THE GREATER NEW ORLEANS SANITATION WORKERS STRIKE
I remember the Christmas Eve when Auntie Marguerite was arrested. Someone from the twenty-third precinct called to say that she had been picked up in a rough neighborhood for loitering, and "something we donĎt have a name for yet." He said that the arresting officer was searching the book of ordinances to find a name for what she had done.
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"You think Iíd make this kind of thing up?" the sergeant replied. "Better get here before we shut things down for the evening. You don't want that old lady spending Christmas in jail, do you?"
I drove to the police station, and I felt guilty that I hadnít insisted that she come for dinner. I had invited her for Thanksgiving but I was not adamant about it. Since my uncle died a few years ago, she spent more and more time alone, but she seemed to manage well. She had become even more independent than before. She responded indignantly to anything which she thought challenged her ability to survive alone. I called her frequently to invite her to come for dinner, but she always refused.
"Iíll come if I can cook," was her counterproposal. We tried that arrangement a few times but it didn't work out. She was slow and too old to cook for a hungry gang. Of course, she could never satisfy herself with baking just a pie or preparing one dish; she had no interest in playing sous chef to anyone. Eventually, she quit accepting our invitations. Instead, she satisfied herself with grand preemptive holiday dinners at her house the weekends before Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.
We had all been to Marguerite's for dinner just the week before Marguerite's scrape with the law. Dinner was wonderful (though a little long in coming to the table) and she appeared to be managing well for a seventy-eight year-old woman. Her faculties had diminished little since her husband Sal died. Everything in the house was in its place and her small patch of lawn was perfectly groomed.
But maybe Marguerite really wasn't doing as well as everyone thought. She had lost her
husband just the year before and she often told us how much she missed him.
"He was a clean, God-fearing man," she reminded everyone.
Sal was plant manager at the Crescent City Sausage factory. His job was to maintain the massive sausage making equipment, ensuring that the huge gears and grinders operated properly and produced a consistent product seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. When the company was bought by a conglomerate, Sal Salsiccia negotiated a contract which essentially guaranteed him a job for life.
Shortly after the takeover, however, Sal and the new ownership experienced regular conflicts over traditional recipes and manufacturing techniques.
"The sausage arts ain't all in-one-end-and-out-the-other," he complained bitterly.
One day, Sal disappeared from his work station. He was quite deaf and did not readily respond to the pages on the public address system, so no one showed particular alarm that he didn't answer the numerous pages. At the end of the third shift, workers on the packing department began noticing bits of cloth, shoelaces and buttons in the product. By the end of the day, Sal had become part of three hundred pounds of head sausage -- all neatly packed onto Styrofoam trays, weighed, shrink wrapped and stamped with The Pride of the Crescent City.
"He was pushed," Marguerite said. "I just know it. Them bastids killed my Sally."
If a change had come over Auntie Marguerite, that's when it started, I thought. I should have seen it. I should have been more attentive to Auntie's situation.
But when we had dinner at Marguerite's the week before, it was as if nothing had changed: everything in the house was in its place and her small patch of lawn was perfectly groomed. Perhaps her house and yard were a little too well-kept I thought later.
New Orleans was in the throes of a protracted labor dispute; the local sanitation workers had gone on strike, so ripe, reeking, stinking garbage covered every horizontal surface in the city. Everywhere one looked, stark, stinking evidence of the strike abounded. There were huge piles of oyster and crawfish shells from all of the seafood restaurants spilling into the streets. The stench and the mess were inescapable; everyone had a couple of small horror stories to tell about what they had seen in their neighbors' garbage.
Christmas was only weeks away but negotiations with the local teamster's union had become stalled while the city and the sanitation workers attempted to reach binding arbitration.
Incredibly, Margueriteís yard escaped the mayhem during the first few weeks of the strike. While trash lined every sidewalk and boulevard, Marguerite's yard remained pristine. It surprised no one that Auntie Marguerite had little trash outside her door. She lived alone on a meager pension; how much garbage could a frail, gray-haired seventy-eight year-old woman create?
Although everyone carried some stench upon him, Marguerite and her house always smelled fresh. The garbage strike had everyone else going a little crazy, but Marguerite accepted the situation calmly and pragmatically, as she did all other challenges in her life.
She appeared unworried that her plastic reindeer, blinking plastic Santa Clause, Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the Three Wise Men might have to share her small plot of ground with a few malodorous plastic bags. This too shall pass she told everyone.
It was during the fourth week when the unthinkable occurred: recyclables robberies. Gangs of rubbish pirates ransacked the neat curbside stacks of plastic trash bags, slashing plastic bags, rooting through the fetid mess and rendering the roads and streets of New Orleans nearly impassable. In only a few nights, paper pirates and aluminum can thieves laid further waste to every neighborhood of the city.
