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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Review: Crosskill by Garry Disher

Fourth in the Wyatt series, I suggest they be read in order. The series will appeal to fans of Quarry and Parker. Disher is just as good as Collins and Westlake (writing as Richard Stark) in portraying the amoral bad guy, each with his own peculiar code of ethics.

Crosskill continues the story begun in the earlier volumes as Wyatt tries to get his money from a holdup gone wrong back from the mob. Definitely not literature, but who cares. They are well-crafted stories showing a darker side. With all the things that go wrong, my only question is how Wyatt can keep going without getting totally depressed.

Lots of fun. I intend to read all of them and then move on to Disher’s police procedurals.

Immigration Rants

The United States is in a bind. As I listen to the reflexive anti-immigrant/refugee rhetoric I am reminded of some dire facts. The United States population replacement rate is well below what it needs to be in order to maintain a healthy and growing economy and to support the ever increasing number of retired and aged people. Generally economists estimate that a ratio of 4.5 workers between the ages of 20 and 60 is needed in order to support the current number of retirees with medical and social benefits. Just the opposite trend is occurring in industrial nations.

The “potential support ratio”—the number of people aged 20-64 divided by the number of people aged 65 or over— in many countries will plummet.
The ratio, the report authors noted, “can be viewed very roughly as reflecting the number of workers per retiree." In the U.S. the ratio today is 4.6, and it is projected to decline to 1.9 by 2100—fewer than half as many workers to support a retiree as there are now. Germany’s ratio will drop from 2.9 to 1.4. Rapidly growing nations will see even greater collapses: China from 7.8 to 1.8, Brazil from 8.6 to 1.5, India from 10.9 to 2.3. African countries face similar fates: Nigeria’s incredibly high level of 15.8 will sink to 5.4. (#2)

There are several ways to address this imbalance, most of them unpalatable. You can eliminate benefits like Medicare and Social Security for the elderly, a solution no one really wants, especially the elderly who form a strong voting block; you can increase the retirement age gradually until it reaches the average mortality age (when Social Security was begun the retirement age was set at 65 which was also the average age of death - ironically the SS Trust Fund would be flush with cash had not both federal and state governments unwisely borrowed against pension and SS trust funds to balance their budgets -- money that has never been paid back); or you can increase the number of younger workers, the easiest way of which is through opening up immigration. Of course this last course of action can lead to social upheaval as politicians play on the entropic fears of the general populace for whom change and perceived disorder are anathema. Stereotypical attitudes toward immigrants are not new to politics in this country, remember the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movement of the Know-Nothing party in the early nineteenth century, not to mention the vicious reactions to immigrants from Ireland and eastern Europe and Italy in the early twentieth century. There is always a grain of truth to stereotypes; you know the all-priests-are-pedophiles and all Italians-belong to-the-Mafia and all-Irish-are-drunks and all-Hispanics-are-drug-dealers kind of thinking.

But the fact remains that immigration is a very economical and fast way of maintaining or increasing the ratio of workers to retirees. (See #1 below for a study on the economic benefits.) Does it lead to competition for jobs, yes. On the other hand by legalizing as many as possible the underground economy that encourages sexual harassment and monetary exploitation is reduced and the amount of tax revenue increased. Even illegal immigrants pump substantial amounts of capital into cities and once withdrawn can devastate a community (see the fascinating studies of Postville, Iowa,** a town we have studied and where I know some of the county law enforcement officers.)

Unfortunately, the current political rants regarding immigration appeals to the underbelly of American society rather than encouraging a robust debate of the values and problems surrounding population, labor force, immigration, and retirement.



A sample of Postville articles and books:

Bloom, Stephen: Postville: a Clash of Cultures, 2000

Camayd-Freixas, Erik: US Immigration Reform and Its Global Impact: Lessons from the Postville Raid, 2013

Monday, November 23, 2015

Review: Saints and Sinners: Walker Railey, Jimmy Swaggart, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Anton LaVey, Will Campbell , Matthew Fox by Lawrence Wright

Wright has written a very personal examination of some religious trends in the United States. Fundamentalism, or Primitivism as some would call it, is certainly on the rise, a new "Great Awakening", if you will. Lack of an established religion, many have argued, creates the perfect medium for the development of cults and other fringe beliefs. It has also become " a patchwork of mysticism, hypocrisy, hucksterism, and violence, with an occasional dash of sexual perversity."

