy expenditures require a relatively high food consumption per unit weight. Needing to eat more means more time in the landfill, which means more exposure to predators and dangers like machinery. And more activity overall means a greater expenditure of energy, which necessitates more nutritious food. Foraging at landfills can also significantly affect birds’ health and reproduction, considering the likelihood that birds will consume non-food items or items and contamination by toxins. Sadly, young birds have often been found starved to death in landfills, with stomachs full of plastic and other inedible/indigestible items. Eagles have died after eating euthanized animals that were improperly wrapped at landfills on Vancouver Island. Dozens of Glaucous-winged gulls died after ingesting chocolate at another landfill in Vancouver.

To get a more detailed understanding of the role the landfill played in the dietary habits of the birds that flocked there, researchers collected food remains and food pellets from colonies of herring gulls. They also took samples of the stomach contents (boli) of the gull chicks. “If a chick did not regurgitate upon capture,” the study says, “we inserted a finger into its proventriculus and removed the contents.”[6] The authors found that fish was the most common food during incubation and chick-rearing, likely because it is significantly more nutritious. Adult herring gulls that specialized on garbage fledged fewer chicks than did adults that specialized on other foods. After fledging, the gulls were shown to eat more garbage, when their bodies are better able to maximize nutrients.

Eagles are primarily avivores, and the researchers who conducted another study expected that eagles would feed primarily on the gulls at the landfill. Ultimately, almost all of what the eagles ate was household food waste, and in particular red meat waste and bones. “Although some meat was identifiable, most was identifiable and clearly putrid or decomposing,” researchers wrote. Garbage made up 6.6 percent of the eagles diet, including paper towels and plastic bags. Overall, landfill refuse accounted for only around ten percent of the energy intake of the eagles that frequented the landfill. Younger eagles were apparently the refuse specialists, likely because younger eagles are less efficient hunters than adults. Eagles were also able to snatch food from other unwitting birds feeding at the site.

Despite their questionable offerings, landfills are so convenient to feeding that they’ve disrupted migratory patterns. Researchers observed white storks staying in landfills year-round in Portugal and Spain instead of their annual winter migration to Africa. The storks began staying in dumps the 1980s, in an area where they had never been seen before. The number of storks wintering in the landfills increased from around 1,200 to 14,000 between 1995 and 2015. Over several years, Birds were fitted with GPS devices, which revealed that the storks were eating, breeding, and permanently living in the landfill, as well as guarding “desirable locations” in the landfills. “We think these landfill sites facilitated the storks staying in their breeding sites all year because they now have a fantastic, reliable food source all year round,” said one researcher, though the impact of dwindling amounts of birds on the ecosystems they abandoned is yet to be seen.

Overall, bird populations are more closely controlled than those of other creatures living on the landfill. Birds at landfills are considered especially irritating to landfill managers and the surrounding homes and businesses, as well as a cause of concern to nearby airports. “The county abandoned recreational ballfields at the landfill to avoid the excessive bird droppings, and paint on nearby vehicles and buildings were damaged by the steady rain of fecal material,” reported one study. As such, one of a landfill’s pest-control directives is to reduce the amount of birds on site. Rumpke contracts with a US Department of Agriculture wildlife specialist that focuses on monitoring the bird population.

Mammalian abundance

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Confession time: when I visited the Rumpke landfill and stared out at its considerable acreage, I envisioned animals living within the garbage itself — a civilization burrowing through alien waste, living in a maze of tunnels running through the picturesque mountains of trash. I pictured a community not unlike something from The Borrowers, in which insect and animals take what they need and return home to a burrow tastefully decorated with scavenged ephemera. Unfortunately (for the purposes of my own imagination at least), the reality of creatures in a landfill is not quite like this. Aside from the thriving microbial community, not much can live in the bowels of a trash mountain because its insides largely devoid of oxygen. The garbage is so compacted that it lacks significant “void space” where oxygen could collect, while most oxygen that does remain is converted to methane gas by the microbial process described above. “There’s no air there,” said Dr. Jean Bogren, a emeritus research professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “There’s no advantage to living in garbage.” My trash burrow fantasy realm was cruelly compacted by reality.

But this isn’t to say that animals aren’t attracted to garbage, they may just not live directly in the piles. Many mammals inhabiting the Rumpke’s property prefer to reside in the grassy areas surrounding landfills. Studies have shown that the areas around landfills are typically populated by various species of mice, voles, shrews[7], rats, chipmunks, and possums. Skunks and foxes are also present, as are feral cats and dogs. Raccoons are sometimes brought to the landfill when dumpsters are dumped in the back of garbage trucks. Omnivorous species generally fare better in dumps, as opposed to strictly carnivorous or herbivorous species, whose specific diets don’t allow them to take full advantage of the smorgasbord.[8] The most populous mammal tends to be the white-footed mouse.

Some mammals travel to and from the landfill for food and supplies. White-footed mice, for example, have a range of over 1000 feet, while woodland voles have a 600 foot range. One study observed that mice made nests made of shredded paper and leaves in bottles, cans, and other containers from the dump.[9] Burrows on the peripheries of a landfill tended to be deep enough — from 10 to 36 cm deep — to provide cover from owls and hawks, which are their main predators. Predation by raptors and other animals discourages daytime feeding or foraging. The greenspace created on covered landfills features the predator-prey relationships one can assume. It is a grassland-like environment that often draws animals such as coyotes, foxes, and snakes that prey on other mammals. One landfill worker even reported that sometimes they’ll shoot and eat a deer or turkey that wanders onto the grassland.

Landfills have been shown to attract grizzlies, baboons, and other upper echelon predators in areas where these creatures have become habituated to landfill use. Bears have been reported in landfills in Alaska and New York, and have even fed while trucks dump their haul. Grizzlies are capable of digging seven feet deep, and have excavated buried livestock. In one strange case, the fallout from eating garbage inadvertently helped temper the temper of a baboon troop. Baboons were dining on the scraps thrown in the bushes outside of a tourist lodge in Kenya and contracted tuberculosis from spoiled meat. These baboons were the alpha-male type who previously wouldn’t let anyone else get close to the meat. Incredibly, and this speaks for the innate benefits of the “can’t we all just get along” sentiment, when these baboons died from contracting tuberculosis, they weren’t replaced by the next-most aggressive males. The rest of the troop realized they didn’t have to fight for food, and were able to live communally and happily, replacing gestures of aggression with ones of affection, and having no problem welcoming new members into the fold.

Mammals, like birds, have to weigh the options of eating at a dump. Rats, for example, a frequent resident of landfills, need to eat around 35% of their body weight per day. Do they go for overall less nutritionally sound meals from the midden, or do they expend more energy travelling further for healthier meals? Does the convenience of ready food outweigh the presence of animals that would happily eat them? What about the danger posed by the garbage itself?

While the threat of a hungry coyote or possessive baboon is serious, the toxic composition of a landfill poses a grave threat to any creature that trudges through it. Leachate, that noxious juice that flows like lifeblood throughout the entirety of the landfill, is no less harmful to animals than it is to humans. Studies show exactly what happens when animals are exposed to it: an increase in cancerous legions and organ failure.[10]

In a typically cruel study, rats were injected for thirty days with different concentrations of a leachate concoction, comprised of leachate from twenty leachate wells in Nigeria. Within 24 hours of exposure, the rats showed discolored skin, un-groomed hair, and had difficulty breathing. During the second and third weeks, the rats were sluggish and ate less. Frequent sneezing, hair loss, and diarrhea occurred throughout the fourth week of the study. One rat had its eyeball bulge out of the socket, while others developed abscesses. Three rats died from the exposure during the tests, and another died a day after the tests were stopped. The pollution likely causes “direct chemical disruption of the organs.”

