Author Archives: Carl Zimring

About Carl Zimring

I study junk and talk trash. Author of Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America and general editor of The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage.

Reg E. Cathey

About 4 1/2 years ago, our late and much-missed dog Hudson landed a role in an independent film called Nasty Baby, which Sebastian Silva was filming down the street from our apartment. This led to a few weeks where Jen and Hudson spent long hours on the set, and I would sometimes visit briefly while staying at home with our frail older dog Chloe.

The antagonist in the film was played by Reg E. Cathey. If you see it, he plays a frightening and belligerent character. Proof he was a splendid actor, because he was the most warm and charming presence on the block with the cameras off. Kind to our dog, and friendly to me when I would drop a dog bed off during a long shoot. Meeting him was a highlight of our experience with the film, not because of his impressive acting resume, but because he was such a nice man.

All this made news of his death last week particularly sad in our household. He leaves behind some terrific performances and, no doubt, many, many friends.

Advertisements

On an error in my New York Times essay: Where the “death every day” mistake originated.

The online version of my New York Times op-ed on the perils of waste work has been corrected and eliminates the error discussed below. I owe the readers, the Times, and all involved in waste handling occupations context for the original error that was corrected.

In my essay on waste work in the Saturday Times, I made an error obvious to sharp-eyed readers: 31 deaths of refuse and recyclable material collectors in 2016 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) does not equal one death every day. The error is inexcusable but has an explanation: my research covers waste-related work in several occupational categories ranging from janitorial services and laundry work to salvage yards, and in my notes I used in developing the essay I consulted BLS data for the larger category: “administrative and support and waste management and remediation services.” The number of deaths in that category (including the refuse and recycling workers, and also related categories including janitorial and cleaning work — excluding maids and housekeeping cleaners — and hazardous waste remediation, among other occupations such as landscape maintenance and pest extermination) in each of the years between 2013 and 2016 range between 360 and 458, a number that sadly meets the death-per-day rate as expressed in the published essay. Among the 2016 deaths within this category included the following subcategories: 16 in janitorial work and 67 in waste management and remediation services.

(Outside of that broader category, but pertinent to discussions of the hazards of waste work, BLS reported 64 deaths of building cleaning workers, 19 deaths of recyclable material merchant wholesalers, 8 deaths in laundry and drycleaning services, 8 deaths of first-line supervisors of housekeeping and janitorial workers, and 6 deaths in sewage treatment facilities in 2016.)

In my mind, I was thinking of all of these workers when approving the final wording of the essay. However, that thought remained only in my notes and my mind: I made no reference to the above data in the essay or sources I gave the Times (nor did I provide distinctions in the “administrative and support and waste management and remediation services” category between waste-related occupations, and, for example, landscaping services). Responsibility for this error is mine and mine alone.

I regret the error because it detracts from my point that we must recognize and protect the often-overlooked workers who handle wastes. In doing so, I myself obscured the deaths of the workers who perform the various waste-related tasks described in this letter, while presenting an assertion that did not match the data for refuse and recyclable material collectors. I write this letter to recognize those workers in the conversation that no doubt will be generated by my error.

New York Times essay on the hazards of waste work 50 years after the Memphis Strike.

We have entered the fiftieth anniversary of the Memphis Strike, and I wrote a piece for the New York Times about the hazards of waste work then and now.

The hazards facing people in this line of work have a long history — they inspired the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. That walkout was set off in part by the deaths of two Memphis sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death by the hydraulic press of the truck they were riding on one rainy winter evening.

The strike, whose organizers demanded higher pay, the recognition of the workers’ union and safer working conditions, is often associated with the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis the day after delivering his “Mountaintop” speech in support of striking sanitation workers. But when we think about the strike, we should also remember that half a century after his death, the work Dr. King was focused on in the last days of his life remains unfinished.

Thanks to Jenee Desmond-Harris and Clay Risen for giving me space in the paper, and Chris Kindred for the accompanying illustration.

The Dirty (and Racist) Origins of Donald Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Slur

Heck of a way to celebrate an anniversary. For the one-year mark of the Trump Administration, I look at President Trump’s rhetorical choices when discussing immigration policy with senators in my essay for the Washington Post’s Made by History blog.

