Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Waste Culture

I like to read a monthly from São Paulo called Piaui. It has some pretty crazy reports, satire and political commentary. One story in this month's issue is entitled: "Trash is Relative."

Here it is, translated to the best of my abilities:

"The United States? In a recession? This country is blessed! They have no idea what poverty is."

For the Ganaese Desmond Antubam, maintenance man at Port Authority Bus Terminal, or New York's bus station, the best thermometer of American society is not Wall Street, but garbage. Antubam works at the largest bus terminal in the US and the busiest in the world. In operation since 1950, Port Authority takes up to Manhattan city blocks. Every day, 200,000 passengers pass through it. People come and go, and almost every one leaves a trail, generally found in the trash cans. It could be a crumpled up piece of paper, but it also could be clothes, toys, newspapers, magazines, shoes, bicycles, radios, TVs--and all in good condition.

For eighteen years, from Wednesday to Sunday, from 3 in the afternoon until 10 at night, Desmond Antubam empties the cans in the terminal. Between unhurried sips of tea at a Starbucks, he gave us a taste of his experiences.

Last Christmas, at the entrance to the station, Antubam noted a young woman who was talking on her cell phone with her boyfriend. She held a giant wrapped present and a bouquet of flowers, but, from the sound of things, had been forgotten there by the guy on the other end of the line. The conversation heated up, and Wham!, she hung up on the bastard. And, without thinking twice, she threw everything into the can-- the present, flowers, and the phone. Antubam, a good-natured, calm and soft-spoken guy, waited until the end of the tantrum and, slowly approached the woman: "Miss, your cell phone went into the trash."

"Fuck off, you and that asshole! He bought the phone and I'm not going to get it! If he wants to, he can buy another!" And, thus said, she left in a huff.

With extreme serenity, Antubam, fished the cell phone out of the trash and stuffed it in his pocket. The device, which was worth more than $200, wouldn't stop ringing. He ended up answering it, but didn't want to talk to the boyfriend, who kept shouting on the phone. He let it ring for a day, until her decided to return it to the owner, for a reward. He told the guy: 'I saved your cell phone; the flowers and the present are gone.'

For Antubam, waste has its limits. he was born in Accra, the capitol of Ghana, in a family with 9 siblings. His father died when he was 10 years old, which led to the beginning of a life full of hardship. Later on, Antubam would study graphic design and move to Nigeria, a better-off country than Ghana. There, he obtained an American visa, but the intermediary, as if it want't enough that he had been paid $ 1,700 commission, stole his passport. He was able to arrive on American soil via the Bahamas, in 1985.

Antubam married for the first time with an American and got his green card. After two years, they separated and he traveled to Africa, where he met his present wife, today 27 years old. The couple have three children, ranging in age from 10, 4, and 2. The middle child remained in Africa, with his grandparents, due to a technical problem with registration. Due to this problem, Antubam must prove that he is the father and for this has not been able to bring his son to the US. 'Immigration here is very complicated.'

As far as his eldest daughter, he says: "She took a bite out of her bread and threw the rest away. Times like these, I remind her that I paid almost $3,000 to get ehr out of Africa, and not to see her waste bread." The girl retorts like a good American: at school she it told to throw away any leftovers. This public health rule extends to restaurants in the bus terminal. After 9:30 pm, it is Antubam who takes away the hundreds of bags of fresh food discarded by 16 eateries in the station. All of it gets thrown away.

Since the workers are authorized to hold onto anything that's thrown away, he has co-workers who send entire containers full of unused food to Africa. During the summer, sweaty T-shirts go into the trash. Unneeded coats, the same. When it rains, umbrellas ge their turn. sneakers that don't fit in the suitcase? Garbage. A bicycle that can't be taken on the bus? Trash. Parents that give up on carrying the baby stroller leave the burden right there, in the garbage can. At the time of lockers, before 9/11, the harvest was even more plentiful. Bags and bags were forgotten way past the three-moth pickup dealine. After this point, it became trash. One co-worker found a gold necklace that earned him $2,000.

Antubam finishes the tea. Before saying farewell, he takes a moment to give his two cents on today's big issue: 'I would really be happy if a democratice candidate won these elections.' In the New York primaries, his vote went for Obama, but if Hillary survives the Obama wave and gets nominated, he'll vote for her, even though he didn't like seeing her crying on TV: 'Leaders that lead don't cry."

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