This book is not written from the perspective of a non-believer, rather as one who believes in the power of faith. “ I have seen it in prisons and ghettos as well as in boardrooms and chambers of power. I have often found myself admiring people who held views I strongly disagreed with—for instance, the Black Muslims, who believe that I am a devil because of my race but who have generated the moral power to bring order and dignity to prison life. Where addiction rules or where social values have collapsed, it is usually only those rare persons of faith who can survive and sometimes even transform their seemingly hopeless environments.”

Nevertheless, he takes a rather perverse look at the symbols of both religious and non-religious icons such as Jimmy Swaggart and Madolyn Murray O’Hair.

Wright first examines the tragic case of Walker Railey, his minister in the large Methodist Church in Dallas, a man who engaged in an affair with a member of his congregation and then probably killed his wife. Transformative faith?

None of these people is particularly nice even as they held considerable power over their faithful but each was engaged in his own kind of spiritual struggle and the author’s personal struggle. “The lesson I had drawn from Walker Railey’s life so far was that good and evil are not so far apart either. They were both inside Railey, warring for control—as they were in me as well. Whether or not Railey was guilty, he had caused me to look into myself and see the lurking dangers of my own personality.”

I must admit to being one of the gleeful watching the downfall of Jimmy Swaggart. I had watched his TV show on several occasions, mesmerized by his excessive sanctimony while attempting to strip his viewers of their bank accounts. I’ve always speculated that people specialize in their deficiencies so having him self-destruct in the arms of a cheap hooker virtually in plain sight suggesting his perverse desire to be caught was gratifying. “Sex is the great leveler, the shadowy companion of the transcendent spirit.” Swaggart had equally gleefully brought about the collapse of Martin Gorman, pastor of one of those mammoth churches. “Swaggart accused Gorman of having had numerous adulterous affairs. Although Jim Bakker [who was to have his own spectacular fall] took Gorman’s side and actually pleaded for his forgiveness, Swaggart muscled Gorman’s show off the PTL Network. The Gorman empire, such as it was, quickly collapsed. His church, his television stations, and especially his reputation were lost to him. He was reduced to preaching in a drafty warehouse in Metairie to a congregation of folding chairs. There he began to consider his revenge.” Sordid

Moving along to Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who sued the author, interestingly. She the most accomplished of the self-promoting, she made a fetish out of trying to protect everyone from every hint of religiosity. In the end she became nothing but an embarrassing spectacle, in my view, although one has to credit her with some important victories like that of O’Hair v Hill which prevented Texas (of course) from trying to institute a religious test for office contrary to the Constitution.

Ironically, the least interesting of the characterizations is that of Anton LaVey, the supposed father of Satanism. He just tried too hard to be something he clearly was not: “the evilest man in the world.” Having been a circus performer and carnival barker, his career in satanism seemed just a continuation of that former self. On the other hand, as he noted, Satan is probably religion’s best friend; without it religion would not have survived so many centuries. His connection to Jayne Mansfield was rather titillating.

Will Campbell is surely the most interesting of the bunch. A Baptist minister, reviled by the leadership of his church, he was a vigorous supporter of civil rights and good friend of Martin Luther King who ministered to James Earl Ray and other Ku Klux Klan members. He was one of only four whites who held hands with the little black girls in their attempts to integrate schools in Little Rock. His uncompromising positions earned him hate letters from both the Right and Left.

The book is easily read as separate essays and the only element that ties them together is the author’s personal journey and reactions to the individuals he interviewed. As such it’s of perhaps more interest for its historical value than a memoir. Wright’s more recent books: The Looming Tower and Going Clear are more important. If this review seems to ramble, blame it on the book.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review: The Deep State by Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a former GOP Congressional aide for twenty-eight years who has become disenchanted with several features of our current government. In “The Party is Over” he complains the sole purpose of Republicans elected to Congress is to shut down government or at least bring it to a standstill. They have often succeeded. He argues in this book that there are two governments in Washington: the visible one that is in the public eye with campaigns and elections, and the “deep” government that operates behind the scenes, often following its own agenda and never changes regardless of who might be elected. Ironically, I sensed much of this reading Robert Gates’ memoir “Duty.” It was clear that he, as Secretary of directions his president wanted to move.) Defense, often had trouble moving the Defense Department bureaucracy and military in directions he wanted (and I felt he sometimes thwarted or at least resisted.) The process has been a gradual one and not unexpected.

