Archive for March, 2007


the Politics of the Institutional Lavatory. or, Keep John Ashcroft Out Of My Stall!

March 23, 2007

At my last job, the bathroom was like a second office. I worked for a small nonprofit and there were six other people in my building and all of them were females. There was a single toilet and a sink and it was always very bright in there and cooler (temperature wise) than my office. It was a great place to hang out.


(Not my bathroom, but a nice one nonetheless)

Except when one of the ladies in the office took it upon herself to wreak havoc in there in the morning, which happened about twice a week. Which, judging from the awful smell she left, was about how often she went to the bathroom at all. And then she’d make it worse by emptying about a quarter of an industrial sized bottle of Fresh Linen Lysol into the air.

If you’ve ever caught a whiff of Fresh Linen Lysol, you know the name is misleading. I’ve smelled plenty of fresh linens, at least I did before I went to college, and I don’t ever remember them making my eyes burn and my lungs fill with fluid. “Napalm in the Morning” might be a more appropriate label.

I found the situation bothersome, to say the least. I sat in staff meetings trying to think of a way to put a delicate voice to my concerns.

One more thing before we adjourn. Umm, ladies, let’s please remember to use only the toilets assigned to our specific gender, ummkay? I mean, you don’t see me going into the ladies room and peeing on the seat, do you? And if we’re getting ready to put in an order for supplies, let’s add some fiber bars to the list, and maybe some colon cleansing products. Because unless one of you is actually a 300-pound trucker subsisting primarily on steak fingers and Mad Dog 20/20 wine, you’ve got a situation going on that could use some rectification. For lack of a better term.


(Mad Dog 20/20 Wine)


(Steak Fingers and fixins, courtesy Dairy Queen)

Needless to say I never said what was in my heart. I did, once or twice when the odor was just too much to handle in the men’s room, slip next door to the ladies’ facility and relieve myself there. And if a stray drop or two made it onto the seat, well, sorry for the friggin’ inconvenience.

Thankfully, I was able to leave that office behind, and am now employed by a much larger organization. I can not name this organization, but it is one which boasts more than a thousand employees, and occupies many many buildings grouped closely together in what one might accurately refer to as a “campus” type of configuration.

It is a place where the men use the men’s room and the women use the women’s room, which is good. It’s good for civilization. Rules, you know. Unfortunately, some of my colleagues are now men, and I have had to give up the luxury of my own private lavatory.

There is a men’s room near my own office, but I find it almost always uninhabitable. It’s small, for starters, and despite the fact that it has high ceilings, the only ventilation seems to come from the fan, which only runs when the light is on. And every morning some middle-management type goes in there and completely blows the place up, and on the way out he cuts the lights (and the fan), leaving the situation to deteriorate throughout the day.

Luckily one of the buildings next door has been newly remodeled and the new restroom is just first class all the way. Natural sunlight, the walls are clean, good air flow, not much traffic. It really is a pleasure to do business in there.

But one daythis week, as I’m on my way out, I find this sign taped to the door:


“Have you washed your hands before touching this handle?”

Not that I have a problem with the message. My mama raised me right, and I always wash my hands before I leave the men’s room. Always. Unless I’m in a gas station or a bar or some other facility where it would be reasonable to believe that the sink is dirtier than my own by-products. Or I’m in a real hurry. Or I was especially careful. No, I ‘m kidding. ALWAYS.


I just don’t like the tone. You know, it’s like having a preschool teacher standing in front of the door doing inspections. It actually reminds me of middle school when Mr. _______ used to walk in while the boys were using the bathroom and just stand around to “make sure there were no shenanigans.” I’m not sure this was on his official list of duties, come to think of it, or that the principal was even aware of what was going on.

Regardless, no one needs to be reminded of their duties en regards to keeping their hands feces-free. Everyone knows their hands are supposed to be clean. Some people are just too sorry to follow up.

It’s also worrisome to me that no one is taking credit for the sign. It doesn’t say “A message from your friendly local health department” or “concerned citizens for clean palms (CCCP)” or even “management.”

No. This is some hygiene vigilante. Some wild-eyed fiend who either:

a) is obsessed with hand-washing,

b) has spent enough time in that particular bathroom to notice a trend (hidden camera?) and/or

c) is John Ashcroft.