President Trump didn’t choose his xenophobic slurs in a vacuum — his use of shithole or shithouse reflects the vicious racism that swept him into office and, as in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, portends tragic, inhumane, racist, exclusionary policies related to people he equates with excrement.

Thanks to Brian Rosenwald for editing and Alexandra Filindra for suggesting the piece.

The Best Music of 2017

2017 was a brutal year in many ways, and no less so in the world of music. Many of the musicians who informed the sensibilities of my past lists died, some long before their time. That directly shaped this year’s list and inspired the creation of the records at the #1 and #10 slots. Click on each album title to hear selections from each record and instructions to support the musicians by purchasing their work.

TheWheelAndTheAlphabetCover
Karl Hendricks died in January at the age of 46. During his life, he wrote, taught, was the buyer for (and eventually owner of) Pittsburgh’s best new records store, and released nine records. In all of these endeavors he set a standard for excellence combined with a quiet, wry decency that sought to help people find hidden excellence. His life made many lives better.

No surprise, then, that when Karl became ill, the community of people he touched came to his aid with fundraisers in 2014 and 2015. In the days after Karl’s memorial service, a plan to use Bandcamp to assemble a benefit record for his family quickly fell into place. The musicians on this tribute range from the highly recognizable (Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo, Chris Brokaw) to those that toured with Karl (Kyle Sowashes). Tracks by fans who never met the man adjoin those from friends and coworkers who knew Karl for more than a quarter of a century. Karl’s lyrics tempt comparisons to Raymond Carver for his precise details about the lives of working people, though my mind goes to Pittsburgh writer Jim Daniels as the closest analogue. His melodies and beautifully composed guitar parts produced songs sturdy enough to withstand adaptations into country music (The Beagle Brothers), electronica (Entertainment), and, well, incompetence (The Card Party).

That last track is mine. Yes, a record I played on is #1 on my list. I make no claims to objectivity here, nor do I see this fact as a conflict. Music does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of the cultural fabric of communities. I am part of the community that benefited immeasurably from Karl’s contributions to Pittsburgh and the world, and so I am part of this small contribution by the community paying respects to the man as well as a listener who deeply appreciates the music on this compilation.

One of the benefits of making this record a Bandcamp release is the project could grow gradually over time from its initial release date. As of this writing, 22 different artists have contributed to a living, evolving tribute. The Wheel & the Alphabet is not the only home of a Karl Hendricks tribute this year (the Gotobeds’ brilliant cover of “Flowers Avenue” came out late in the fall), but it does a fine job of showing the influence and brilliance of the man. Thanks always to Karl for showing us the best way forward.

Unreality_cover
You know Cohen from his work in Silkworm and Bottomless Pit over the past quarter century. (If you do not, and you are somehow reading this anyway, just BUY EVERYTHING NOW and enjoy.) Here, Chicago trio Light Coma acts as his Crazy Horse for a mostly-electric set of new songs. Cohen’s ability to turn mundane details into poignant character sketches has defined his work at least as far back as “Don’t Make Plans This Friday,” and here it shines through in the opening “Repack,” a collection of overhead children’s dialogue that becomes a swirling anthem. Neil Young comparisons come with the alternately gentle acoustic fingerpicking and shrieking electric lead lines, as well as the decision to close each side of the record with alternate versions of “Midwest DTs.” If these are Cohen’s “ditch years,” may a flurry of releases come soon, as his voice is a distinctive one that I always have time to appreciate.

Dream Syndicate, How Did I Find Myself Here? (Anti-)

howdidifindmyselfherecover
In the three decades since the Dream Syndicate’s last proper album Ghost Stories, leader Steve Wynn has sharpened his writing further, become an even better guitarist, and forged a partnership with stunt guitarist Jason Victor that has been the most sustained collaboration Wynn’s had with any lead guitarist. Here Wynn and Victor team up with the Ghost Stories rhythm section (as well as that album’s coproducer Chris Cacavas on keyboards and, for one track, original bassist Kendra Smith on vocals) to create a record as informed by the care and craft of the Miracle 3 records as the cacophony of 1980s-era Dream Syndicate. What is especially glorious is how Victor takes to the sound and sensibility of the earlier band, matching the violence of anything Karl Precoda or Paul Cutler did on record. The result is a record that is fully in the spirit of past triumphs without ever feeling derivative, and possibly Wynn’s finest record since Here Come the Miracles.