The study concluded that livers and kidneys are the organs most prominently affected by landfill pollution. Increased organ weight as body weight decreases, which the mice demonstrated, is a sign of toxicity, reflecting attempts to “sequester” these contaminants. Mice taken from landfills in Spain were shown to have heavier kidneys than mice from non-landfill sites, indicating their bodies’ attempts to flush out the accumulated toxins. Overall, kidneys fare a little better than most organs, reaching a “degree of tolerance or adaptation” to harsh substances, thanks to the kidneys’ deft detoxification process. Juvenile mice had elements such as lead in greater abundance, owing to higher energy requirements and the greater consumption of food this necessitates. Interestingly, shrews from the same landfills did not show an increase in some elements, highlighting differences in reaction to these elements in different species. Overall, carnivores are usually more exposed to metals and therefore accumulate more of these elements than omnivores and herbivores.

But perhaps the most pathos-inducing danger to mammals in a landfill is being accidently injured or trapped in the garbage. One Florida veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitator described “skunks with yogurt containers stuck on their heads…Plastic items become intestinal blockages; baited fishing lines entangle limbs, hindering movement and causing dismemberment; and aluminum cans with leftover soda or beer turn into razor-sharp traps.” The most heartbreaking injury was a raccoon whose paws were stuck in beer cans. “The cans had been on his limbs for so long that he had tried to learn to walk with them, and both front limbs were completely damaged,” she said. She sedated the raccoon and took the cans off of his hands, which had no fur and no skin on them.

Humans, too, have been thrust into the ecosystem of a landfill. Economic and political conditions have pushed an estimated 15 million people into this strange new world. Many landfills in developing countries offer a form of refuge and employment, allowing people support themselves and their families by scavenging useful items. In some cases, selling plastics and metals to recycling companies, for example, can provide some semblance of income. Tens of thousands of people live inside individual landfills. Communities in landfills in countries such as Indonesia, Guatemala, Russia, and Senegal have their own schools, neighborhoods, and societies.

Living in landfills, humans have taken their customary place at the top of the ecological hierarchy, but this is obviously a pyrrhic victory. Humans are subject to the same diseases, toxins, and dangers that afflict any creature that searches its way through a dump. Birth defects, tuberculosis, tapeworm, malnutrition, and fatal garbage landslides are a few of the many ubiquitous concerns. One man, who lives and works in a landfill in India, said that, due to the stench, he didn’t eat for over a week when he arrived, and vomited every day. But for better or worse, he has slowly become acclimated to life there, just as one might take to living in an unfamiliar area out of necessity. There are dangers inherent in any ecosystem, and hazards that creatures of every variety take into consideration. It’s all part of the game of life, and as we’ve seen above, millions of organisms are making it work for them.

What does this all mean?

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Humanity’s current landfill practices are likely rooted in the path of our evolution. Humans were semi-arboreal as they evolved further from primates, and then finally walked away from trees. In the process, they were able to leave garbage behind and not have to think about it. Since then, garbage has, of course, been a chronic problem throughout civilization. The Middle Ages were famously mired in the excreta running through the streets, barrels of toxic waste currently impregnate mountains, and studies have shown that certain serious diseases often afflict people who live and work near a landfill. (Even the question of what to do with our own remains is also problematic. At one point, Paris had to relocate a million buried skeletons because they were leaching arsenic into the water.) Natural areas and habitats near landfills have been disrupted by the facilities’ expansion, or are at least nominally relocated. “For example, at our Brown County, Ohio, landfill,” Broadwater wrote in an email, “We built a 4-acre highly engineered wetlands to offset the destruction of smaller wetlands when we expanded the site. This wetland now houses many of the native species of plants and animals that call Brown County home.”

An appreciation for the dangers of the trash problem has become a more present part of the common consciousness. There were almost 8000 dumps in existence 30 years ago, but governments began consolidating dumps into much more regulated super-dumps in an effort to more tightly control the collection of trash and curtail its attendant hazards. There are currently around 2000 landfills in the United States. We still operate with the same sort of “out of sight, out of mind” sense of comfort that at least the trash is going somewhere, but officially, at least, we are legally bound to care about that somewhere for 30 years. Federal law requires that landfill owners have to set aside money to close the landfill and to care for the grounds for the succeeding three decades, during which they also are required to “pump the leachate, test the groundwater, inspect the cap, repair any erosion, fill low areas due to settlement, maintain vegetation and prevent trees from growing.” And in the US, opening a new landfill is a tightly controlled process involving a panoply of federal, state, and local agencies, and the undertaking of numerous impact studies. Rumpke staff said that in some cases it has taken over seven years to even get the permits that would allow them to even begin thinking about opening a new landfill. But despite the increasingly regulated process and the greater understanding of the dangers of excess garbage, our trash and what to do with it is a problematic phenomenon that is only growing. Rumpke, will its 300 acres of landfill, is eleven years away from capacity. The company is currently suing the surrounding township to expand its operations, but that will only facilitate more collection, not address the creation of so much garbage in the first place.

The average person in a developed country is responsible for generating about 2.6 pounds of garbage a day. Every three months, the average American man produces his weight in garbage. Researchers found that people threw away 289 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2012, a figure more than twice the 135 million tons that the EPA estimated for the same year, and a figure that is close to one ton per person per year in the US. By the year 2025, 4.3 billion urban residents are projected to generate approximately 6.1 million metric tons per day. Scientists estimate that 11 million tons of garbage will be produced daily by 2100. And the industriousness of the microbial process in a landfill is no laughing matter. Thanks to the methane produced by decomposition, garbage is an even faster growing pollutant than greenhouse gases. The EPA showed that greenhouse gas emitted by landfills that traps heat in the atmosphere 25 times more effectively than does carbon dioxide.

Well into the last century, New York City simply dumped all of its garbage straight into the ocean .One study found that plastics currently pollute no less than 88 percent of the world’s ocean surface. There are five major concentrations of plastic in the world’s oceans, with the largest, the infamous Great Garbage Patch of the Pacific Ocean, estimated to be twice the size of Texas. Trash is apparently even colonizing terrestrial space – there are currently almost 18,000 manmade objects orbiting Earth, with no doubt more on the way as the human races breaks free of its terran confines.

The animals at landfills currently have a tentative relationship to landfills, in that they are able to choose landfills when it is advantageous or convenient. They are still affected by the toxicity of its contents, and can’t quite establish a home in which they are as comfortable as they would be in their natural habitats. But as the amount of garbage grows and we develop new places to stash it, making a home in landfilled areas will become less of an option and more a species survival imperative. The growing patches of trash in the ocean and garbage biomes on land and the trash belt orbiting the planet will become the new frontiers of life, maybe even altering the course of evolution. Maybe ever-growing landfills will force rat’s kidneys to better accommodate heavy metal loding, or will help birds derive maximum nutritional value from the pickings they scavenge. Perhaps beetles will be able to consume Styrofoam, or maybe skunks will develop a coat of such incredible density that chemicals can’t penetrate it, or creatures will be able to nest in a mound of diapers. Claws will become refined to dig through piles of old appliances, proboscises will puncture through old batteries, and eyesight will evolve to see around the corners of old couches. Maybe new creatures entirely will develop, boasting an agglomeration of appendages especially suited for living in a landfill. Maybe new forms of bacteria will spring up that can metabolize circuit boards, bridging the gap between carbon-based life forms and virtual intelligence.

These changes will happen at evolution’s grindingly slow pace, but by the time these creatures have adapted to life in vast ecosystems of garbage, future researchers will marvel at how readily and how ingeniously these creatures have adapted, and continue to adapt, to their befouled environs. Studying the creatures from generations ago, marveling at its ability to survive in the mire before their specialized adaptations, the researchers will perhaps look out their window and gaze out at the world in awe at the workings of nature, his musings accompanied by the music of birds mimicking the chime of enormous trash-crushing machines. High up in a building built among reclaimed trash piles, looking over the trash mountain range and the smiling lovers paddling in canoes down leachate rivers, the scientist smiles, pushing his triclops glasses up a nose evolved to selectively filter smells.