Much of the problem he attributes to the “beltline” mentality and the aggregation of agencies, foundations (there are now more than sixteen-hundred of these tax-exempt “ hordes of gun slinging grants man who tried to maintain a facade of scholarly disinterest are functionally as much a part of the ecosystem of the town is the lobbyists on K Street,) and agencies like Homeland Security, which, truth-be-told, would make much more sense after 9/11 to be dispersed throughout the country, but which instead is firmly entrenched in a former insane asylum retrofit, now ten years behind schedule and $1 billion over budget, but thankfully protecting us from shampoo-bottle bombers. Its first chief, Michael Chertoff, I suppose could be congratulated by the bureaucracy for his display of efficiency in turning DHS (doesn’t the word Homeland remind you of “fatherland” and cause a reflexive need to bring the right arm to sharp Hitlerian attention?) “into a contractor-infested replica of the DOD’s in only a few years. His post-government career has been single-minded attempt to cash in personally on his bureaucratic creation and his own notoriety.”

9/11 had an effect on all of this, of course, as military contractors rushed to merge and join the hoards of others with headquarters in Washington (thanks to generous tax benefits passed at taxpayer’s expense) sucking at the government teat.

For all the bellyaching that goes on throughout the country about out-of-touch bureaucrats, corrupt and unresponsive government, and how much everyone hates Washington, these visible signs of our increasingly intrusive and overbearing government did not fall out of the sky upon an unsuspecting public. The Deep State, along with its headquarters in Washington, is not a negation of the American people's character. It is an intensification of tendencies inherent in any aggregation of human beings. If the American people did not voluntarily give informed consent to the web of unaccountable influence that radiates from Washington and permeates the country, then their passive acquiescence, aided by false appeals to patriotism and occasional doses of fear, surely played a role. A majority of Americans have been anesthetized by the slow, incremental rise of the Deep State, a process that has taken decades. (p. 29)

Much of this “deep state” results from Washington group think. In the military it’s clearly more obvious, you have to get on board with the mission or go nowhere career-wise. In the bureaucracy the pressures are equally strong if not as apparent. And they know they’ll be around long after the flavor-of-the-day politicians move on. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

The last chapter consists of Lofgren’s prescriptions for resolving some of the issues he has highlighted in the book. I would disagree with several of them. His first solution, “eliminate private money from public elections” has been batted around so many times. When has money never been a problem in campaigns? It always has and will always be. Public financing is hardly the solution. Do I really want my tax money to be used to fund the campaigns of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann? And is this only for presidential campaigns? It’s local city and state elections that often have more of an influence. I would argue for complete transparency but let people spend their money on campaigns as they wish, just make sure everyone knows where it’s coming from. PACS should be eliminated; all the money should go directly to the candidate but with full accounting and accountability.

I fully concur with his recommendations that we reduce military spending and stay of of the Middle East. Nothing we have done in the past sixty years seems to have worked the way we intended it to beginning with the CIA-Seven Sisters overthrow of the government in Iran. To quote him: “ISIS is undeniably a toxic gang of murderers, but our own disastrous intervention in Iraq formed the petri dish in which its diseased ideology could evolve.” I love that metaphor. Constant military interventions have provided the rationale for ruinous military spending which, in turn, empowers the shadow government even more not to mention increased the debt by six trillion and counting. His suggestion that much of that military spending be channeled to domestic infrastructure repair and building is admirable but would, ironically, continue to empower the shadow government in the form of additional bureaucratic structures.

He admits that many of his proposals sound utopian (not to mention Progressive) but insists that the United States has reformed itself several times in the past on equally grand a scale. I’m not so optimistic.

Lots of amusing, if cynical, lines in the book. For example, referring to the invasion of Iraq and its justification, “ the tongue tied George W Bush sorely needed the mellifluous double talk of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on the theory that nothing sells hideously awful policy as well as an Oxford accent (the American political class swoons on cue at gibberish delivered with Received Pronunciation.) I could go on with many other examples. But read the book and weep.

