What a Dump
Sampling the Subtle Pleasures of a Summer Landfill
But I was determined to make a living as a trash hauler. I'd quit my job as a heath-care professional two weeks earlier to care for my ill wife (she has since passed on). Her condition improved, but we needed money. I had a pickup truck and irregular hours free. So I put an ad in the paper and started doing odd jobs: cleaning out yards and basements, hauling trash. I'd come home reeking, had to lobby my wife just to enter my house, but I had money in my pocket.
The work was never routine. I'd pull an oil tank out of a basement in the morning, haul a load of soiled diapers to the dump in the afternoon, and then, at night, collect $50 from a crying, terrified woman who called begging me to remove a dead mouse from behind her refrigerator. It was the easiest money I ever made, and I was her hero.
The Quarantine Road landfill sits near the tip of that triangle of land at Baltimore's southern border, stabbing into Anne Arundel County like a dirty knife. The trip to the dump takes you through the most industrialized part of town. Several oil and chemical companies have outposts in this far-flung corner of the city, recently vacated by its last holdout residents. The neighborhood is also a popular place to dispose of medical waste, or make asphalt and fertilizer. Trains pulling tanks filled with chlorine and sulphuric acid ride the rails; barges ply the filthy water of Curtis Creek, looking like lumbering turds in a toilet. Iron and concrete tubes rising from dirty buildings are gun barrels blowing smoke to the stars. They line the wide mouth of the creek, like a mocking upward thrust of the devil's middle finger aimed at the passing ships, at Baltimore, at the world. The black iron skeletons of a hundred lift cranes spike the sky like porcupine quills, encircling all the water in sight. Along Pennington Avenue, before it becomes Hawkins Point Road, there are lots filled with rusting cars, trucks, and boats, never used and never sold. Nothing in this part of town has a clean finish. This is not a good place to visit if you're prone to sudden and severe bouts of depression.
As you approach the end of the line, there's trash everywhere--a sloppy heap of railroad ties piled 20 feet high, looking like a huge burnt meat loaf; a mess of discarded household appliances, beat-up furniture, and old tires just past the drawbridge over Curtis Creek--small teases before the mountains of the dump. A marauding army of plastic bags and coffee cups blows over the mess and down Hawkins Point Road, toward the left turn at Quarantine Road.
My wife always thought I was a little touched in the head, and here's one of the reasons why: I like going to the landfill.
It's a huge place, big enough to accommodate at least a hundred football fields, with a rolling terrain of hills sculpted out of the 1,300 tons of garbage left there every day. The city brings in more trash, incinerated to a black, topsoil-like consistency, to help cover it all. With a light dusting of snow on top, you might swear you're in an Appalachian wilderness. The view across the mixed waters of Curtis Bay and the Patapsco River is as stunning as any vista in the city--the industrial sprawl of East Baltimore, no doubt every bit as forbidding up close as the gauntlet I run to get to Quarantine Road, shimmers when viewed from a distance.
There are other fascinations. The things people throw away will astound you: a 30-foot fiberglass boat, a two-ton load of pornographic magazines. To some people, a blanket of trash sloped on a hillside, before a dozer carries it off to build another mountain, is a veritable candy store. A new coat of paint, a bolt or screw, a good cleaning, and something can be made useful and valuable again. On a day of heavy dumping, you could scavenge enough material to build a quality home and furnish it too. You don't know the extent of material wealth in this country until you visit a landfill.
Then there are the birds. Everyday birds, granted--pigeons, crows, starlings, gulls--but so many of them! Three or 4 thousand some days. And that's not counting the ducks, geese, and assorted waterfowl that drop down into the ponds and inlets around and about the landfill. The environmentalist prejudice toward species on the brink of extinction can blind people to the wonders of those common birds that have thrived in the very jaws of humankind's industry.
The absolute ruler of the landfill is the herring gull. Its cousins the ring-bill and great black-back come strictly for the business of eating, but the herrings seem to wallow in the mush just for the sheer joy of it, relishing the pungent odor of a good old man-made landfill as they glide aerodynamically or hover in the air like fluttering doves. They display another kind of grace, almost as compelling, on their two webbed feet. To watch these birds dance over the sharp edges of glass, nails, and all manner of construction debris is, quite literally, to watch a grand performance of Swan Lake, to observe the laws of balance and counterbalance meticulously kept. No other bird can dodge the traffic of landfill bulldozers and trucks to get at a morsel of food like a herring gull. The food must just taste better to them when it's retrieved inches from the teeth of a rolling dozer.