“Our world is a landfill,” he says. “A fascinating ecosystem unto itself!”

Notes:

[1] The Rumpke landfill started as junkyard and coal delivery business sometime in the 1930s. A customer traded founder William F. Rumpke six pigs for his services, and he refurbished an old truck to bring garbage back to feed the pigs. Rumpke established a facility to take in metal during World War II. People would bring their trash to his property, where it would be dropped on a conveyor belt and sorted by hand. Metal and rags were set aside for the war effort, while the rest remained trash. In the 1950s, the government passed a law mandating that food waste be cooked before it was fed to animals. Finding this too inefficient, Rumpke, who by this time was joined in business by his brother, sold his animals and concentrated on trash. The business grew and grew, and in the 1980s, the company consolidated area trash services by buying over 200 businesses and established outposts of their trash empire all across Ohio and surrounding states. In 1986, Rumpke started harvesting methane gas from its landfills (one of the first such operations in the country), and in 1987, Rumpke purchased a portable toilet business. Rumpke also runs a massive recycling facility (which truly has to be seen – and heard – to be believed) and other related businesses. Rumpke currently employs almost 2500 people, 75 of which are Rumpke family members.

[2] Such as toluene, phenols, benzene, ammonia, dioxins, PCBs, and pesticides.

[3] Dry conditions and high salt concentrations, however, can curtail bacterial growth, as can low nitrogen content and high carbon dioxide content in soil pores.

[4] These remains would be dumped in the current working face of the landfill, as opposed to the elephant that’s buried on the Rumpke site. An elephant that died when a circus passed through town is buried on site, but not near the garbage. Also buried at the Rumpke landfill are the world’s largest chocolate bar and “Touchdown Jesus,” an enormous fiberglass Jesus that faced the highway from the lawn of a church. The figure’s arms were raised in the air, affecting a gesture very similar to that which referees use to declare a touchdown. The statue was struck by lightning, caught on fire, and melted. Rumpke accepted the remains. The church has since rebuilt the statue, this time out of cement.

[5] I can attest to this: once, when I worked for a construction crew, I accompanied my boss to dump our trailer at the dump. We drove out to the working face and got to work preparing the trailer. It was windy, and we laughed that trash was blowing all over us. I saw that there was a lot of medical packaging blowing around. I looked down and saw that I was standing on a fairly large spread of medical waste, including syringes, catheters, and other indistinct but clearly biohazardous items.

[6] Contents were separated into categories – fish, garbage, insects, plant food – and counted. Garbage comprised roughly 11% of the boli’s contents, 17% of the food remains found near nests, and less than one percent of the content of the food pellets.

[7] Special consideration was necessary for counting the short-tailed shrew. “The method of tagging by toe clipping is less reliable than ear tagging because of the possibility of shrews losing their toes to natural causes,” noted the authors of one study.

[8] One landfill in Virginia even attempted to introduce a new mammal to its grounds: goats. But, after a year, “officials realized that using farm animals to cut grass was not the easy solution originally imagined.” The situation did not improve even when sheep were brought in to augment the finicky goats. The final solution: officials acquired two lawn mowers to cut most of the grass on the landfill. “The same city official who initiated the goat project later proposed creating a mulching operation at the landfill. Supervisors rejected the proposal, but he purchased $500,000 of equipment without approval. He resigned in 2015 just before he would have been fired.”

[9] The authors noted that their study was conducted before an outbreak of Hauntavirus, and that they were not conducting a mammal survey at the time the study was published, which was apparently during the outbreak.

[10] Similar dysfunctions of the kidney have been reported in human workers associated with the treatment of industrial waste. A study done by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggests a possible increase in cancers and birth defects in humans who live near landfills.

A stand-up guy doing stand-up comedy: an interview with an amateur comic

I met Rew Johnson in passing a few years ago when he lived with a friend of mine. My friend told me that Rew was moving to Dayton to pursue stand up comedy more seriously. Seeing someone go for it wholeheartedly is always inspiring, and I thought it was incredible and really cool that he was so invested in his craft. Stand up comedy is an art form I’m not terribly familiar with, so I was curious to know more about how it works and about the ins-and-outs of the life of a burgeoning comic. I re-met Rew when I moved to Yellow Springs, and he was nice enough to submit to an interrogation that I had been waiting years to do.

I’ve done hundreds of stand up sets. I did it for eight years. I was probably on stage between one hundred and two hundred times per year. I was just living for it. You do comedy and there’s nothing else. I’d drive and do a show in Louisville on a Wednesday night, then I’d drive home and get in at three or four in the morning and have to work at ten. Then I’d go to Indianapolis the next night. I’d work so I could pay to do comedy.

I did theater growing up and loved the stage and the attention and the rush that you get. I also loved writing growing up. I always thought I was going to be a writer. But in stand up, you’re the writer, you’re the performer, you’re the whole deal – you don’t share the stage with anyone else. It’s a selfish medium. You have to have a bit of an ego to even think about doing it.

The first stand up I started watching in high school were specials on Comedy Central, and this guy Mitch Hedberg really made me laugh. He piqued my interest in stand up, so then I started listening to other guys, like Steve Martin. I ended up doing stand up my junior and senior years of high school at my high school’s talent show.

My material in high school was terrible. (Laughs) It was bathroom humor. I had a joke about skydiving for the first time. [Evidently this is a corny topic. – DTL] I have it recorded on a VHS tape, and I watched it about two years ago. I couldn’t even sit through it.

I didn’t win the talent shows but a week after my senior show somebody sent me a $50 check and told me to keep going. I graduated high school in May of 2006 and got on stage at an open mic for the first time in June, at Wiley’s in downtown Dayton.

I’ve heard other comics use this analogy, but it’s like, starting a career in stand up is like going back to kindergarten, and it really takes ten or twelve years to become a decent stand up. I really do mean decent; I don’t mean skilled, I mean passably good. And after that, you’re going to college. So when you’re watching guys like Louis CK or Bernie Mac or Bill Burr and everyone’s like, I love this new guy, no, that guy’s been out on the road for twenty years.

When you start doing open mics, you need five minutes of material. In the early years, you try to build on those five minutes until they become fifteen. If you can write well enough and fast enough, you get into situations where you are billed as ‘featuring’ that night, where you do twenty- or thirty-minute sets. Then you build a long enough set from there and you’re headlining, doing forty-five minutes or an hour-long set.

The general rule amongst comics is that you open strong and end strong. Almost every set, my first joke was the same joke. I’d change it up in the middle. I’d change it up if I felt like doing something different, or if there was something I wanted to work on, I’d put it in the middle. But you always end those last five or ten minutes with something that you know will make people go, ‘that dude was hilarious’ when you get off the stage.

I’d say I kept about 60% of the jokes I wrote. But when you’re doing stand up so much, you start to get tired of your jokes pretty quickly. That’s a good motivation to write more and keep being creative. But I’d also have a joke that I’d been doing for two years and then for whatever reason find three more minutes to add to it. That’s what’s really cool about stand up – your act is constantly evolving. A joke is never really finished. There’s no final brushstroke you can put on it.

I gauged what jokes were funny or not by just doing it as much as possible, and watching jokes die. (Laughs) There is a lot of in the moment trial-and-error. I don’t think you ever get used to it. Cause you can have a joke that works 99.9% of the time and for whatever reason do a show and watch it fall on its face.

