The Awful Truth: Futility- The mook with a thousand faces

Cintra Wilson rails against UPS, is fleeced by her formerly beloved local pasta joint and rejoices when a Brooklyn neighborhood organizes against a waste dump.

By Cintra Wilson
May 5, 1998 2:37PM (UTC)
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Has it come to anybody else's attention that UPS is operated by mindlessly destructive Visigoths and totally ungoverned by any decent, civilized element? Never fall for the "two-day delivery" scam. First, they make you jump through an outrageous hour-long obstacle course of elaborate, flaming "safe-delivery" bureaucracy in order to protect your package from themselves. Then when they have your box, they catapult it into some filthy, damp crater filled with angry alcoholics with forklifts whose task it is to ensure the loss or outright destruction of your package. This appears to be a process motivated by raw spite more than theft. They killed a video camera for me last week, and then delivered me the replacement four days late, in a charred, leaking heap covered with hateful bootprints.

Who do you call when these major institutions fuck up so badly? Nobody's afraid of the Better Business Bureau. "I'm calling the BBB!" you shout into the phone. "Ooh, I'm scared. Go ahead. Call the FBI too, while you're at it," they taunt, knowing that they have a Papa Doc Duvalier type of absolute, corrupt power over your shipping needs, and that to make the life of UPS anywhere near miserable you'd have to devote your entire life to calling people who won't help you and being put on hold for 45 minutes at a stretch and/or be sleeping with several senators. Send goods to your enemies via UPS, I figured. Send bags of live bacteria, human hands.


Anyway, it made me feel sort of helpless; my voice, my tiny complaints, all sucked into the horrible din of day-to-day corporate unfairness like a mosquito into a jet engine, with nary an eyelash shed by Mammon.

To compound this feeling of pounding my head against the wall, some friends and I ended up at one of our trusty old-standby restaurants, a Little Italy hole-in-the-wall that could generally be counted on for the good $7-a-mound pasta. When the bill came, we were all shocked by the fact that the ravioli special weighed in at a hefty $20 a plate, a figure deeply out of line with the otherwise thrifty eats prices. So I got up and assaulted the waiter, a flat-nosed, unhappy little thug of the Rocco and His Brothers that aren't Alain Delon variety, and gave him an openly irritated but not unreasonable dress-down for not informing my crew that the pasta specials were three times the price of the normal pasta menu.

He followed me back to my table and started fighting with me in his lizardine monotone, waggling his hands. "But the shock," I and the rest of my table kept retorting. "The incredible difference between your Screw the Tourist specials and your normal everyday local favorite slop. The vast financial gulf between these two things," we kept saying, trying to make him understand. There was a moment where everybody realized that the waiter knew exactly what we were talking about, but had dug himself in to such an indefensible zone that the only thing for him to do was go all the way with it. That was the moment when things got to feeling ugly. The issue was no longer the fishy prices. It became suddenly obvious that the real crime was that he was from the Old Country and I was a chick, and dared to speak to him in anything other than a tone of whimpering submission. He was ready to slit me open like a trout with his crumber.


The owner of the restaurant tried to placate us after Signore Waiter waved his arms in a sputtering Italo-Ego-Fury for a few minutes, in full sight of our table. One of the women I was with said, "Incredible! It's just like Rome. They rip you off, then they argue with you, then try to make you feel guilty. The only thing they didn't do that they would have done in Rome is start crying, so that you felt so bad you had to leave them a huge tip." I'd name the restaurant, but I'd probably end up standing at the bottom of the Gowanus canal wearing a pair of cement KISS boots within a month, waving back and forth slowly, green and sad among the sunken guns.

Then I saw something the other day that made me think it was the '60s all over again, and that the People could actually do things. Williamsburg is an upcoming bohemian area of Brooklyn, largely comprising old immigrant families living side by side with students and artists and other counterculture types; it's a basically safe, low-to-moderate-income neighborhood with no real drug presence. The State Department of Environmental Conservation, which I guess is the funny, jokey name they gave themselves, gave a provisional "OK" recently to USA Waste Services, a Dallas-based waste corporation, to open a garbage dump on the Williamsburg waterfront, where huge trucks would blast in front of people's homes every three minutes dropping off 5,000 tons of trash every day, forever. The site in question, abandoned at the moment, is a totally beautiful piece of prime real estate, with the best unobstructed view of Manhattan anywhere, and Williamsburg residents have cut big holes in the chain-link fence around it in order to hang out and walk their dogs by the East River. The neighborhood, which is already saturated with garbage transfer stations, is eligible for millions of dollars of state money to turn the area into a public park, and people have been fighting for years to do just that. The other day, the state held a local hearing at the nearby high school to help decide the issue, and it looked like all of Williamsburg actually showed up.

There were cars everywhere. There was a packed crowd all over the auditorium like ants on butter, jamming the doors, many people unable to get inside. It was like one of those Frank Capra scenes where the stakes get raised outrageously. Artists came out of their raw-space cubbyholes and brought their eccentrically dressed little children; old wash-faded Polish babushka ladies were there alongside old Italian ladies with their white and pink hair freshly chemical-set; the restaurant owners came out with the struggling young professionals; they were all neck to neck with a massive spin-art dose of alternative wastrels in their 20s with metal studs in their heads and custom skateboards. The famous Williamsburg Bearded Lady was teetering by the door on her stilts. A friend of mine was out in her business suit trying to make our side look more respectable. Serious girls with big sunglasses looked like old pictures of Joan Didion. Fey young afro boys in golden shirts from Asia looked like old pictures of Roger Daltrey. There was the intoxicating whirr in the building
of a spontaneous group project.


There was much speculation in the crowd that the shifty Legislature abetting the dump proposal indicated that the garbage transfer business was one of the last vestiges of true Mafia power on the East Coast. One of USA Waste's V.P.'s was at the meeting, but wisely didn't say anything; the crowd was beginning to "smell good to itself" (a term an African-American teacher of mine used to describe her teenage son discovering the various personal bounties of puberty and acting cocky) and might have turned lynchful.

A bunch of people all shouting for the same thing and cooperating is bewilderingly sexy. Everybody felt very juiced by their previously latent community power. It was easy to see how mass hysteria could take over people's lives -- the suddenly huge, ungoverned vibe could have turned instantly janky and we all could have been out feverishly marching to Dallas or burning cop cars or something. It made you see how something totally frightening like Nazism could happen. There were riot cops lined up outside with barricades when we left the auditorium, but there were absolutely no news cameras.


If only there were a decent leader around to sculpt this kind of energy in a positive way. To whip up the heart of the mob -- this is true power.

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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