I enjoy Mike Lofgren’s work and was offered an “Advanced Reader Copy” of this book in hopes I would read and review it. I was happy to do so since I intended to buy it when it appeared anyway, although I would have much preferred an ebook copy for my Kindle (much easier to take notes and highlight passages.) The book is excellent but probably futile (I must be really pessimistic this morning.)

Friday, November 20, 2015

Review: Rules of Prey by John Sandford

Audiobook: Rules of Prey is the first in a long series of Lucas Davenport police procedurals set in Minneapolis. I’ve read about ten of them, not in order and for some reason never got around to the first, an oversight I have now remedied. The Sandford Davenport books are all quite good, although Lucas’s relationships with women I sometimes find superficial and irritating.

Lucas is independently wealthy having sold the rights to a software game he had developed and he drives around in a red Porsche. In this one, he’s been tasked with finding the “Mad Dog Killer,” a man -- whose predations and POV we are subjected to -- who is killing women.

One aspect puzzled and put me off a little. That was Lucas’s manipulation of the press. He’s sleeping with (and has impregnated) one of the star reporters of a local paper. She has no qualms about using things she has overheard during his private phone conversations even though she has been asked to leave the room. (His relationship with her is highly improper, in my view and hardly necessary since he’s sleeping with a victim of the Mad Dog Killer - also extremely unprofessional and irregular.) Then he uses a TV reporter (whom he regards as dumber than a rock) to leak all sorts of incorrect information clearly to irritate the killer. Whether that encourages the killer to kill in a different way I’ll leave up to the other readers. I understand that some writers feel it’s necessary for cops to break the rules to catch the bad guys but imho then they become bad guys as well. (Not a spoiler since we know who the bad guy is almost from the beginning, unfortunately participating in his depredations via his POV that become gross as the book progresses.)

Richard Ferrone does his usual brilliant job reading.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Review: Deathdeal (Wyatt #3) by Garry Disher

Wyatt is on the run. Everyone is looking for him following the mess-up of his failed attempt to hijack the armored car. He’s determined, in the meantime to get the money back from those who stole it from him (as told in Wyatt #2). As seems to be his lot, others have the same idea and he can trust no one.

The Wyatt series was written before his police procedural series features Hal Challis, a very different character from Wyatt who remains one of the more hard-bitten and amoral anti-heroes I’ve read. There’s very little humor here, just the struggles of a man who wants nothing more than to have his place in the country where he can hold up and rob a few banks every year. He has no interests, few needs or goals and in less capable hands the books would descend into mere shoot-em-ups. Disher instead has created a memorable character. If you like Westlake’s Parker (written under the name Richard Stark), or Collins' Quarry, you’ll devour the Wyatt series. On to #4.

Friday, November 13, 2015

"Natural Rights" is all Hooey

John Locke was an optimist assuming that humans could live together in a state of reason. Hobbes on the other hand, thought man existed in a state of chaos and that some form of structure is required to bring order to the chaos. Locke is describing what "should" be; Hobbes is describing what "is."

It follows that all notions of  "rights" will be determined by whatever scheme of laws a society will determine for itself, or be forced upon it, i.e., rights are generated by the human rule-book.  Thomas Jefferson can say whatever he wants in the Declaration of Independence, but just because he says them doesn't give them validity and in any case, again, they require government to enforce them. Ironically, even though I consider myself a form of libertarian strongly supporting the concept of individual rights, I understand that a reasonably strong form of government is required to enforce my "self-determined" individual rights

For example: Property rights exist only in the context of government without which the concept of property could not exist since government is required to enforce and codify them. The whole concept of innate or "natural" rights is basically a Lockean concept that appeals to many people, but which has little basis in reality. What rights you have are determined by whatever government you have. Some forms of government are more oriented toward collective rights that benefit society as a whole, the altruistic version, while other forms emphasize individual rights at the expense of collective rights. A classic example is the "individual" right to own slaves. Collectively, as a society, we decided that individual right does not benefit society as a whole (not to mention we decided that non-whites should be entitled to the same individual rights as whites) but, again, that right requires governmental enforcement and approval.