OUT, Swim Buddies (Comedy Minus One)

SwimBuddiesCover
The singalong (yell-along) album of the year comes from veterans of Kalamazoo’s Minutes, who bring the rock and then get out of the way…eleven songs in half an hour, none feeling rushed nor wasting a second. “Left for Dead” is one of the more inspiring songs possible with a title like that, and if you manage to listen to “Cyclists” or “Back That Truck Up” and don’t get their hooks lodged in your consciousness, then we simply are wired differently. I am grateful (though not surprised) that Swim Buddies is sufficiently faithful to OUT’s exhilarating live sound.

Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock (Yep Roc)

HitchcockEponymousCover
Covering “Vegetable Man” while with the Soft Boys no doubt cemented Hitchcock as an acolyte of Syd Barrett, but his own music reveals a writer more grounded on Earth…indeed, his placement of people within ecosystems featuring insects, fish, and birds make him one of the least anthropocentric songwriters I know. He is also a terrific guitarist influenced by the 60s British folk-rock movement at least as much as he is by Barrett and John Lennon, and these ten tracks show off his chops and wryly fatalistic lyrics alongside contributions by past collaborators Gillian Welch and Grant Lee Philips as well as new ones in his current Nashville home. The mood reminds me of a cross between 1989’s Queen Elvis and 2004’s Spooked, though more electric than the latter and less self-consciously weird than the former. (No less funny, though, including a song about the lead character in the ridiculous film Mindhorn.)

 

Joel RL Phelps and the Downer Trio, Consulate (12XU)

ConsulateCover
Joel Phelps is a master interpreter of songs, as evident by the inspired covers he has released of songs as diverse as the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” and Iris Dement’s “Calling for You.” Here he and the Downer Trio (joined by Marino Correia) reinterpret four of his own songs, all spare acoustic versions of tracks from Gala, their 2013 album. The effect evokes the skeletal arrangements of the mostly-covers Inland Empire record while reminding listeners of how strong the Gala songs are. Brilliant as always, and a fine companion to the 2013 LP.

Clipping, Splendor and Misery (Sub Pop)

Clipping_Splendor&Misery
This came out in 2016, but I didn’t hear it until the winter. (Somehow my attention span for Daveed Diggs’s work in the fall was absorbed completely by his recurring role on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.)  Splendor and Misery reminds me of science fiction radio plays of the early 80s (most famously the original version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) as filtered through an Afrofuturist perspective ranging from hiphop to gospel and just enough white noise to make this lodge into my brain.

crop-circles-cover
Halvorson’s Away With You was on last year’s list; this record departs from the ensemble sound of that one by emphasizing the virtuosic interplay between Halvorson’s guitar and Courvoisier’s piano. That said, the contrast is not that great. Initially, Crop Circles lulls you into complacency as tracks start slowly, then gradually pick up in intensity as both spew dense clusters of notes that flesh out the sound as if a large band was playing. Not recommended listening if it makes you lose faith in your own guitar or piano abilities, but if insecurity is not a problem, enjoy this spirited duet of two confident, dexterous musicians.

Game Theory, Supercalifragile (KCM Records)

SupercalifragileCoverThe first half of this record is vintage Scott Miller. Witty lyrics, incredibly melodic guitar and keyboards, and that distinctive voice singing songs that rank with the best of his 90s work with the Loud Family. Hell, they rank with his 80s classics, making the resurrection of the Game Theory name worthy.

