Saturday, August 30, 2014

Kickin' Up To The Catcher; or, A Trashy And Worthy Hierarchy

This post's title is deliberately a la 19th century popular literature to suggest the antiquity of the subject matter.  I'll be discussing trash collecting 1950s style as it was in Upper Darby Township, PA.  I do this, I suppose, for a few reasons.  First, I want to clarify what "trash" meant in that place in those days.  Second, and the main body of the post, is the manner and personnel (the hierarchy) involved in the collection.  And, perhaps as a kind of assessment, finally a comment on how we think of "waste removal" these days and the difference it has made in how we view our place in our culture.

I got this summer job on the trash collection detail in my home township quite luckily, believe it or not.  I was in high school, needed the cash and the physical nature of the job was good conditioning for football.  Somehow a connection was made (probably my father).  But never mind that. Let's talk (and clarify) "trash."  The easiest way to explain that is to tell what it wasn't—"garbage."  Two very distinct, if-you-mix-garbage-in-your-trash-we-trash-your-can terms.  Garbage was what today we call biodegradable waste, which in those days was mostly kitchen waste.  The garbage was kept in a small can and was collected at the curb by the garbage truck on a different day.  And, rather than being taken somewhere to biodegrade, the trucks traveled across the Franklin bridge to various hog farms in southern NJ where the garbage became hog slop. I suppose it was a kind of biodegrading.  In any case,  it kept the garbage off my feet as I stood in the bay.   Incidentally,  you would definitely not have any grass clippings in your trash either.  The smell of week-old, wet grass clippings that have been mouldering in a closed can will stay in your nostrils all day, and your can would suffer crushing consequences.  The reasons for these distinctions are in the manner of the collection.

In those days, back-end loaders (which are ubiquitous today) were just beginning to appear.  In our group only the most favored personnel got to work on them.  Those of us newcomers and less-favored drones worked on the kickup trucks.  These utility behemoths were 10 feet high, top of bay to road surface.  The bays were about 16'x10' and each held whole neighborhoods of trash.  When empty, where the "catcher stood," a gate near the front swung down.  The catcher grabbed or caught (as the bay filled with trash) bags and cans of trash thrown to him by the "kickup" guy on the road.  As the load increased in depth (or height), the gate was closed, and the actual kickin' up began.

Kickin' up involves a continuous motion, beginning with tilting the container on its edge, tucking the foot under and kicking the leg up as high as possible to grab the can underneath and on top. That's what most of us newcomers did as we walked along.  As the load reached the upper edge of the bay, in order to maximize the load, the catcher would stack bags of trash to increase the load size.    Incidentally, the the weight of a curb-side container could easily reach 50 or 60 pounds, and some people used 50 gallon drums as trash containers. We did not like those people.  Chief honcho in this truck hierarchy was the driver, who earned his position by virtue of time served, fealty to the job and an innate sense of when the load was ready for the dump (along with a sense of being hungry and thirsty).

This procedure seems perfunctory, to say the least, I'm sure.  But the catcher, the guy standing knee deep in the public's leavings (allow your imaginations to run wild on "leavings"), needed a keen eye and quick reflexes.  And the kickup guy needed to be certain to shout out the nature and weight of what was being kicked up (he needed, for example to remember to check the contents of the can or bag either to leave it at the curb or to let the catcher know what was coming his way...especially regarding weight).  As the truck moved to a new location the catcher would dig through the leavings looking for exchangeable metals, jewelry and—especially!—gold dentures (yes they do get tossed).  These exchangeables were tucked carefully in a spot near the driver's cab.  When the driver got to the dump, he checked in at the exchange (it wasn't actually called that, but that's what it was, like a pawn shop), and collected whatever the stuff was worth.  The entire crew benefitted from the haul, according to the hierarchy: The guys in the street got the least, then the catchers, and finally the driver...not unlike the shares distribution on a whaling ship.