Be on the lookout, folks. He’s out there. Somewhere. Watching over your daily business.



Loose Ends — 2 Thank-Yous

March 14, 2007

Thanks to my wonderful family, with whom I spent Saturday in Raleigh, and who, much to my surprise, not only replaced my stolen ipod but gave me an upgrade! The music lives.

Also, thanks to the Wilmington Police Dept. I’m not much of a “law and order” person to be honest, and I’ll admit I cringe when I hear stories of local law enforcement doing things like, say, shooting suspects and their dogs through closed front doors. But the WPD responded quickly and acted professionally the night I was robbed. CNN was a bit slow to respond, however.

In Lieu of posting anything of substance today, I’ll refer you to my good friend the Growler, who is hot on the trail of one of the biggest celebrities in the history of all media, The Southern Sportsman.


Finally, your daily “cute kids in mouse ears” pic…this one taken seconds before my nephew’s surprise attack on my neice with the Darth Vader mask. Watching these kids play is better than pro wrestling.



Local Newspaper Editor Smells like Money. Or is that Hog Shit?

March 7, 2007

This is almost too predictable to comment on, given the nature of politics and money in small towns, but luckily I’ve got some free time. So here goes:

Smithfield Packing runs the largest single hog slaughtering facility in the world out of Tar Heel, North Carolina, which is located in close proximity to my own Pine Woods hometown. They slaughter some 32,000 hogs there every day, as Tim Wilins, the editor of the local paper, The Bladen Daily Journal, gleefully points out in his latest attempt at editorial journalism, entitled “Smithfield a Boon for Bladen County.”

Wilkins actually does a fair job of describing some of the more unpleasant aspects of the hog slaughtering process, peppering his editorial with mentions of throat slashing, blood splatter, entrails, and even feces. during his tour of the plant, he even attempts to describe the odor of the place:

“But the smell doesn’t seem to bother the employees, for whom it’s not the odor of freshly slaughtered pork, but the scent of money; Smithfield’s approximately 5,500 workers make, on average, $12.23 a hour — good pay for just about anywhere in North Carolina, but especially nice wages here in Bladen County.”

Wilkins is spot on about wages in the area. But when he presumes to speak for what does or does not “seem to bother the employees” at Smithfield, well, that’s my first solid clue that Tim Wilkins is full of Hog Shit.

  • Consider that the National Labor Relations Board found Smithfield guilty of intimidating, firing, and threatening employees with arrest by immigration officials in the months leading up to unionization votes in both 194 and 1997.
  • Consider that in January, immigration officials, in cooperation with Smithfield, arrested 21 employees on charges of being in the United States illegally. Hundreds of additional employees quit or stayed out of work in the following days for fear of arrest.
  • Consider that 400 Smithfield employees boycotted work on MLK day this year during an organized protest.

The bad smell emanating from Tim Wilkins intensifies as he goes on to praise Smithfield’s environmental record:

“The Tar Heel plant also does its part for the environment, boasting a water treatment plant on-site that cleanses the millions of gallons of water used daily to process those 32,000 pigs. The treated water — which surpasses all federal and state requirements for cleanliness and is almost drinking water pure when processed — is recycled to be used in the plant and eventually drains into the Cape Fear River.”

Wow. Just wow. Wilkins’ attempt at painting Smithfield as a vigorous protector of the environment serves as an undeniable confirmation that he is either a) astoundingly ignorant, b) inherently evil, or c) entirely gullible.

To understand Smithfield’s impact on the local environment, it is important to realize that the real problem does not necessarily emanate from the crystal clean effluvium of the monster facility itself. The arrival of Smithfield, you see, resulted in the establishment of hundreds and hundreds of high-intensity hog operations in Bladen County. the combined impact of these operations is described in a recent feature article on the company in Rolling Stone:

“Smithfield is not just a virtuosic polluter; it is also a theatrical one. Its lagoons are historically prone to failure. In North Carolina alone they have spilled, in a span of four years, 2 million gallons of shit into the Cape Fear River, 1.5 million gallons into its Persimmon Branch, one million gallons into the Trent River and 200,000 gallons into Turkey Creek. In Virginia, Smithfield was fined $12.6 million in 1997 for 6,900 violations of the Clean Water Act — the third-largest civil penalty ever levied under the act by the EPA. It amounted to .035 percent of Smithfield’s annual sales.”
And Rolling Stone isn’t the only publication to cast a spotlight on Smithfield. A cursory Google search performed in the few minutes I spent researching this blog post uncovered articles in The New York Times , a report from the Human Rights Watch, as well as numerous web sites like Justice at Smithfield and Change to Win.