When you’re trying to do something you’ve worked so hard on, something that you really love, having a roomful of people look at you like you’re an idiot – that’s pretty hard. The thing about stand up is that you can have a set where you totally dominate and you’ll be on that high for two or three hours, enjoying it until you go to sleep. But you have a bad set and you’ll be thinking about it for three weeks. That’s another part of the reason I think so many comics are messed up mentally – it’s self-abuse. You put yourself through that – it’s necessary for the art form but it’s incredibly self-abusive.

It’s like Jerry Seinfeld said – people’s number one fear is public speaking; number two is death. He says, given the choice, at a funeral you’d rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.

I could usually tell within the first thirty seconds how the whole show was going to go. I had many shows where I thought it was going to be great, and as soon as I walked on stage I knew it was not. Or vice versa. I was chain-smoking and pacing and not wanting to go up, but for some reason you go up there and you kill it.

I think the real beauty in stand up is that you rehearse the material and you rework it and rework it, but there’s always those nights where it’s magic; everything flows together and it’s a moment, like jazz, and then it’s gone. Those moments are special. That doesn’t happen very often. You can’t anticipate it.

The longest I was on stage was an hour and forty-five minutes. It was just a show at a bar in Columbus and I was just…on fire. I was just killing it. For whatever reason the circumstances were right. I wound up riffing on stuff going on in the room. At one point I looked at my watch, like ‘how long have I been up here.’ I thought it maybe had been an hour but it had been an hour and a half.

It comes down to the audience. I think comedy audiences are maturing, but they view comedians not as artists but as trained monkeys. That translates to what they expect to you, like ‘make me laugh.’ Some people go to a comedy show and they don’t want to hear your opinion. They just want to hear you talk about, you know, the differences between men and women or whatever.

Those subjects can definitely be hackneyed material, but at the same time, they are universal truths. “Men and women are different” – someone’s got a new take on it and can make it funny. But there are hackneyed jokes, like when am comic says “I hate having to listen to my girlfriend,” and does an impression of her voice for a long time. Thousands and thousands of comedians have done that joke, but there’s always somebody who’s going to put a fresh spin on it. Drug jokes are another topic like that – it’s easy to make people laugh if you are talking about getting drunk or smoking pot. “Oh, I was so drunk I acted like an idiot hahaha.” But Louis CK has a bit about getting high that he did on a comedy special a few years ago, and it’s hilarious.

I was unique in that my family was incredibly supportive. My parents came to quite a few of my shows. I did meet a lot of guys unfortunately whose parents are like, why are you wasting your time? Go get a job-job. I can’t even imagine [how difficult that is] – it’s already hard enough being a comic.

Stand up is definitely therapy on some level. I definitely treated it as therapy sometimes, which can be good and bad. People who have the greatest sense of humor also have the greatest insight into the darkest and most painful areas of life. That’s why you can sit in a room full of military vets and hear them joke about the most morbid stuff. What they’re doing is coping. It’s the same thing with amputees – I’m an amputee – and I’ve made jokes with other amputees that people might grimace at but to me, it’s…a joke.

When I was writing well, I was writing about stuff that I cared about and usually stuff that I cared about was stuff that really irritated me. Like, I had a roommate that ended up being completely racist, and living with him for a while ended up becoming a ten-minute bit that I had. And I wrote it in about three minutes; I was just that impassioned. It just came out of me.

By the end, I stopped writing – I would have an idea in my head and just walk around my kitchen and basically talk through it and find the tag, or the punchline, and build on it. That process, instead of sitting down with a piece of paper, caused me to write material that sounded more natural and not just packaged and ready to go out.

It was also a lot easier to remember. Rather than writing something down and treating it like it was a monologue from a play, if you talk it out, you’re talking the way you talk to your friend on the street. Because it came more naturally, it stuck to your brain a little better.

One of my favorite shows was at a thrift store in Cincinnati that was owned by this couple. We had shows there for about six months. We didn’t get paid but they would make us dinner. We had a blast – it was a room full of forty college kids in what was basically a Salvation Army, watching stand up.

Another one of my favorite memories is the time I got booed off stage. (Laughs) I have it on video somewhere. It was really early on when I started doing stand up, and I was doing this Andy Kaufman kind of character. I was basically playing a fifteen year-old boy who was trying to tell jokes. The audience didn’t understand the character; they really thought I was a fifteen year-old boy. And they booed me off stage. (Laughs) The best part was that I came to the club dressed as this character and stayed in character this whole time. I get booed off stage and the owner of the club comes up and gets on stage and yells at the audience, this one table in particular was doing it, and he yells at them like, ‘you guys should be ashamed! This kid was trying his best!’ etc. He ended up kicking out like seven people. (Laughs) I watched that happen and kind of felt bad because he probably lost money. I came up to the owner after the show was over and was in my normal clothes at that point and apologized to him. I said, ‘I’m really sorry about that.’ He said, ‘no, it’s alright, you had nothing to do with it.’ And I said, no, I did, that was me. He said, don’t worry about it. And I said, no, that kid in the hat – that was me. And he looked at me for like five seconds and was like ‘dude, get out of here, I don’t want to talk to you.’

Success in stand up is fifty percent merit and fifty percent networking, taking chances and making opportunities and booking gigs. I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to work with people I really look up to. Some of my heroes. Two guys that have since made a name for themselves – Kyle Kinane and Hannibal Burress – I had a chance to open for them. In terms of a comic’s career, they were both pretty damn successful when I met them. And both of them introduced themselves by their first names to me. I shook their hands and didn’t say it, but I was thinking to myself, I know who the hell you are. They treated me like a human being.

I’ve also worked with guys who’d been doing stand up for twenty or twenty-five years and never caught their break. They were just bitter, and had an arrogance to compensate for their own insecurity about not being successful. But that’s the nature of the game. I mean, comics are just people – some of them are nice, some of them are jerks.

In all the shows I’ve done, I can probably count the hecklers I’ve encountered on two hands. For the most part, they’re really easy to handle. It becomes hard when they’re just an idiot and completely wasted and they just refuse to shut up. But in a club setting, if the club is run well, the staff usually handles it. Sometimes people would just say things in the middle of a show because they’re enjoying it so much, and it wasn’t really a heckle. I never had a problem with that, as long as it wasn’t through my entire set. And sometimes it led to really great opportunities for riffing on stuff.

I think stand up has definitely made me more assertive overall. When you’re talking, you think about what you want to say, even if it’s only for half a second. At some point during my years of doing stand up, the connection between my mouth and brain streamlined itself. I mean, I would say something on stage in response to somebody and I’d think, where the hell did that come from? I’d have to play it off but I’d be thinking, that was awesome! (Laughs)

Long term, I didn’t think stand up was what I wanted. I’d like to have a family and all that stuff some day. You can make a living being what they call a ‘road comic.’ You’ll have a home base but be on the road forty, forty-five weeks out of the year, driving or flying to different clubs. Some comics can do it, but I didn’t want to have kids and be on the road ten months out of the year. You either have to do that or move to a large city, and I didn’t really want to do that either. And I didn’t want to spend all my time in bars.

As a comic, you’re self-employed, you’re your own business. You’re always doing open mics, trying to get on stage as often as possible, trying to work on your set. Starting out, I definitely did a lot of show for free drinks. There were definitely nights where you’re like, I drove three hours last night to do a show to three people for no money and I had a horrible set and now I’m tired at work – why am I doing this?

But I don’t regret doing it. I basically had an eight-year-long adventure. Traveling as much as I did when I did was neat. And so was getting exposed to different people in our country. And those last two years, I was definitely getting paid more often than not. For every bad memory, there are a thousand good ones. I did one set in January this year. I was surprised at how easy it was to jump back into it.

Part III: “A Quarter-Inch of Chaos” – at the 2015 APWA Southwestern Ohio Snow and Ice Removal Conference

This is part III of my upcoming nonfiction novella chronicling the goings-on of a small Ohio township. The book is structured around the agenda of a township trustee meeting I attended, whose many topics gave me some insight into the complex world of local government and the even more complex world of the personalities behind it.