What we "should" do is determined by a constant refinement of ideas (which is why philosophers should get paid more than welders in spite of what Rubio thinks) and compromise.  There is a constant tension between the needs of the collective (traffic rules, if you will) and the wishes of the individual who assumes that because something he desires is attainable it must be good and a natural right. The difficulty arises when the collective determines that coercion is needed in order to protect the collective right. So there is again a constant tension between different perceived rights.  The Constitution is full of these tensions: the individual right to believe whatever you wanted opposed to the collective right not to have government enforce a particular brand of religious belief;  the individual right to a gun in order to promote the collective right through militias to prevent the larger collective from enforcing tyranny; the individual right not to quarter soldiers in the home opposing the needs of the collective in time of crisis; and the individual right of not incriminating oneself versus the collective's right to solve and prevent crime, to name but a few examples. 

Quoting Jonathan Wallace: "The natural rights debate leads us down a false road. The energy spent in arguing which rules exist should better be spent deciding which rules we should make. The "perfect freedom" Locke described "to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they see fit... without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man", does not dictate the existence of rights; instead it leaves us perfectly free to legislate them.
I prefer this freedom, which seems to me simple and clear: we are all at a table together, deciding which rules to adopt, free from any vague constraints, half-remembered myths, anonymous patriarchal texts and murky concepts of nature. If I propose something you do not like, tell me why it is not practical, or harms somebody, or is counter to some other useful rule; but don't tell me it offends the universe."

Monday, November 09, 2015

Review: Storm Front (Virgil Flowers #7) by John Sandford

Audiobook: A Lutheran minister steals a stela from a dig in Israel and returns back to his home in Mankato.  He has an incurable illness and then disappears. Virgil is asked by his boss, Lucas Davenport, to liase with an Israeli antiquities investigator who has come over to get the stella back.  Its importance soon becomes clear as the inscription on the stela seems to imply that King Solomon may have been an Egyptian pharaoh.  So, of course, everyone wants to get his hands on the stela for political and monetary reasons.  A couple of Turks, a Mossad agent, a gun-toting  (don’t they all?) Texan, an Indiana Jones wanna-be and a fake IAA investigator are all after this thing and to top it off “Fucking” Flowers has to deal with “Ma” Nobel a local institution who’s selling fake antique lumber and keep everyone from killing each other.

Classic Virgil Flowers and this may be the best of the series. Some of the dialogue is LOL funny.  I really like him as a character - I think his over-developed sense of compassion and wish to avoid killing people appeals to me especially -- and Eric Conger reads magnificently.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Review: Paydirt (Wyatt #2) by Gary Disher

One of Gary Disher’s creations is Wyatt, a rather nasty fellow, living in Australia who likes to rob things. He’s obsessive about never leaving a trace so all paperwork and contact with the cops is to be avoided at all costs.  His sometimes squeeze has told him about a sweet deal where a company has been hired to build a pipeline and has a substantial payday on a regular basis.  It’s a score worth contemplating.

There are several complications, the most pressing being there’s a price on his head of twenty-thousand pounds offered by the mob that he had ripped off in a previous heist. Not to mention that the team he assembled is fracturing and they are aware of the bounty.  Also to consider is that unbeknownst to Wyatt, there another group with a similar plan. 

Disher’s Wyatt is as good as Westlake’s Dortmunder or Collins’ Quarry but lacking the undercurrent of lightness.  This stuff is much darker.  But sometimes you need dark.  It’s all in fun and makes for a nice read.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Review: Vessel of Wrath by Robert Taylor Lewis

Marvelous book.  I challenge anyone to read the page 14 without rolling in the aisles. It was written in 1966, so some of his amusing comments regarding women and the right to vote in Switzerland don’t apply, but they amuse, nevertheless.

Carry Nation, or Mrs. Nation as he  calls her, is “sharply remembered as the apostle of reform violence, prime dragoness on a field strewn with the bones of sinners.”  She opposed just about everything including “alcohol, tobacco, sex, politics, government (national, state, and local), the Masonic Lodge, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Jennings Bryan.” Some of her methods were regarded as extreme even by her friends; it was one thing to threaten a man with a hatchet, it was something else to hit him with it. She regarded the distinction as overly subtle.