The procedure was exhausting, but I've always felt it was one of the most satisfying jobs I've ever had (being young, healthy and in good physical shape at the time).  Get to the headquarters—"the yard"—at 6:30, wait for the yard boss to distribute the crews for the first loads (the crews shifted trucks usually after each run to the dump, as loaded trucks left, empty trucks arrived, etc.).  The money was fair, and the extra cash from the exchanges always felt good and was a good motivator.  A person was wise to keep his conversation to a minimum, unless the driver felt like chatting.  I liked it because it was simple:  Do the work and get compensated.  I can't say that about all the jobs I had over the years.

If you got this far you're probably struggling to figure a reason for this casual history.  On the surface what you've read through is not ground breaking information.  But beyond the surface, perhaps there is a pathetic discovery.  Garbage collection as I experienced it involved a communal awareness, aboard the trucks and among the crews, and also within the community being serviced.  Everyone had a sense of being a part of a procedure, and everyone had a sense that the procedure was more than the removal of waste; it was the collection of leavings. Was this conscious?  I doubt it—especially for some of the full timers in the crew.  But when I think back on the conversations and the commentary among the crew about the neighborhoods and the personally directed cursing when they found garbage or grass clippings in the leavings, I have this feeling that the job was something more than a mechanical removing.  When you stood knee-deep in the leavings you got to know the neighborhoods in ways that the mechanized procedures of today can't.

I'm not sure that we have experienced progress with waste removal.  Something very human is missing without the kickup guy and the catcher and the driver.  It was much more than a mechanical arm swinging down to grab a container.  It was called a crew for a reason

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Gray Matters

When he and I are in the same company, my nephew—who seems to need an audience to feel whole—entertains himself and sometimes others by taking comic jabs at me.  I smile, sometimes offer a retort, but mostly wonder how he feels when he is alone at 3:00 a.m.

But on one significant occasion, while a few of us usually scattered family members were gathered in the hospital during his mother’s, my sister’s final hours, in a context of optimism v. pessimism, my nephew uttered what I feel is the most accurate summary of my personality I’ve ever heard:  “Some people see the glass half-full, and some see it half-empty.  Uncle Rog sees the glass half-gray.”  Everyone, especially me, roared with laughter.  It was a compellingly cathartic interlude.

I think most in the group associated the description with my crêpe-hanging, Eeyorish attitude.  And I accepted that.  Why not?  But today, from a letter to the editor of the Times, I discovered what is probably my reason for focusing on the gray.

We live in a time when we crave black-and-white certainty, as reflected in the obsession with quantification. The humanities teach us how to live, thrive and find meaning in a world that is painted in multiple shades of gray.  BEATRICE REHL
New York, Aug. 16, 2014”  (emphasis added to this excerpt)
And there it was, glowing like a red-hot branding iron, a summary of my personal perspective, testifying to why the humanities have played such a central role in my life.  They guided me through my academic career, during which I eschewed the majority theories, and explored, applied and wrote of the source evidence that contradicted the majority theories.
I take comfort in my idea that questioning the accepted ideas is what makes us become better, more human, less accepting and ultimately, as Ms Rehl indicates, thriving as we find meaning in our lives.  In short, the humanities provide us with access to rise from quantitative certainty into qualitative ambiguity, to experience self-transcendence in our world of separation into nodes of self-absorption.
Unfortunately, this praise of the humanities also serves as its eulogy.  The forces driving our society and our culture see little value in the quality of ambiguity.  Ambiguity, in its nature, offers no opportunity for metrics.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Succulence of the Bitter Heart

America needs to heed his words.  He envisioned

"a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, 'Is it good, friend?'
'It is bitter—bitter,' he answered;
'But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.'"