Enraged and humiliated that someone had scattered her trash among Santa Clause, Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and the Three Wise Men, Marguerite gathered it all into a cardboard box and attached a 3'x4' cardboard sign announcing No Recyclables.
Several days later, Marguerite awoke to discover that the recyclable robbers had struck again. They tore the box apart and spread its contents over her front yard. They propped the No Recyclables sign against Santa, and in the lower corner of the announcement, one of the miscreants had scrawled an indignant response: Why not? Get Some.
Marguerite declared war after that.
There were dump-and-run artists visiting from other neighborhoods, and Auntie Marguerite had a method for dealing with them. She spent afternoons on her porch with a lawn hose and a high power water nozzle, ready to stun the bejabers out of anyone who even looked as though he might drop a chicken bone or a candy wrapper onto her lawn.
This was all so unlike Auntie Marguerite, I remembered thinking. My frail, even-tempered, gray-haired aunt had become mean and vindictive.
As I drove to the police station, I wondered why she had been arrested in such a terrible neighborhood. Could she have been walking the streets in search of male company? I wondered. As distasteful as it might have been, the scenario seemed plausible. I once read an article in one of Auntie's Modern Maturity Magazines about how the elderly often suffer feelings of loneliness and desperation after the death of a spouse.
When I arrived at the police station, the sergeant told me that two more charges had been added to loitering and the one undisclosed charge: disturbing the peace and resisting arrest. Apparently, she became "a bit persnickety" (as she later confessed to me) when the arresting officer tried to search her and then attempted to put her in the patrol car.
The desk sergeant was a kindly man (though he had about him a slight scent of old sardines). He suggested to the bailiff that Auntie Marguerite be released to my custody without having to post bail. I signed the papers and put Margueriteís citation and court summons into my coat pocket, then sat in the waiting room. Small pieces of paper and other bits of trash covered the floor, and more blew in every time someone opened the door from the street. The contents of a large trash receptacle cascaded into the pot of an artificial tree and onto the floor. Through the window in the swinging doors I discerned three figures coming down the hall. Marguerite clutched one officer's arm while another grimaced and held several gaily decorated Christmas packages at arm's length.
"Auntie, what happened?" I asked.
"Donít talk to me," she snapped. I had never seen her like this before. Something was
Marguerite sat in silent, angry humiliation as we drove away from the police station, dodging rotten apple cores, beer bottles, flattened milk containers and other small objects which littered in the street. The trash covered the landscape such that I had difficulty recognizing familiar landmarks in the neighborhood.
I turned on the heat inside the car.
A timely, merciful cold snap had descended upon New Orleans, chilling the streets and abating the stench somewhat, but as we drove down St. Bernard Avenue, the smell of rotting garbage became more powerful, as if the essence of all things rotten had formed a puddle somewhere in the car.
I was still puzzled by the police officer's comment on the phone that the New Orleans Police Department had arrested my aunt for a transgression for which they had no name. One would think that a city known for its decadence would certainly have named and categorized every crime ever perpetrated against man and nature, but apparently, Auntie had pushed the envelope to where no one had gone before. I felt thankful that the police hadn't insisted that she remain locked up on Christmas Eve.
"Auntie, roll up your window, I said, but she didnít respond. She sat looking forward, her head turned slightly toward the rushing wind.
"Auntie, roll up the window! Itís cold out there and it smells awful!" I yelled, thinking she hadnít heard me. I cranked up the heat as Marguerite rolled up the window, hoping to improve her disposition a bit. "What were you doing in that God-awful neighborhood? You could have gotten robbed or killed. The Christmas gifts beg to be stolen."
Marguerite sat in stony silence, unmoved and unaffected by what I said.
The atmosphere inside the car hung heavily with the sickly smells of the strike; my eyes teared, and for a moment, I thought I would vomit onto the steering wheel.
"Auntie, youíre coming home with me. I insist. Itís Christmas Eve and the kids want to see you."
"I want to go home first," she said. "Don't pull into the driveway. Just go to the curb."
A light snow had begun to dust the windshield with tiny, fragile flakes which quickly melted into globules of water, then ran down the windshield. Auntie Marguerite lifted the pretty packages from the back seat and placed them onto the curb. Under the dim glow of the interior light, I read her citation:
Loitering, disturbing the peace, resisting arrest
and misrepresentation of goods for sale or charity.
"Just go," she said, pulling the car door shut. "Go!"
"But Auntie, those packages will be gone before you even get home," I chided. Marguerite tightened scarf over her head and pulled her coat closed.
"God, I hope so," she said, and then sank her head into her hands as we drove
away from the curb.
Date of Birth:
Charlotte, North Carolina
SalonDAArte, Morella Literary Arts Magazine, Morpo Review, etc.
Garland Keever Award for Humorous Fiction (University of North Carolina)
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