The book, aptly titled “Township Trustee Meeting,” will be available soon.

Snow and Ice - Plows

Section 4 on the Sept. 9 agenda was a partial list of the correspondence and email the trustees had received since the last meeting. Most items – like the Ohio Township News magazine – were glossed over, but Chris Mucher paused to note the email confirming the township’s registration for the 2015 APWA Southwestern Ohio Snow and Ice Removal conference. The conference is a biannual affair designed to help local governments manage the inevitable hazards of winter.

“Put on your best snow boots,” Mucher said.

The 2015 conference, hosted by the American Public Works Association and held in Sharonville, Ohio, 50 miles away, was to feature speakers from road departments from all around the state. The showroom would feature over a dozen shiny new plow trucks and pieces of equipment, as well as a number of other vendors plying relevant trades, such as custom municipal sign-making and pipe repair, offered by a company which applies a proprietary sealant to the inside of busted pipes. (“We only do what the pipe tells us it needs,” says the company’s slogan.) The keynote speaker of the conference was Diana Clonch, a thirty-year public works veteran who is now a successful freelance winterization consultant.

“Any questions, Mark?” Mucher asked.
“Nope,” Crockett said.

The other trustees quietly avoided comment when registration was confirmed, lest they be roped into going as well.

It was Mucher who typically made the trip to the conference, and Dan Gochenouer, the cemetery sexton and a road crewman, usually went with him. Neither Gochenouer nor Mucher were particularly excited about attending. It wasn’t that the conference was totally boring, Gochenouer said, but that it wasn’t especially helpful. Attendees usually have to sit through a few hours of presentations to get a few minutes’ worth of usable information, he said. The presentations usually consisted of guys from around the state talking about how they solved a problem or adapted equipment to the needs of their jurisdiction. While Gochenouer could appreciate their ingenuity from a professional standpoint, the lessons didn’t always apply to the needs of Miami Township. A speaker from Franklin County (which includes Ohio’s capital Columbus) discussed strategies needed to deal with its 770 miles of roads: around two million gallons of anti-winter liquids annually and the use of semi-trucks to spray. Miami Township, on the other hand, has less than fourteen miles of roads and three trucks, a fleet occasionally augmented by citizens who attach plows to their personal vehicles.
The first official road in Miami Township was laid out on March 3, 1822, though there were several “so-called roads” before then. Michael A. Broadstone writes that the roads improved year by year, and most were “at least graveled” when he penned his History of Greene County, Ohio in 1918. By 2015, the township had exactly 13.43 miles of roads, almost all of them paved.

Road maintenance is within the purview of the trustees, a duty that includes everything from filling potholes to maintaining culverts to full-scale winterization. Each spring the township develops a road budget based on the work anticipated for the year, prioritizing repairs on the worst roads and any new equipment that needs to be purchased. The township fleet was three trucks (two of which have dumping capabilities), one 26 year-old panel van, and a handful of tractors and lawnmowers.

Road maintenance is an ongoing project, and one that occasionally requires help. Trustee Chris Mucher said that sometimes neighboring Bath Township, which has a paving machine, will do a little work in Miami Township in trade for help with their needs in the future. Once in a while the county will determine that part of a road now lies in Miami Township, which may add to their mileage-based clout but also means that the township is responsible for maintaining that much more road.

Road repair requiring equipment the township doesn’t possess is contracted out to the county. Miami Township works with neighboring municipalities work together to make what is called a “collective bid” for their collective asphalting or resurfacing needs. Participating jurisdictions add up what needs to be done – a half-mile stretch here, a few hundred square yards there – and submit a report to the county, who contracts the work to a company as one job. Doing it this way allows municipalities to save money, as everyone getting work done at the same time splits the cost of mixing asphalt and dispatching trucks and police.

Miami Township also has the dubious distinction of hosting the first vehicular accident in Greene County. Lodrick Austin, a stagecoach driver, was killed when his coach overturned on Clifton Gorge Road in 1836. Austin is buried in Clifton Cemetery, and his tombstone features a horse and a coach, which honestly seems a little insulting.

Though vehicular accidents are of course a fact of life in Miami Township, the fact that none of the township’s roads permit speeds over 35 mph means the severity of an accident is usually pretty low. However, low speed limits or high, cars are no match for the wiles of nature. Like everywhere else in Ohio and across the United States, accidents occur in Miami Township with greater frequency in the winter. Snow and ice are indiscriminate perils, and all it takes is a small amount of snow, “a quarter inch of chaos,” according to a presenter at the AWPA conference, to throw a city into bedlam.

As little as a quarter inch of snow means erratic drivers, slick roads, and asphalt breaking apart as water freezes and expands. The prospect of this quarter inch of chaos also means a significant amount of preparation by the township. Salt has to be stockpiled, and later mixed with beet juice or turned into slurry to be more easily spread on roads. The township’s trucks, with their spreaders, sprayers, and dump buckets, almost certainly require maintenance. Potholes need to be filled, and bridges need to be inspected.

Regardless of season, road maintenance is a complex obligation. Though Mucher and Gochenouer were seasoned township veterans, there was always something to learn, couched as it may be in a day’s worth of presentations. It is because of this potential for helpful information that the two attended the 2015 AWPA Snow and Ice Removal Conference.
Gochenouer and Mucher met at the Township’s fleet garage to leave for the conference at 7am on September 29. They were both early.

They didn’t get into one of the township’s work pickups but into Mucher’s golden Chrysler minivan. “The Muchmobile,” as Gochenouer called it. Mucher said his van was frequently the de facto work vehicle as most of the township’s vehicles only have two seats. The Muchmobile crunched on the gravel and wound its way through the township to the highway.

Mucher didn’t have much experience winterizing cities when he became a trustee in 1996. He ran a video rental and film development business in Yellow Springs for over twenty years, before digital film and video streaming proved the “ultimate fatality” for his career. However, when he was still in business, he struck up a friendship with the guy who ran the hardware store across the street. The two would have coffee every morning, and they developed a mentor-mentee friendship. Mucher was interested in becoming more involved in the community, and the hardware store owner encouraged him to apply for a recently vacated trustee seat. Mucher submitted an application, had a few interviews, and was offered the position. It proved to be just what he was looking for, a “low impact political job” that carried a lot of responsibility but still left him time to run his own business and spend time with his wife and three kids. Once in office he read “every page of meeting minutes since 1934,” attended conventions and seminars, and read the Ohio Revised Code front to back. Mucher has been reelected every four years since then. Now he is able to talk about winterization both fluently yet dispassionately, the hallmark of an experienced professional.

Gochenouer has a perpetually sunburned neck, a moustache, and a Leatherman on his belt that he could readily employ in many different ways. He exuded hands-on experience of the kind that only a lifetime of fixing things can foster. Gochenouer’s tenure working for the township preceded Mucher’s. He was working part time until a long-time employee retired, allowing him to become the number two road crewman.

On the way to Sharonville, the two discussed other trade shows conferences they’d been to and whether or not free lunch was included. It wasn’t always. Registration for the 2015 Snow and Ice conference cost $35 per person but at least included lunch. The topic settled, the two lapsed into a short silence. The day was grey, chilly, with a steady rain. The heater hummed and the windshield wipers squeaked.

Conversation picked back up again a few minutes later.

“You working on that dandelion quote?” Mucher asked.
The abundance of dandelions in the township had to be dealt with.
“Some people eat them,” Gochenouer said.
True, Mucher said. And some people make wine out of them too. Then both admitted they weren’t sure which part of the dandelion was used for the winemaking process.

A little while later, Mucher indicated a passing belonging to Jurgenson Asphalt Co.
“There are your friends,” he said.
Gochenouer nodded.
“They’re the best,” he said, nodding with sincerity.