But when you search the archives of the Bladen Journal for articles about Smithfield, the only other hint of any problems whatsoever at the plant, aside from Wilkins’ breezy mention in the aforementioned editorial, come in a 2005 letter from a reader defending the company against allegations made in another newspaper.

I can only imagine how difficult it is to run a small community newspaper, especially with essentially no budget. I worked for nearly two years in the same building that houses the Journal, mere yards from the high bluffs that slip down into the nearly ruined Cape Fear, and toward the end of my tenure I saw essentially the entire staff let go or resign, including the former editor.

Silence is one thing. Dumping a load of hog shit on your readers and calling it gold is quite another.

Tim Wilkins likes to refer to himself as a “working journalist.” If this editorial is any indication, his true profession is much, much older than journalism, and generally pays better, too.




On the Chivalry of Crime and the inadequacy of Justice

March 6, 2007

I didn’t hear what the kid said at first because I had the earphones in, digging some obscure old outlaw country song on my Ipod, more or less oblivious. But I saw him there sidling at the edge of street shadow, this kid with the hoodie, and so I slowed but didn’t stop and freed up one ear for him.

“You got a cigarette?” he asked.

“No, sorry,” I said, plugging back in, picking up the pace, thinking you’re not old enough to smoke, kid, and neither is your buddy there across the street watching.

Then I did what I always do after such a confrontation. I took a few more steps and looked back to see where the kid had gone.

The kid hadn’t gone anywhere.

“Hey. Hey.”

He racked the slide on the 9mm semi-automatic just as I turned around, holding it in his right hand pointed toward the pavement. “Give it to me,” he said. “Give it to me.”

“What?” I had a wallet, a backpack, the Ipod in my breast pocket.

“Money,” he said. “Money.”

Someone more decisive, a man whose “bosom was not a stranger to nerve and daring,” might have acted. I could have punched that kid in his face or put a good hard shoulder into his sternum on my way by him. He didn’t even have it pointed at me.

That’s not a real gun.

I don’t think that’s a real gun.

There’s a good bit of distance, conceptually, between those two thoughts. So I gave the kid my wallet and he started to back away.

“What’s that in your ear?” the other one said, approaching from behind me. “Gimme that.”

I think I groaned out loud at that demand. This other kid, taller, older maybe, same black hoodie, this one the sidekick and as far as I knew unarmed but feeling it a little, getting aggressive. He came at me from an angle and snatched at the thin white cord. “Gimme that.”

That’s my music, man.





(above: the handgun in question, if the handgun had actually been the most ill-conceived invention ever, the “universal firearm remote.”)

The policeman asked me if I wouldn’t mind sitting in the back seat of the patrol car, because he had all this crap in the front. He drove me three blocks from my house, in the opposite direction from where I’d been held up, to a place on the street where two black kids stood behind another cruiser.

“I can’t tell you much about them,” he said. “They just kind of fit the description so we stopped them. What do you think?”

The description. Two black kids. These were taller, older, wearing heavy coats instead of hooded sweats. I stammered a little, feeling like a very unreliable witness. I’d originally told the cops that it happened between 5th and 6th and the kids ran North on 6th, only to realize once they walked me out there that they had fled down 7th. And I hadn’t given them much to go on in the way of descriptions. And the German Shepherd police dog made me a little uneasy, too.

“Maybe,” I said. “These kids didn’t have fur collars. And they were shorter. One of them was shorter.”

“Probably not, then?” the cop said. “You don’t think so?”

An hour later I’m in the front seat of another squad car, in the parking lot of a rough apartment complex, nervous despite all the police around. People, black people, come out of their front doors, women in curlers, bathrobes, tall bearded men in work shirts observing from the periphery of the action. The women stand for a moment and duck back inside. The men stay, watching and listening, saying things to each other that I can’t hear from inside the car.

“I’ve got the victim here,” the officer beside me says into his radio. He’s been referring to me as “the victim” the whole time, and I find it unnerving. The last time I heard that term tossed around was when they tried my cousin’s husband for her murder. A term employed by doctors trained in post mortem examination and recognized experts in blood splatter.

