"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 15 June 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Garbage in, Garbage in



The Recycling Era meets the

Auction Economy, our every

possession becomes fuel for

either environmental virtue or

deluded greed, and the

soul-tempering nihilism of

simple disposal grows as rare as

a dot-com with a P/E ratio of

less than 50. So far, neither

Milton Friedman nor Mata

Amritanandamayi seem

particularly worried about the

widespread fodder retention that

now afflicts the civic body, but

we can't help thinking it's

bound to have grave psychic

consequences sooner or later.


Environmental proctologists will

no doubt scoff at such notions.

After all, the average American

still produces more than 4 pounds of

garbage a day, and each year, an

11-billion-ton waste stream —

composed of municipal sludge,

nonhazardous industrial

muck, automobile salvage

effluvia, construction-site

leftovers, junk that Joel Silver

blew up, and remaindered copies

of Monica's Story — oozes

into our dumps and landfills. In

the face of so much crap, one

might wonder how much impact the

bottles-only trash bin at your

local cafe and a couple of million

eBay junkies actually can make.


Well, apparently more than you'd

think. In New Jersey, several

counties that built expensive

waste management facilities in

the wake of the late-'80s

"garbage crisis" are now as

trash-starved as a John Waters

fan forced to watch endless

episodes of 7th Heaven.

According to esteemed

garbalogist Dr. William Rathje,

these counties were depending on

a steady flow of filth in order

to pay off the debts they incurred

while building their state-of-the-art

facilities; unfortunately, there are

now more waste management

facilities than there is waste to

manage, and many New Jersey

cities and private haulers are

forsaking their indigenous

dumps in favor of cheaper,

out-of-state trash palaces.



In an apparent effort to dodge a

similar fate, New York City is

doing all it can to prepare for

its trash-free future. In early

May, the city shut down its last

municipal incinerator. As of 31

December 2001, the legendary

Fresh Kills landfill on Staten

Island will also close, leaving

the Big Apple with no

self-sufficient means for

disposing of its trash. Until

recently, its putative plan was

to pay desperate, cash-strapped

garbage whores like Virginia and

Pennsylvania to accommodate the

12,000 tons of sophisticated,

big-city crud it produces each

day. But after Rudy Giuliani

implied that these states

actually had an obligation to

serve as the city's giant,

personal trash can —

because, after all, it was New

York that gave the world Cats

and Tama Janowitz — the

states have had a change of

heart and may not accept the

awful Mayor's offal after all.

Giuliani, for his part, appears

unperturbed. Perhaps he's

realized that paying other

states to take his trash lacks

that characteristic New York

ballsiness; a much better plan

would simply be to elevate NYC's

garbage to "souvenir" status and sell

it to unsuspecting e-tourists.


Of course, there's stuff even

eBay's most indiscriminate

bidders won't touch. But in the

new "Garbage in, Garbage in"

Weltanschauung, such dreck is

nonetheless safe from disposal.

Indeed, ever since Nicholson

Baker penned his widely read

paean to obsolete library card

catalogs, it's become

increasingly difficult to just

dump something. Consider the

fate of California's textbooks.

Thanks to a rare infusion of

state funds, school districts

all over California are purging

hundreds of thousands of

outdated, sexist, racist, and

just plain smelly volumes from

their library shelves. The

media's coverage of this latest

case of bibliocide has prompted

at least one earnest call for

scholarly mercy: A professor

from the University of New

Hampshire has suggested that the

books be saved because of the

historical perspective they can

offer children. Apparently he

thinks that by allowing kids to

ignore the same booger-smeared

tomes that their parents ignored

when they were kids, today's

students will have a much better

grasp of why Mom and Dad are

such boorish idiots. Or

something like that....



And as for those who'd like to

preserve books with titles like

Things a Boy Can Do with

Electricity and R Is for Redskin

as a shameful memorial to the

institutionalized sexism and

racism that helped make this

country what it is today, why

bother? There are plenty of much

timelier examples of such

egregiousness — we say make

way for the new! Indeed, even

with today's increasingly

efficient storage media, there's

only so much space on the

shelves of history, and very few

of our efforts, in the end, are

worth preserving. In other

words, obsessive-compulsives may

write wonderful essays, but do

we really want them curating the

past? Ultimately, the most

interesting thing to come out of

the card catalog controversy

that Nicholson Baker chronicled

in "Discards" was the essay

itself. As he rhapsodized in his

meticulous prose about the

"secondary information" that

would be lost when wrinkled,

crinkled, color-coded, annotated

cards were jettisoned in favor

of online catalogs, it all

sounded pretty compelling. But

what, really, did the

"expressive dirt bands" of those

cards tell us, except that the

hand-washing habits of many

mid-century library patrons

weren't exactly up to snuff?

Frankly, that's the kind of

"secondary information" we could

have done without.


California artist Michael Asher

immortalizes MoMA's weeding

efforts in a work titled

Painting and Sculpture from the

Museum of Modern Art: Catalogue

of Deaccessions, 1929 Through

1998. The Meadowlands Trash

Museum immortalizes a

cross-section of landfill behind

glass. It makes you wonder if

it's possible to simply throw

something away anymore without

turning it into a piece of

conceptual art or a museum

exhibit. No doubt the works of

Asher and the Trash Museum have

valuable lessons to offer, but

what about the lesson that

absolute, unexamined disposal

teaches us: that life is

loss — inexorable,

spirit-crushing, nonrecyclable

loss — and that even the

most dedicated composters,

archivists, and auctioneers

can't change that?



In the midst of the long boom,

however, who wants to talk about

the big sleep? Optimistic

overvaluation is the coin of the

realm; when last year's People

magazines are going for US$3.95

a pop on eBay, who's to say that

eBay isn't worth $200 a share?

In such a climate, it was all

but inevitable that Dr. Jack

Kevorkian, patron saint of

pessimists, would end up in

prison. After all, Death is the

ultimate short seller. And if

you can throw away, without

remorse or any last-ditch

efforts at resurrection,

something as precious as a life,

then what about all the junk

with which we try to camoflage

this fact? Clearly, Kevorkian

had to be rehabilitated.


And who knows? Despite his

cadaverous spryness, the good

doctor's pretty old now.

Deprived of the mysterious,

life-giving power that his 130

assisted suicides have

transferred to him over the

years, maybe he'll crack in an

effort to taste freedom one last

time. Maybe a year from now,

he'll be championing the

Heimlich maneuver and

celebrating his complete

rehabilitation and early release

on Larry King Live. But we sure

hope not. In fact, we hope he

remains true to his life-long

convictions and volunteers to

pull the lever on Old Sparky

from time to time in fulfillment

of his prison work duties.

Because, ultimately, not

everything has value and nothing

lasts forever, not even an

almost-mint condition copy of

the 3 August 1998 issue of People.

courtesy of St. Huck


[Purchase the Suck Book here]