Insanity ran in her family.  Her aunt, during certain lunar phases, made repeated attempts to clamber up on the roof and convert herself  into a weather vane. A cousin, at the age of 40, unexpectedly returned to all fours, and was only restored to the vertical after heroic struggles by his minister. Mrs. Nation's mother suffered from  the illusion that she was Queen Victoria.  Carry often suffered visions involving snakes but those are no more suspect than those of Joan of Arc , both of whom showed an extraordinary interest in edged tools.  She wanted desperately to be shot so as to become a martyr to the cause and it's only probably due to the extraordinary western hospitality that she wasn't. Like Amelia Jenks Bloomer, who believe that all women should be stuffed into pants whether they like that or not, Carrie Nation believed that she alone knew what was best for everyone else.

Her father liked to move around a lot and following one move Carry came down quite ill. Assuming that the illness related to some petty thievery (the author doesn’t go into this much.) “It was thought necessary by the authorities that she get to a church as soon as possible, and after a few weeks more dead than alive, she was conveyed in a carriage to a nearby Sunday School, where the minister gave her a book was explaining that petty thieves are as monstrous as bank robbers in the eyes of the Lord. It did not explain the full cycle of larceny where in effect called tycoons work up to the level of stealing whole corporations, railroads, windows savings, gold reserves and even nations at which point the behavior became honorable, &, in fact, widely admired.”  :)

“History is replete with incidents to prove that a Baptist at full gallop is a fearsome engine of piety. It seems likely that no other religion extracts such a full measure of self-abasement from its practitioners. At various times and places, a Baptist could be arrested by a deacon, then find himself  in prison for riding a horse on Sunday; minor blasphemers could be administered 40 lashes; dancing and card playing where breaches of conduct were on a virtual par with murder.”

She had little luck with men. On the whole, Carry’s contacts with the male sex were enough to send the mildest of women smashing through the center of their recreation. “Many of the people with whom Carry tilted were as reliable as a grizzly with a toothache; she began to brace men on the streets - snatching pipes, cigars and Mexican cigarettes from the males that would have shot of fellow male for a careless slip of the tongue.”

Alcohol was a serious problem. Hard liquor was very prevalent and everyone drank  enormous quantities. There were also imitation alcoholic beverages. One was called “Blue Ruin” and it was regularly fed to slaves and servants;  those who survived consuming it over the years appeared to have a somewhat altered complexion, reminiscent of “a drowned corpse long in the water.”

“Crying babies were not a serious problem in colonial times; they were probably dosed with enough alcohol to shift them into a state of glassy eyed stupefaction, upon which the caterwauling dried up, to be replaced by pleasurable cooling or song, the intoxicated infants version of quote sweet Adeline.”

Interestingly Carrey's first foray into saloon destruction was in Kiowa, Kansas where she literally destroyed three different saloons. Ironically she couldn’t be charged with a crime since the sale of alcohol in saloons was prohibited by law so technically she was destroying something that was illegal. The novel solution of the town leaders was to simply ignore the damage as if nothing had happened.  From there she moved on to Wichita where she and her growing  acolytes of the WCTU adopted the famous icon forever attached to her name.

Was she crazy?  I’ll leave it up to you to decide. A fascinating tale, drolly told.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Review: Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle

Arguably the most important service a city provides is garbage removal. All city functions become virtually impossible when trash is not removed in a regular manner.  Not only that, but they are key players in fueling consumption and capitalism. Without regular disposal of consumed goods, there is no room for new goods to replace them.: "used-up stuff must be thrown out for new stuff to have a place."
The euphemistic sanitation workers are the real "invisible" men.  Workers are truly ignored.  They can stare, whistle, remark, clatter,whatever, with impunity because as far as the general public is concerned they are part of the background noise.  They are mere obstacles to be avoided. But an absolutely essential job, dwarfing most others in importance. And messy. Garbage from the trucks is taken daily to transfer stations, where “the smell hits first, grabbing the throat and punching the lungs. The cloying, sickly-sweet tang of household trash that wrinkles the nose when it wafts from the back of a collection truck is the merest suggestion of a whiff compared to the gale-force stink exuded by countless tons of garbage heaped across a transfer station floor. The body’s olfactory and peristaltic mechanisms spasm in protest. Breathing through the mouth is no help, and neither gulp nor gasp brings the salvation of fresh air; there’s none to be had.”  What we have forgotten is that all of that used to be all over the streets. “ Householders no longer [have] to keep their windows clamped shut all day, even in the worst heat of the summer, against the nauseating dust that billowed from the streets. (In the rain that dust became an unctuous mud with a repulsive smell. God help the man or woman who found it adhered to shoe soles or skirt hems; the stench permeated forever anything it touched.)”
It's not an easy job and a very dangerous one, vastly outranking police and fire in fatalities. (A check on the Internet listed them as fourth highest fatality rate behind loggers, fishermen, and aircraft pilots and flight engineers of all things --another source listed them as fifth, adding steel workers ahead of them.)  One horrific example involved a worker who had been on the job twenty-three years.  “It was the usual pile that awaited him at this stop, one of the last on the route. He tossed a load in the hopper and was just turning away from the truck when the blade bit through a bag and broke open a jug of liquid concealed within it. The resulting geyser that hit Hanly full on was a 70 percent solution of hydrofluoric acid. His funeral, which drew nearly two thousand Sanitation people from across the city and around the region, made the television news.” Then there are objects that don’t make it into the truck.  The compactor blade can do strange things when it hits solid objects.