I can see the kids in the middle of everything, standing at the back of a police van, one short and one tall, dark hoodies.

“I’m going to pull around,” the policeman says. He’s been here three years, from Fayetteville. He likes it here better. There’s less going on. “You take a look.”

The policemen I’ve talked to have been making off-handed comments as calls come in on the radio. I know that the dog tracked from the spot where I said I was robbed to Princess Place Drive. I know that someone’s dad called in about two kids with a moped and a pistol.

These apartments are right off of Princess Place, behind a Bojangles. He tells me they used to be government projects but now they’re privately owned and have been remodeled recently. From where I’m sitting it looks like someone hastily slapped cheap vinyl siding over poorly-constructed buildings so that the whole works sags in places and the nails don’t hold everywhere.

“It would help if you could see their faces,” the cop says. Both of the kids are talking to another cop, facing away from me. One of them bends over to pull up a sock. I feel exposed and protected at the same time, surrounded by police, a victim facing his victimizers, watching the potential defendants, told to turn around, facing their accuser.

“Shit,” I said. “That looks like them.”

“Would you say…” the cop said, “what percentage sure are you?”


What percentage sure am I of anything? I can usually report my own address with about 98% accuracy. I can tell you the correct date maybe 70% of the time. Street names, restaurants, I’m hit or miss. Sometimes when I’m with friends I pick people out of crowds. “That guy looks just like John Denver,” I’ll say.

“Maybe,” my friends say. “Maybe a little bit.”


These are pretty much the kids who did it. The shorter one, the one who had the gun, he’s a little bit lighter in color than I remember, and the taller one is taller than I thought. Without the hood I can see that the short one has his hair braided into corn rows. I remember his lips, though, and the kind of hollow cheeks of the tall one, and they’re still wearing the hoodies.

“I’d go eighty-five, ninety percent,” I say.


Waiting again by myself in the squad car, I call my buddy Ed. “I got robbed,” I said.

“Shit,” Ed says. “What did they get?”

“My wallet and my Ipod,” I say.

“Where’d they take it from?” he asks.

“My person,” I say.


The detective, taps on the window, motioning me to lower it so we can talk. “Basically,” he says, “I can’t arrest these pricks unless you’re a hundred percent sure.”

Pricks. I want to laugh. Also scumbags. And don’t forget lowlifes. I hope I don’t have to see your ass before this episode is over, man.

“We didn’t recover any of your belongings,” he says. “So without any other evidence, we can’t charge them. Unless you’re sure. How much cash was in your wallet?”

“Nine bucks,” I say.

“You sure?” he asks.

“There was a five,” I say. “And some ones.” Wondering if he’s going to ask for a percentage.

The detective walks back to where the kids are. Everything is going on behind me. In a minute he comes back, shaking his head. “The one had eight dollars and some change in his pocket, and a receipt for something he bought. His dad gave him some money earlier. So unless you’re sure…”



(My assailants, if they had been famous reconstruction-era bandits Frank and Jesse James.)


I’m not willing to go above 90%. I think 90% is a pretty accurate description of how sure I am.


Besides, I don’t believe in Justice. At least, I don’t consider Justice a virtue.



(Captain America. Believed in Justice, and now he’s dead.)

My church taught me I was a born sinner, and that the wages of sin is death. And even though I deserved to die, Grace could set me free. So personally I don’t want much to do with Justice.

On a civic level, I believe there’s got to be some system to discourage criminal activity, sure, but I don’t connect that practical need to any higher principle of Justice.

Because it seems to me that Justice with a capital J cuts in both directions. It’s not Justice that those kids will get off for holding me up, that they’ll enjoy the benefit of the eclectic collection of country, southern rock, and Americana on my ipod for nothing.

It’s not justice that if I had said I was 100% sure it was them, even if it wasn’t them, they’d stand a pretty good chance of entering the criminal justice system as juveniles, at which point, statistically speaking, they would be screwed.

It’s also not Justice that, statistically speaking, those kids were screwed already the minute they were born into those shit hole projects, into a culture where it’s not all that uncommon for boys of a certain age to find a gun and a moped and look for someone to rob.

So to hell with Justice. I’ll take a little grace anywhere I can find it. And my Ipod back, please.