He would know. Gochenouer said he came from an asphalt background. For one, he has spent a lot of time driving on it, he joked. But more seriously, he said, he started working on an asphalt crew right after high school, one of the many labor and construction jobs he’s had from an early age. His dad always made sure he was working on different projects and was comfortable around all kinds of machines. The idea was that his skills and experience would ensure he was always employable. “If you’re not working, it’s because you don’t want to,” Gochenouer said.

A truck driving erratically on the highway prompted the mention that he’d also been a truck driver. He’d driven for twelve years, five of which were long-haul and required him to spend up to seven weeks on the road at a time. He lived in his truck, thousands of miles away from his family and home.

“You’d sit in a waiting room and they’d call your number when a shower was ready,” he said, recalling old truck stops. “The shower was free but you’d have to rent the towel.”

But it wasn’t all bad, he said. Sometimes he’d be on a layover for a few days before linking up with a series of deliveries that would take him back towards home. On these furloughs he and his fellow truckers would go out and explore whatever city they were waiting in. Gochenouer recalled the beauty of California in particular, and the fun of sitting behind the Hollywood sign drinking beer. He’d been run out of Beverly Hills once, he said, for not looking the part. A cop came up to him and asked him what he was doing. “I said I was just looking,” Gochenouer recalled, “and the cop said, ‘Well, you looked yet?’”

Snow and Ice - trucks
Forty minutes later, the Muchmobile pulled into the conference center parking lot. It was the lone minivan among rows of work trucks with maintenance department insignias. Inside the conference center were the trucks’ drivers, approximately three hundred men with closely cropped hair and goatees. Cellphones were universally clipped to belts, and neon t-shirts were worn in numbers rivaled only by those at an actual construction site. Sixty-five municipalities were represented at the conference, making it “pretty sizable for a local AWPA conference,” according to one organizer.

The conference was only one day long. The morning was divided into four 45-minute sessions. One of the sessions was earmarked for attendees to check out the showroom, but the other three sessions were presentations. Attendees were divided into four groups and rotated through the sessions. Mucher and Gochenouer were in Group 2, meaning that they went to the showroom first.

The conference organizers set out donuts and coffee. Both men took a donut and looked at the trucks. They were shiny and gigantic, but ultimately outside the needs of Miami Township. The township’s road budget for 2015 was approximately $50,000, and one of the middle-grade trucks cost at least twice that.

One company offered their services quantifying idle time. A rep said she did a study of one muncipality and found the time its vehicles spent idling cost the city around $50,000 each year. Plow-route optimization would lead to less idle time, and she could figure out how to optimize plow routes.

Mucher and Gochenouer made their rounds. Despite the entreaties of the sales reps, they left empty-handed.

The next two hours and fifteen minutes were dedicated to presentations. Mucher and Gochenouer sat in these sessions, polite but expressionless, casually listening for those few minutes of valuable information. Though a cell phone would occasionally go off (one ringtone was a very loud duck-quack) and at least one sleeping attendee could be spotted during each discussion, attendees were privy to much information, as a county’s snow and ice removal concerns are many:

Plows tend to throw snow onto the front of trucks, obscuring visibility and blocking air intakes, which can lead to overheating. Excess salt can cause to ‘salt burn,’ which damages agriculture and kills trees and leads to a ‘brown out’ when spring comes. Plow routes are based on continuous right hand turns, which is why a representative from Centerville maligned the town’s many cul-de-sacs. Plow teams are often on call for grueling twelve-hour shifts, though this is better than working for sixteen hours at a stretch, a schedule that employees “can’t really plan their lives around.” Sometimes, the ground will be so cold that even after the air temperature rises, rain will freeze shortly after impact. What is the proper mix of chemicals, salt, and water for slurry? Is salt brine or beet juice more effective? When and where are belly plows most useful? Is chloride-treated sand the best deicer for gravel roads? Are the township’s trucks calibrated properly, and are they actually putting out what their gauges say? “One thing we’ve been wrestling with for years are standard truck plugs,” said a guy from the Ohio Department of Transportation. Everyone in the audience laughed and nodded. “How many of you have replaced mailboxes?” another speaker asked. Almost everyone raised their hands.

The application of liquid deicers vs. solid salt is an ongoing debate. Liquids are better at getting roads bare but solid salt is more effective in warmer temperatures. (Both methods are said to have problematic environmental impacts.) A guy attending from Michigan related how he came back from his first conference with all of these crazy ideas about liquid spray. “My coworkers thought I was stoned or high,” he said. “They wanted to send me to get a drug test!” Rob Crimm from Morgan Township said his department “was just now getting into liquids.” They realized that mixing liquids or sometimes even sand with salt will help stretch their resources.

As Gochenouer predicted, the discussions didn’t offer universal solutions for these problems but presented the clever ways in which winter emergencies were addressed. Auglaise County faced the problem of equipment not mixing rock salt – “grit,” as the presenter called it – well enough into brine. There would still be large patches of ice on the road after it was dispersed, so he and his team retrofitted an asphalt hopper to mix it. The upgrade cost Auglaise County about $31,000 but now they mix 40,000 tons of salt brine per year and even rent out their salt mixing services, charging neighboring counties and agencies $13 per ton. (A fairly standard amount, he said.) The speaker also showed pictures of the custom beet juice tanks his department built for $600 each.

Diana Clonch’s roundtable was one of the four sessions, and she’d spent the morning spitballing with employees. She applauded the imagination she’d seen at the conference. “The more we learn, the more we know how to step outside the box,” she said. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Clonch was tall and broad-shouldered, and her long black hair was draped over her shoulder in a thick plait, like a military sash. (She was the past president of the OPWA Board.) She spoke simply but animatedly, like someone used to public speaking. She seemed friendly and successful, the likely demeanor of someone with degrees in civil engineering and business.

“Do not be ashamed to steal your neighbor’s ideas,” Clonch advised. “We’re all working together in the snow and ice community.”

Sometimes friendly rivalry between neighboring counties was a good thing, she said. Plowing a road cleanly all the way to the county line awards bragging rights when you can see the neighboring county hadn’t gotten to it yet. But more seriously, she said, working with other jurisdictions can be very beneficial because collaboration increases efficiency and saves money. After all, at the heart of it, it’s all for the benefit of the people that live there.

Snow and Ice - lunch

Clonch’s session was the last of the four for Group 2. The attendees walked straight into the two long lines of the lunch buffet. Hamburgers, baked beans, chicken, and macaroni and cheese. Plates full, they filed back into the showroom and sat around large folding tables. The tables were in turn surrounded by the trucks on display. It was like eating in a garage on the job.

Mucher and Gochenouer sat with a half-dozen guys, exchanging small talk. Not much more could be said. Anything they could say to each other on the topic of snow removal had likely already been covered in one of the earlier sessions, or had been part of the pitch rattled off by a sales rep. At this point, the conference was about as exciting as eating lunch in a garage that looked like the garage they spent time in every day. The Miami Township contingent decided to cut out after lunch, skipping Clonch’s keynote speech (“Doing the right thing at the right time”) and the recognition of the 2015 Excellence in Snow and Ice Control Award winner. They’d seen enough throughout the years in Miami Township to have a handle on what they had to do in the coming months.

They walked back to the Muchmobile silently, Gochenouer carrying a can of soda. They knew that, should some surprise crisis pop up, each could be counted on to address it with the professionalism that is an evident part of their bearing. Gochenouer was scrappy and smart; Mucher was thorough and direct. They’d been through two meetings’ worth of irate neighbors – what was a quarter inch of snow?

Update, Spring 2016: the winter of 2015-16 proved not to be that bad. Mucher said the township used about 25% the amount of salt normally used, they didn’t have to pay for outside plow help, and there were no significant vehicle repairs.