The second half is distracting. Painfully so, due not at all to the people who worked on it and entirely due to the circumstance that necessitated its existence. The problem is Miller’s voice is only detectable as writer, as friends and fans ranging from Aimee Mann to Ted Leo take over lead vocals. This was unavoidable, as Supercalifragile is a posthumous release painstakingly assembled by Miller’s widow and Ken Stringfellow, and their work is remarkable in achieving the level of detail that was a hallmark of Miller’s craft. In a vacuum, these tracks are beautiful and thoughtfully rendered in Miller’s style. Listening to them just reminds me that this distinctive, talented, and very nice man is no longer with us. The one exception is his onetime bandmate Alison Faith Levy’s one lead vocal, as I can fool myself into thinking it a spotlight feature for her made under normal conditions. I may grow to enjoy these tracks more and greatly appreciate the work that went into them, but I would be lying if I said I enjoyed them as much as the great Miller tracks on the first half.

Archival Release of the Year

SavageYoungDuCover
Alternate title Thank You So Much Terry Katzman. This 3 CD/4 LP set documents the early years Grant Hart, Bob Mould, and Greg Norton played together, with much better audio fidelity on contemporary live work than found on Land Speed Record. Katzman’s tapes made this possible, and this surpasses the Rhino edition of Everything Falls Apart and More as the best sounding CDs from the band. May Numero Group have the opportunity to treat the band’s later  work with the same care; for now, this serves as a fitting tribute to Hart, who died a few weeks before the set was released.

Also well worth your time: Lardo, SinkingMark Eitzel, Hey Mr. Ferryman, Xetas, The Tower, The Bismarck, Follow Your Heart, and Jon Langford, Four Lost Souls.

Check the links for information on purchasing these fine records and compensating their creators, or in the case of too many of these records, the creators’ surviving loved ones.

Resources for Observing and Understanding America Recycles Day

recycle-logoWednesday is America Recycles Day. It’s a day that reveals the complex history of industry, consumer society, and our attitudes towards the environment.

Time magazine’s 2016 feature on the history of recycling, featuring interviews with Susan Strasser, Bartow Elmore, and me. I encourage readers whose curiosity is whetted by our quotes to seek out Susan’s book Waste and Want, Bart’s book Citizen Coke, and my Cash for Your Trash for elaboration.

My 2017 post for the Organization of American Historians on the history of recycling. I allude to it in the footnotes, but Samantha MacBride’s Recycling Reconsidered is an indispensable book for understanding how the system of recycling functions (and does not function).

This 2016 episode of BackStory Radio featuring segments with Brett Mizelle and Catherine McNeur, Robin Nagle, David Sklansky, Elmore, and me provides more historical context for what and how we discard, and how private and public recycling programs are shaped by that history. The episode concludes with an interview of Gary Anderson, who designed the recycling logo that appears at the top of this post.

Aluminum Upcycled at the Society for the History of Technology meeting in Philadelphia, October 26-29.

zimringpostedThe Society for the History of Technology is holding its annual meeting in Philadelphia this year, and I will discuss my book Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective (available now) as part of the “Envirotechnical Responses to Pollution Concerns” panel with Hugh Gorman, Ellen Spears, and Scott Knowles on October 28. The panel begins at 2pm.

Johns Hopkins University Press will have copies of the book for sale at the conference. The Press describes my history of sustainable design strategies this way:

Beginning in 1886 with the discovery of how to mass produce aluminum, the book examines the essential part the metal played in early aviation and the world wars, as well as the troubling expansion of aluminum as a material of mass disposal. Recognizing that scrap aluminum was as good as virgin material and much more affordable than newly engineered metal, designers in the postwar era used aluminum to manufacture highly prized artifacts. Zimring takes us on a tour of post-1940s design, examining the use of aluminum in cars, trucks, airplanes, furniture, and musical instruments from 1945 to 2015. 

By viewing upcycling through the lens of one material, Zimring deepens our understanding of the history of recycling in industrial society. He also provides a historical perspective on contemporary sustainable design practices. Along the way, he challenges common assumptions about upcycling’s merits and adds a new dimension to recycling as a form of environmental absolution for the waste-related sins of the modern world. Raising fascinating questions of consumption, environment, and desire,  Upcycling Aluminum is for anyone interested in industrial and environmental history, discard studies, engineering, product design, music history, or antiques.