One of the best shows goes on when a huge Load-Packer truck rolls in, the rear hydraulic blade pushing and squeezing as much as eight tons of garbage into it's belly. Under incredible pressure, wet garbage bags explode from the rear of the truck, the smell rising to the high heavens. Hovering gulls swarm all over them, ripping at bags like children on Christmas morning. An even better spectacle, one few visitors to the landfill pay attention to, is a gaggle of gulls, mostly herrings, riding a wave of trash being pushed by a bulldozer. If it's something good--say, a batch of rancid chitterlings--the birds will hover over the moving mound of garbage in a frenzy, looking like pecking, flapping helicopters. Some even manage to get a shaky footing on the mobile mass. I've seen hundreds of them riding that wave, like strange surfers in a fetid ocean.
But for the landfill bird-watcher, nothing matches the spectacle every summer, crab season. Gulls love blue crabs almost as much as Marylanders do, and they don't have the superstitions about mixing crabs with other foods or avoiding the "dead man." Our refusal to eat crabs that are dead before cooking is a godsend to the gulls. Trucks loaded with dead crabs from crab houses all over the area dump their tasty contents just about every day during the hot months, and it is a sight to see. Landfill workers get their rakes and baskets ready--in a large heap of dead crabs there will be five or six fakers who have escaped the steam pot and will try to run. Hundreds of gulls, nearly all herrings, hover around the truck. This is one of the few times that a gull will get within touching distance of a human. Their penalty, if they jump the gun and try to get first pick before the workers, is a bop on the head with a rake.
After the attendants leave, the gulls descend on the crabs, knowing that the clock is ticking, that the bright blade of the bulldozer will eventually move in their direction and sweep it all into oblivion. The scene becomes a wild, fast-moving feeding frenzy. There's not as much time to fuss and fight when five or six bushels of dead crabs are lying around. Mangled, eaten-out shells, pecked clean of meat, build up at what seems like fast-forward speed. The gulls' sharp, powerful hooked bills slash, pry, and rip with blinding speed, plucking meat from the most remote recesses of the shell. Meat, gristle, and chunks of the soft shell of the underbelly are torn out collectively, in one violent stroke of a bill, then swallowed whole. Crab claws shake and wiggle as if they've come back to life under the relentless pounding of bills.
Some gulls, preferring to dine alone, fly in like cargo planes to pick up one limp crustacean after another. Sometimes an attendant can be seen stomping his foot in disgust after seeing gulls fly off with alive-and-kicking crabs in their beaks. The smaller ring-bills, careful to avoid the rapid-fire pistons of the herrings' bills, dart in and out for tidbits. Some, bolder, rip off a crab claw and run for their lives. Excitement over this primeval meal becomes so intense that anything with the slightest resemblance to crab meat--mangled shell, pieces of dry wall--is snapped up and swallowed whole.
The landscape of the landfill is always changing. Bulldozers and backhoes constantly shift and move dirt and trash according to some mysterious final plan that seems more puzzling to me every day. I just go where the attendant tells me to go to dump my load. Hills, gullies, craters, and roadways, it seems, are born overnight. Mountains are flattened, valleys become hills. The main dumping area is in one section for a while, then rotates to another.
In this environment, ephemeral ponds and streams emerge according to the degree of rainfall and the complex calculus of water flowing through an ever- changing surface. There was a lot of rain last summer. The result was Lake Landfill. At least, that's what I called it.
Lake Landfill lasted a couple of months before it too became a bulldozer's victim. From across the dump it seemed beautiful, enough to make even an old wart like me want to dust off a fishing road or sit on its peaceful shore, skipping pebbles and pondering life. The gulls just floated in it, guided around like paper boats in the wind. The unused portion of the landfill beyond the lake ran into the velvet blue water of Curtis Bay; the Baltimore skyline rose in an awesome fairy-tale haze on the other side of the bay. I levitated to the lake, mesmerized by the thought that all my troubles would disappear, like the gulls who scattered to clear a path for me.
When 1 reached the shore, I was snapped back to consciousness by the unbelievable assault on my nose. Lake Landfill had the look and smell of an all-too-productive enema. In the shallow water at the edge of the lake all sorts of detritus was visible: soda bottles, beer bottles, knives, forks, shoes, clothes, an ironing board. Four condoms lurked in the water like sea nettles; a tampon danced seductively nearby. Documents that at some time, to somebody, meant success or failure, a good life or bad one, floated on the water like dead fish. A riot of paper, from the lowliest potato-chip bag to the most complicated corporate report, began to blow over the flat land in front of the dump site in a grand celebration of freedom and reunion.
Just then I saw a great black-back gull, the biggest one I'd ever spotted, standing on the rusted-out bones of a transmission on the far end of the lake. I walked toward the bird, slowly. It waited until I was within maybe 20 feet, then spread its massive wings and hovered briefly in the air. With a single flap of its wings it soared straight up, as if it were on an invisible elevator, rising above the landfill. It soared far out over the water, toward the city skyline and, finally, out of sight.
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