Archive for September, 2008


landscape inspirations

Fresh Kills is undoubtedly the best (because improbably and absurdly) named landfill in the country. I vividly remember a friend’s speechless incredulity on hearing me refer to it casually. Fresh Kills? You’ve got to be kidding! The fact that it’s simply named after the body of water immediately adjacent to it doesn’t make the name any less fantastic.

View of the Arthur Kills

View of the Arthur Kill from the Garbage Summit

In this respect, Fresh Kills stands in marked contrast to the vast majority of landfills, which tend to have such innocuous names you half expect to see a gated community sprouting on top at any moment. For instance, the list of landfills that lie in the path of destruction of Hurricane Ike reads as follows: Atascocita, Addicks Fairbanks, Baytown, Cougar, Coastal Plains, Conroe 7, Greenshadows, Hawthorne Park, Newton County, and Security. Greenshadows, indeed.

A friend of mine once asked me to find information about the landfill nearest her house, something with “pines” in the name. I quickly discovered that there are various landfills throughout the nation called White Pines. And then there is Whispering Pines, Two Pines, Tall Pines, Gulf Pines, and just plain The Pines.

Just for fun, I thought I’d try to find a beech landfill and yes indeed. There’s Beech Hollow and Beech Hill. Oak nets me a few more choices: Black Oak, Red Oak, White Oak, Live Oak, East Oak, and Fair Oak landfills.  Birch is much less appealing, yielding only a paltry River Birch landfill. I won’t bore you with chestnut, redwood, and other tree landfills.

I’m not sure I understand this arboreal affinity, but one thing I would bet money on: we’re not likely to soon see a noir thriller named Whispering Pines or Beech Hollow. We do, however, have a choice of two different exemplars of the genre for Fresh Kills. Not that the plot of either has anything to do with landfill or the putrescibles typically tucked away in them. New York City’s venerable dump is little more than atmospheric wallpaper in both fables, setting a delectably morose tone, and wafting a bad, bad breeze over their unlikely proceedings.

Reggie Nadelson’s Fresh Kills (2006) is the tale of a Russian cop who makes a mess of his babysitting responsibilities, leaving a psychopathic pre-teen nephew unsupervised on multiple occasions in one short weekend, by sheer neglect and stubborn denial. The consequences are not pleasant. To make up for his poor performance as a responsible adult, he participates in the kid’s execution in the novel’s denouement. There’s absolutely no connection with Fresh Kills except that a portion of the overwrought activities takes place on Staten Island, and it is apparently not possible to talk about Staten Island without mentioning its most famous monument.

Flare on Fresh Kills Landfill

Flare on Fresh Kills Landfill

Bill Loehfelm’s Fresh Kills, just out, starts in a similar vein. A young man’s dad–an abusive drunk with a nasty streak–is blown away in a mafia hit, in front of a Staten Island deli. The young man, having inherited the nasty streak, goes about terrorizing the dimwitted end of the local high-school population in a half-hearted attempt to find the goons responsible. The effort comes to nought, as the hero is waylaid by alcoholic temptations and ex-girlfriends. Somewhere in its bloated midsection, the novel miraculously transforms itself into chick lit, and our young man slouches off into the sunset firmly ensconced in the loving arms of the dimwits’ teacher.

Unlike Nadelson, Loehfelm does appear to have more than passing acquaintance with the famous earthworks:

They try to hide it, wall it off with dirt mounds covered in scraggly greenery. They try to ignore it, running the West Shore Expressway right through the middle of it. They brag about herons and egrets nesting in the waterways behind it. They hunt the rats every night. But you can’t hide it. How can you hide millions upon millions of tons of fucking garbage? Because that’s what it is. Millions and millions of tons, acres upon acres, of fucking garbage.

Every day of the year, you can see thousands of gulls circling over it, hovering like a noxious cloud. A vermin halo staring down beady-eyed and ravenous for some guy’s month-old Chinese food from over in Bensonhurst. You can hear them fighting, screeching and squawking, clawing and snapping at dead dogs from the Upper East Side. In August, when the hot sun returns after a good, hard rain, and cooks up the Dump real good, there nowhere on the island you can’t smell it. It reeks to high heaven of waste, of all things thrown away and buried, things that have reached the end of the chain and no longer have a single use left to them. Things stuffed into black plastic bags and metal cans and hauled away by huge, rumbling, stinking trucks at the crack of dawn.

But on Staten Island? Those thrown-away things? They live here forever, baby. And they stink. It’s the stench of Eternal Life. Old diapers never die, they just move to Staten Island. All these thrown-away things, they come back, life a fat, farting, rancid ghost that sits its fat, dead self right on top of the island, and lingers long enough for all of us to breathe it in.

Obviously, Loehfelm feels pretty strongly about the situation. Nevertheless, all of this intensity can’t hide the fact that the novel really doesn’t have anything to do with Fresh Kills. This is very disappointing, given the history of crime and corruption that envelops New York City’s garbage.

Surely a magnificent thriller lurks in the city’s fetid spoils, and I can hardly wait to read it.



Ivy, the Hog

Ivy, the Hog

I’m in Pescadero on the California Coast for a few days and find myself next door to a gigantic and very dusty pig.  Ivy looks almost too heavy for her stumpy legs. When I walk by, she strugggles upright, legs about to buckle, hooves splayed out like much-abused shoes, skin folded into a leathery carapace like that of a rhino. She grunts and snorts at every lumbering step, inviting me to offer alms.

Even lying down appears to be strenuous exercise, given her bulk. She carefully bends one knee and allows herself to list sideways a little, hesitating just a second before she gives way and keels over in a cloud of dust. She is a powerful warning against gluttony.

It may not be practical for every family to keep a pig, but it does occur to me that considerably less garbage would find its way to the landfill with an Ivy to take care of the vegetable leftovers. She eats everything except cabbage. While her diet is essentially the same, not counting the cabbage, she is certainly far more efficient than my modest little worms, if distinctly more odoriferous.

Oklahoma City's 1930s Piggery

Oklahoma City's Piggery (1930s)

Early in the 20th century, many towns in the US kept piggeries as the most economical waste management solution, perhaps inspired by the roaming pigs that kept house in the streets of New York City until the 1880s and 90s, as well as the many clandestine stationary hogs that many poor people stashed in cellars and hallways as a cheap source of protein.

Just this morning I heard on the radio that Al Gore advises us to cut out at least one dish of meat from our diet every week, to help curb global warming. I suppose a swill-fed Ivy could still deliver a guilt-free carnivorous feast. On the other hand, as I contemplate this hog snorting up a puff of dust in her carefully moulded dirt bed, it is apparent to me why various cultures consider pork unclean.

September 2008
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