Interview with a Bean Sprout Proprietor

IMG_20150818_165826600.jpgRandy – Co-Owner of Spring Valley Farms, Xenia, Ohio – interview conducted August 2015

Randy has been growing bean sprouts for more than thirty years. I helped him with some roofing on one of the buildings on his farm, not knowing what kind of operation he had going. When he told me he grew nine thousand pounds of bean sprouts per week, I was floored. How does someone grow four and half tons of sprouts per week? What kind of operation is needed to grow such an niche product? How would one even get into the sprouts business? He was kind enough to let me interrogate him about the business of sprouts, and this is what he had to say:

In 1982 I was just getting out of the Peace Corps. My dad had bought a farm wanted to do something with property. So we decided to go into business together. He bought the farm originally to grow grapes but that didn’t pan out. At the time, we thought that to really promote your wines you had to have a festival, and that would mean you had to bring thousands of people here for a wine tasting. It was a major thing that we didn’t want to do. So we built a greenhouse and started growing herbs, tomatoes, watercress, European cucumbers. There was an emerging market for hydroponic lettuce so we started growing lettuce hydroponically. Every year we added a greenhouse and pretty soon we had 20,000 square feet of produce.

We sold produce wholesale. There’s a big produce market around, especially in Cincinnati because of the river. There’s an established warehouse district there. We knocked on doors and did cold calls. We were supplying the Meijer chain for a while. And then one of our alfalfa sprout growers lost their supplier and wanted a replacement and asked if we knew how to grow alfalfa sprouts. We didn’t but of course we said yes anyway. (Laughs)

We tried to build our own equipment and grow sprouts in the greenhouse, but it just didn’t work out. Months later we bought the right equipment and did it the way it really needs to be done. The alfalfa sprouts are grown in a large rotating drum. You add water and light, and they green up after a few hours. You load in about 80 pounds per drum, and you get about a 10- 15:1 ratio after about five days. They were used primarily for salad bars, sandwich shops.

The green sprouts (alfalfa) business declined. A lot of the chain grocery stores dropped green sprouts – the green alfalfa sprout has an inherent problem with salmonella and E.coli. The structure of the seed has more crevices for bacteria to hide. We got out of alfalfa ten years ago but alfalfa sprouts led to us see the market for bean sprouts. The bean sprout market is pretty good – a lot of Asian markets and grocery stores.

Bean sprouts are a highly perishable product so there aren’t a lot of growers around. They can’t bring a decent bean sprout in from another state without paying huge shipping costs, so it favors the local grower. You want to get them sold within two days of harvest, and they need to be consumed within 10 to 14 days. I think the distributors we use ship in some sprouts from Chicago and I know there’s a grower in Columbus, but he only has a few sales in Dayton.

The process we use is unique to bean sprouts. The equipment we have is specifically for growing them. We’ll load up 110 pounds of seeds in a 3’ x 4’ x 4’ bin. The bean seeds themselves come from China. I don’t know why – maybe they grow the best beans? The bins are in a dark room and we spray them with water every two hours. We do a test and send it to a lab in Cincinnati twice a week to test for E.coli and salmonella to make sure the product is safe. We have a recycling system that cleans 80 percent of the water we use. The beans sprout on the bottom and push successive layers to the top. Kind of like they’re in dirt. On the sixth day of the process, we process them, package them, and put them in a cooler. We ship them on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. We sell about 9000 pounds per week. It’s an amazingly big market. (Laughs) And that’s just the Dayton and Cincinnati area.

(Let me interject and say that a bin full of fully sprouted sprouts is totally surreal – the bins are four feet tall and are completely, completely packed with sprouts. You can reach your hand in and it’s this weird tangle of dense but loose sprouts with seemingly no end. They are so dense that you could probably walk on them. The bins are in a dark, damp room, and standing on a bucket and peering over the top into a bin and seeing an ocean of yellow-green fibers makes for a really odd sight. Not to mention that if you opened the vertical door on one of the bins, a few hundred pounds of sprouts would avalanche out and cover you in their watery, earthy essence. Maybe I’m just used to seeing them in small cartons in grocery stores, so the sheer amount of sprouts in one place is hard to process, not to mention that this is just one of seven bins.)

It’s been a nice business. It’s profitable, the market’s consistent, and it grows. But it takes a lot of commitment. Someone has to be here every day to check on them. We have alarms for malfunctioning pumps In fact, the most catastrophic event we experienced was when the computer that controls the watering cycle broke down last winter. I had to come in every two hours for a whole week and push the watering server bar over the bins by hand. I had help doing it during the day but I had to stay overnight every night and get up every two hours to do it. That’s the thing about small businesses – you make enough to survive, but a lot of times you don’t make enough to pay a manager to take responsibility for things. (Laughs) The responsibility comes back to me.

I graduated from college with a degree in Zoology. I had never even tasted sprouts before we started. In the Peace Corps I was raising fish – it was a kind of farming, but I really had no experience with growing. I learned my business sense along the way. Raising sprouts isn’t something I ever saw myself doing, but isn’t that how most people end up in life – not really doing what they thought they were going to do?

 

 

 

 

 

Out of Something, Nothing: My Summer as a Professional Mover, part VI

VI.

That I complain a lot about my fairly trouble-free life notwithstanding, what did I ultimately learn from my summer as a mover? I’m not sure. Maybe to make sure you tip your movers but know that they probably said things so offensive that you’d weep if you heard them? My thoughts on the default goodness or evil of human nature tilted in favor of the latter after seeing that verbal and physical violence can be so easily provoked, but in reality people are prone to be jerks regardless of job or lot in life. Moving is just another stage on which the often sketchy human drama plays out.

Relatedly, however, also came to learn that sometimes a job is just a job. A job doesn’t always yield some sort of fascinating insight. You get up, you go to work, and you to do what you’re told. Sometimes there isn’t much room for a job to be much more than the duties that comprise it, especially in a let’s-get-this-done-as-fast-as-possible profession like moving. My assignment as an embedded writer made me want to take up a different hobby.

And it’s precisely because of these sorts of demands that workers are so demoralized and psychotic. It was depressing to see yet again the utterly impersonal nature of business. Most of the employees were considered totally replaceable and treated accordingly. How much dissatisfaction and struggling to get by does it take before a person does something outrageous in an attempt to combat the drudgery? How much dignity can be taken away from someone before he bullies his coworkers in an attempt to feel he has power as a human being? And what if you are bound to stay in such an environment by necessity? In short, how much moving can one man take?

To me, the essays in Studs Terkel’s books function as a kind of vindication for situations that seem to be devoid of hope. The books convey the tenuous hope that there is a reason you spend years doing an ostensibly unglamorous job, that your story deserves to be recorded. You have to try to make work meaningful to contend with the fact that you are forced to do something you might not like for the majority of your life.

I tried keep this rationale in mind while working as a mover and toxic mold remover and factory line-worker. It wasn’t about trying to work my way up a ladder but to try to carve out a work-life free from boredom and resignation. The unpleasant misadventures of moving were the price I figured I had to pay to stave off becoming a part of the regular nine-to-five society. At least the jobs would be something to talk about, something to make it feel like I wasn’t compromising my mobility, my spontaneity, my sense of adventure just to abide by the lifestyle dictated by the Man.

But I’d also worry that I was constantly reassuring myself I was doing a good thing. Yes, I was trying new things, but after a day of moving I would often be grumpy and unhappy and have to completely zone out to decompress, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted that bitterness to be a consistent part of my life.

About a year after I quit moving I found myself working in a run-of-the-mill office. Every day I went to my cubicle where I did the same few things. Truthfully, it was a step up from moving. I could take breaks whenever I wanted, I had a set schedule, I had three weeks of paid vacation and inexpensive health insurance.I was trusted to work by myself, and my unit’s boss even bought us a French press when I complained about the coffee at every meeting. (The “coffee” was the discharge of a machine that pumped boiling water through a can of coffee-flavored syrup.) My coworkers weren’t violent muscleheads; a disagreement we had about global warming ended peacefully when a coworker suggested in earnest that instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, money would be better spent on developing nuclear-powered cars.