“ Bolts, nails and screws, plastic bottles, cans, shoes, food debris, mattress springs, wood fragments, glass shards, become lethal projectiles. Workers tell routine stories of getting hit in the chest, head, back, arms, and legs. One man I worked with on Staten Island reminisced about the time someone had thrown away a bowling ball. When he tossed it in the truck and pulled the handles, it came back at him as if shot from a cannon, caught him in the belly, and knocked him out. The driver, who thought his partner was on the back step, didn’t notice that the fellow was missing until he’d turned the corner. When the driver went back to look for him, it took a while to find his unconscious body because he’d fallen into the tall grass by the side of the road.”

The section on mechanical sweepers -- the drivers are called broomies -- had fascinating detail. The dials and readouts in the broomie’s cab rival that of a small airplane and learning just how much water to add, the angle of the brooms, and maintenance require vast experience. The annual celebration in Times Square that apparently involves enormous quantities of cut-up paper and other colorful detritus takes hours to clean up in the wee hours of the morning and incurs wrath when it’s not done on time.  But sometimes, nature makes it difficult. Rain and snow for example. “The mechanical brooms were churning the wet litter into a thick soup dyed pink by the metallic red cards that had long since disintegrated into the mash. It looked like oatmeal made with Pepto-Bismol. Mechanical brooms don’t do oatmeal. Workers with hand tools moved it into the gutters, but then the brooms trundled past and sprayed it back onto the sidewalks. The hand sweepers and blowers pushed it into the gutters once more; the brooms splattered it back. All over Times Square, mechanical brooms and sanitation workers were having the same exchanges of pink spray. Our boots and pant legs and jacket hems started to look like Jackson Pollock had been experimenting with them as canvases. The equipment wasn’t up to the conditions, but short of a large sump pump I’m not sure what would have worked.”

And all that is not even to mention snow removal, that bane of all mayors, which has caused more political defeats than sex scandals. It can be an almost impossible job when snow is falling at the rate of two-three inches per hour and the wind is blowing, maneuvering around stuck cars and with unrealistic citizen expectations. The drivers often have to work forty or more hours straight and conditions can conspire to make their jobs miserable.

A fascinating look into an essential job that few appreciate and most are reluctant to pay for having long forgotten the alternative.

Review: Driver by Mark Dawson

This, the third, in the John Milton series is the best yet.  Milton is now in San Francisco holding down two jobs:  independent taxi driver and ice deliverer.  He makes barely enough to get by, but that’s just fine. He likes to read.

One night he accepts a fare against his better judgment because he realizes she’s an escort and it’s illegal to participate, i.e., drive, someone who is about to commit an illegal act.  They arrive at a fancy house in a wealthy neighborhood.  He agrees to stay since he’s worried about her safety and when screams erupt from the house he investigates only to have her run out of the house and down the road banging on other doors, clearly high on something.  She disappears.

Milton has to walk a fine line in any interactions with the police but he feels a sense of duty -- more on that later -- and teams up with her boyfriend to try and find Madison, the hooker. Milton can’t afford to have the police look too closely at his identity because he’s still on the run from his former MI-6 handlers.  

Dawson does a nice job of laying the groundwork for Milton’s overly developed sense of altruism. One of the tenets of AA, which Milton attends regularly in an effort to stay sober (shades of Lawrence Block’s protagonist,) is to make amends, and Milton has a lot to make amends for having killed many people in his former job.

Well-developed story.