Americans have had a tough time with this young writer who died at age 28.  They loved his romanticized war novel, The Red Badge of Courage, but not so much Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, a naturalistic portrait of the deceit and manipulation of America's juvenile optimism and faith that hope springs eternal...for everyone!...unless you're poor.  In fact, Crane demonstrates that the poor, in their desperation, are the ready prey for the grifters and con artists, even when they're dressed as benefactors (see my post, "The Paul Vallas Scam").

I've always been impressed by the difference between the great admirers of Crane and the lukewarmers among prominent American writers.  When you read some of the stories, like "The Blue Hotel" and "The Open Boat", you understand that he had grown to accept the taste of the bitter heart.

I've always admired another of his poems (which I've quoted here in a previous post); I think it represents an expansion of his vision to include everything.

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Dangerous Thinking

Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway. As long as it doesn't break off, thinking has a secure hold on possibility.  . . . Open thinking points beyond itself.
Theodor Adorno

That is, there are no dangerous thoughts for the simple reason that thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise.  . . . nonthinking is even more dangerous.
Hannah Arendt

Quoted to begin "Thinking Dangerously in An Age of Political Betrayal", a very thorough and engaging essay by Henry A. Giroux, that will make you question everything from what actual learning is to the whimper of a decaying culture.

Below are some other mots justes:

• Insofar as the laws of mathematics are certain, they do not refer to reality; and insofar as they refer to reality, they are not certain…The important thing is not to stop questioning. - Albert Einstein
The utmost extent of man's knowledge, is to know that he knows nothing. - Joseph Addison

  When students cheat on exams, it's because our school system values grades more than students value learning. - Neil deGrasse Tyson

   Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers. – Voltaire

 What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. - Christopher Hitchens

   To fear death is to think that we know what we do not know. - Socrates

[Source:  Generation Terrorists, a marvelous place to wander through]

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Voices of Reason

Here are voices of reason who want to provide better access to education for EVERYONE.

Jonathan Pelto and Ebony Murphy have decided that it's time that the truth about education reform should be brought to the attention of the tax payers by way of the ballot box.

It's the way reform is supposed to happen in a democracy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

You, Them And Facebook, Et Al

As I read Jaron Lanier's op-ed today, I considered writing  a brief response.  I knew that would be problematic, not only because most of what I write is typically not brief, but also because I would seem once again and unnecessarily to be curmudgeonly negative about the culture I happen to live in.  So I let it rest.  But that also bothered me.  I have something to say to all the lemmings rushing to be friended or followed or linkedin or tweeted, groping and grasping for a "social" beingness to assure them of their ontology.

See.  That's why I hesitated to write something.  I get going about how people need to think about what they're really themselves.  But they think or, I guess, believe that places like Facebook, and Twitter and Quora and even Wattpad simply want to facilitate their sense of social well being, what used to be called "popularity."

But while I scanned the recent visits to my posts for this week, I discovered that I had already written about this.   See my post for Monday, September 16, 2013.

But I think the Lanier piece does a better job of explaining to us just how manipulative the avarice of social media can be.  He's kind of an interesting person.  He works in the world of online media and has acquired some opprobrium from the online hawks out there.  But I think they don't read hm carefully.  As this current piece suggests (and to paraphrase Shakespeare), he wants us to understand that the fault is not so much in the purveyors of social media but in ourselves from our lack of judiciousness.

Oh, almost forgot.  Disclaimer:  As you might have guessed from what this blog's banner says, having multitudes of friends and followers has never been one of my top priorities.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Big Data for Social Good

Disclaimer: I am neither a computer scientist nor a data scientist, nor a statistician.  Moreover, I assume, like most people I am conflicted about whether Big Data is a benevolent master or a malevolent servant, infecting what's left of the good parts of being human.

All that said, I had a look at this video by Drew Conway (who happens to be my son) on how Big Data can and should be used for social good.  And in his view the heavy lifting of analysis and application so far has been done by volunteers, so it doesn't need a lot of money.  Have a look.  It's about 25 minutes long, and it's not full of esoteric vocabulary and complex theories.

Things can get better.  But we need to want them to.