The office was entertaining and weird and eye-opening for a while, but it too quickly grew stale. One day we were called to a meeting where my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss – no joke about the ladder of bosses – flat out told my department that our position at the company would never change. We would never be given more challenging work and we would certainly never earn more money. I appreciated their honesty but I was shocked that they were so sure of our immobility that they had nothing to lose by telling us we would be staying put.

Point made. I’d always wanted to do maintenance, and fortunately a job came available in that field right at the height of my desperation to leave the office. (My desperation was such that I even called the moving company to see if they were hiring.) I was introduced to the atmosphere of my new workplace when a coworker told me he didn’t have headache from drinking but from “eating too much pussy.” His tasteless non-sequiturs encapsulated the obnoxious yet strangely compelling madness that would be the next eight months of my life. Onwards and upwards!

Have I doomed myself to a life without professional fulfillment by not focusing on something I really like, or am I livin’ free by seeing the world, employment-wise? Did the complex emotional turmoil of my summer as professional a mover help answer this question? I still haven’t come to a definitive answer, but I’m sure insight will come with the next job, or the one after that.

Out of Something, Nothing: My Summer as a Professional Mover, part V

V.

It wasn’t uncommon for homeowners to give away outrageous stuff that didn’t have a place in the new house. One family gave away not one but two enormous old-school big-screen televisions. (“Big Boys,” in mover parlance.)  Customers gave away gaming tables; others gave grills, chairs, desks; others gave away furniture whose sheer size cancelled out any question about its quality. As a result, a lot of the movers had become de facto experts on home furnishings. It was hilarious to hear curse-ridden debates about the merits of one brand of easy chair versus another. Tough dudes were constantly bragging that their houses were better furnished than yours.

It makes sense that the amount of time working around furniture is proportional to one’s knowledge of furniture. The same can be said of the irascibility of the average mover relative to time worked. Essentially, the longer someone was a mover, the grumpier he’ll be.

There were a handful of people that had been with the company for at least eight years and had earned the right to act like it. They approached everything you did with an extremely critical eye. They’d worked with every kind of employee, and they were justified in not wanting to work with people who weren’t going to pull their weight.

On my first day, I was shown that the proper way to work is to pick something up and move it as quickly as you can to the truck. Like, run-with-it quickly. You’d then hand it to the guy packing the truck (if your crew was big enough to have a packer) or stash it yourself, and then run back into the house to grab more stuff to run right back out to the truck. Running was the routine all day, every day.

When I worked with a couple of veterans for the first time, I learned that you move the largest, heaviest, most unwieldy pieces with the same speed. I was practically pushed backwards down the stairs carrying a bookshelf and I tripped over my feet as I was driven along by a washing machine shoved into my chest. That was just the way they worked, and if you didn’t want to get on their bad side, you had to learn to move as quickly and nimbly as they did.[1]

This approach served me well later when I moved myself or helped a friend. Picking up a box and running with it was reflexive. My brother’s roommate still talks appreciatively about how quickly her move went when I was there to help, though she also still laughs at the sight of a guy frantically running around the property with a series of large boxes.

One coworker was unphased by the work of a house mover because he had just transferred from an outfit that exclusively moved pianos. We were (un)lucky if we moved a piano once every couple of weeks, but this guy dealt with multiple pianos on a daily basis. Working with pianos every day definitely didn’t make it easier, he explained, shuddering. Pianos were pianos. He was a nice guy by nature, but his good moods and enthusiasm were endearing because he legitimately appreciated that he was now moving a variety of things.[2]

One guy I actually really liked was from Boston, and I had the good fortune of being assigned to work with him pretty frequently. I liked working with him because he didn’t care about what anybody thought, not in an overly tough kind of way but because he couldn’t be bothered to be bothered by anything he didn’t want to bother him. He was short and thick and had a crew cut. He boasted a few scars and his rough n’ tumble mug was made handsome by his bad boy charm. His speech was peppered with a bunch of New England slang and he said he’d been to prison, but he mentioned this in a way that was free of bluster or yearning for credibility. Being in prison was a life experience just like any other. He was a pretty matter-of-fact guy.

Having someone open up to me about the fact that he was at one point in – gasp! – jail was flattering for its implied trust and because it also satisfied my voyeuristic interest in the prison experience. Feelings of my own toughness were made a little more tangible by the fact that we were driving around in a truck talking about it and smoking cigarettes. He noted that I smoked “rollies,” as I was rolling my own. I silently freaked out over the term, and I immediately began using the term among my friends, really casually like I’d always called them that. (I’m not a smoker, but in keeping with my obsession with being a real workin’ man, I smoked a few packs that summer.) He told me about prison smuggling operations, work-release programs, and inmate cliques. He told me that he had briefly taken up writing in prison and had produced forty pages of a crime novel. He hadn’t picked it up after that and didn’t seem to have much interest in doing so, but the manuscript was stashed somewhere in his house.

BUT there is the possibility that he wasn’t in jail at all. Some of the things he said were prison stereotypes of the kind that can be picked up from any TV show. For example: prison chess matches. He said he watched the archetypical bookish prisoner play against ten people at once, and he’d inevitably win all the games. He also told me with a straight face about the dinners he and his fellow inmates cooked, which were apparently the stuff of legend. Everyone had a specific function – one guy took care of the pasta, one guy cooked the sausage, and the guy in charge of the sauce had this technique where he would shave garlic into paper-thin slices with a razor blade so they would dissolve in oil. I was quite familiar with this scene as it appears exactly as he described in the movie Goodfellas, which was released in 1990 to widespread acclaim. I don’t know if he thought I hadn’t seen the movie or if he was somehow “testing” me to see if I would call his bluff, but I acted like it was true.

When a good conversation was underway, I could tell he knew it. The occasional look of appreciation would be exchanged, quickly followed by the sarcasm typical to male bonding. Sometimes it was hard to tell if his sarcasm was friendly or a way to tell me to shut up without actually doing so. I was always on guard that I was getting on his nerves. I had a good thing going with someone and I didn’t want to blow it. Sometimes we’d ride in silence for a while and I’d wonder if I’d been too eager to talk but then he’d bring up the aggravating traits of a coworker, and we’d bond again over our mutual annoyance.

****

[1] New people were told that anything they broke came out of their paycheck. You were encouraged to be careful by the possibility that your entire week’s wages could vanish in a second if you accidently dropped a TV. In reality this wasn’t true. The company’s insurance paid for any damages. Good thing because at what we were paid, compensating someone for something expensive would have taken months. The only thing I ever broke was a huge mirror that I propped up poorly inside a truck. The client brushed it off as a no big deal but his mom made sure that it was replaced by the company, not that it was especially valuable but why wouldn’t you want to get a free replacement or a small check?)

[2] How moving a piano works: For small pianos, like the kind in your grandparents’ house, you bring in a four-wheeled piece of plastic or wood to sit the piano on. You have to pick up the piano to set it on the dolly, but you can at least wheel it once it is secured. Sometimes we’d make a ramp and wheel the piano on the board down the steps, but this was only if the steps weren’t steep. A lot of times people had pianos on their second floor, where the only way to move it was to pick it up and carry it down the steps. (You’d have to take care not to let the spindly legs sticking off of the keyboard get caught on anything.) For grand and baby grand pianos, you’d bring in a padded board that looks appropriately like the backboards used by ambulance crews. You unscrew the piano’s legs – one person unscrews while two tilt the piano – and then flip the piano ninety degrees onto the piano board. The piano is strapped down and then lifted onto a dolly or – surprise! – carried down the stairs.