Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Herding Goats in San Francisco

Goats are big business. It started with Goats 'R' Us in San Diego in the '80s. Brilliant idea: instead of using gasoline-powered, air- and noise-polluting machines to clear fields of weeds or paying labor costs for humans to do it by hand, use herds of goats who'd like nothing better than to graze fresh pastures all day. Since then, goat herding companies have been popping up all over California to rent their flocks to those who'd like their eco-friendly and economical services. I used to work for a friend and his mother who'd been managing goats for four years. They had just gotten a contract with the San Francisco Port Authority and so I did my training in the city on Pier 96 by Hunters Point.

Pier 96 is the last of the piers going down the bay side of the city. It's an industrial zone, hardly the bucolic setting which one might normally imagine to be appropriate to the herding of goats. The inland side of the pier is a railyard with a few dozen boxcars. On the southeast corner is a parking lot for postal trucks and police cars and a course for training emergency vehicle drivers. There's a port where ships come from somewhere on the Pacific to unload their cargo. On the northeast corner is a factory that smells like rancid cat food. I was told it's a plant where animal remains are melted down for industrial purposes. On the southwest corner, next to the main entrance, four or five men spend their days packing toxic, contaminated dirt into barrels for shipment to a storage facility in Utah. In the middle of the pier was a pile of rubble from highways and bridges. Wrapping around the dusty pile was a 22-acre field of weeds. Hidden among the weeds were a few homeless encampments. There were broad views of the skyline downtown, the Twin Peaks and fog rolling over them each afternoon, the Bay Bridge, and Oakland and Berkeley across the bay.

We brought in two herds totaling 1,020 goats. They cleared about an acre a day. My job consisted mainly of setting up and taking down rolls of electric fence. I'd clear a foot-wide path of weeds with a mower, roll out the fence in 100-foot segments, hook it up to a car battery and a solar panel, and check the voltage. Otherwise, I just had to make sure the goats had sufficient water, mineral salt licks, and tubs of molasses.

We had an Australian shepherd dog named Hemp. Hemp was severely abused and traumatized by a previous owner. He ran away with his tail between his legs from every human he saw except my friend who rescued and trained him and the shepherd who worked with him. Hemp was about as phychologically disturbed as a dog could be.

A word about goat-dog relations: the goats are afraid of the dog. The dog enjoys tormenting the goats and feels a tingling from his predator roots somewhere in the back of his brain. The shepherd puts the dog behind the goats, which makes them run away from the dog and toward wherever the shepherd wants them to go.

One day Hemp quit his job. The goats were being moved from one enclosure to another. It was a hot afternoon and Hemp just didn't feel like running around. He wanted to be back in his cage where there was water, shade, and security. So he lay down and ignored all commands to stay behind the goats. The goats escaped and started wandering all over Pier 96. Three humans couldn't contain the goats the way one dog can, and after several hours of chasing the beasts, they called in someone from another company to bring another dog. When the dog finally arrived, the goats were all herded into the pen in about 10 minutes.

One day when I wasn't working the goats cleared a patch near the rubble pile and uncovered a dead body. The guy was apparently dead for a long time. All that was left was a clothed skeleton wrapped in a blanket. The cops came and took the body but we never found out what happened. On my last day at the site all that was left was the yellow police tape.

From Pier 96 the goats were moved to their next assignment: a beautiful, idyllic winery hidden in the hills near Petaluma.

Bhimashankar to Karjat, October 1997

My friend Kuldeep and I took a bus from Pune to Bhimashankar, a village in the Sahyadri Mountains at the source of the Bhimashakar river. The village is perched on top of a steep cliff that drops straight down roughly a kilometer into the long, wide valley below. Looking off the cliff to the left a lower sharp, rocky ridge comes out and then rises to a spike before dropping off. At the top of the spike there used to be a small post where a guard would sit during the time of the warrior king Shivaji and watch for invaders. In addition to the path that goes from Bhimashakar into the valley, villagers also have the option of climbing down a ladder that goes all the way down the cliff. This ladder is not used during the monsoon season.

We walked into the forest to try to find the shrine at the river source. At the entrance to the forest was a sign with a painting of the various dangerous animals we'd have to watch out for. There was a tiger, a bear, some sort of spotted feline (jaguar?), and various poisonous snakes. We didn't find the shrine, so we went to the top of Nag Fani, or Snake Head, a nearby peak on top of the cliff.

Directly at the foot of the cliff was a jungle. Leaning our heads over the cliff we could clearly hear every little insect, bird, and critter down there. Leaning back just a few inches, we could hear absolutely nothing. There was an invisible wall beyond which sound did not travel.

We decided to climb down into the valley the next day. Kuldeep wanted to go to Karjat, a town reputed to make the best wada pav, a Maharashrian potato patty street snack. Since villagers in India are notorious for giving directions that are misleading, confusing, or just plain wrong, we decided to ask several people how to get there and how far a walk it would be. Most people said if we just went down the cliff we'd get there anywhere between two and six hours. One guy said that we could get there in less than an hour and that someone brings milk from there every day. One other man said we were crazy to think of walking to Karjat, that it would take a week. Since all but one person told us could do it in less than a day, we decided to give it a go.

We got up at sunrise the next morning and started walking. As soon as we hit the trail we met an old man who was walking in the same direction, so we walked together. It was hard for us to keep up with him even though we were in our early twenties, he was about seventy, and we were going down hill. The path took a gradual slope down the side of the cliff and went through some thin-treed woods. When we arrived in the jungle that we saw from the top of the cliff there were many large spider webs across the path inhabited by fist-sized yellow and black spiders. The mist gave the jungle an eerie quality.

We came to a clearing. The old man pointed to a house just off the path where he was going. He pointed to another house down in the valley and told us that his brother lived there. We should stop in when we pass it, he said, and if we went straight down the path we were on we could reach the house in about 45 minutes. We thanked the man and continued walking.

A friendly dog started following us. The dog would often walk ahead as if it was showing us the way. Somehow we got onto a different path from the dog. The path became steep and we lost elevation quickly. We could hear the dog barking to us from somewhere in the woods, but we had dropped so far that we didn't feel like backtracking. As the barking faded away, so did the path. It got smaller and smaller until it ended at a dried up creek bed of boulders under the canopy of the jungle. At this point there was nothing to do but go down the creek bed. It would lead to the valley eventually.

In the shade of the trees and the relative humidity of the creek bed the swarm of mosquitoes was horrible. We tapped each boulder with our walking sticks before stepping on it so as not to startle any snakes that might be resting underneath. Kuldeep chose this moment to point out that if a snake jumped out at us from a tree we were probably fucked. I thought about the predators we had seen painted on the sign the previous afternoon. We thought maybe the cats were nocturnal, but we weren't too sure.

After at an hour or two of this nonsense, we reached the valley floor and the jungle gave way to something like a savannah. There was no path, just thorny weeds and dead brown grass. Looking back and up we could see Nag Fani and the cliff wall dominating the valley.

Eventually we came to a wadi, the smallest type of Maharashtrian village. The wadi was a square of huts with an open area in the middle. As we walked through the entrance children stopped playing, women stopped picking stones out of rice, men sitting in front of their houses stared, and all the dogs started barking furiously. The barking dogs conveyed the surprise and alarm the villagers felt at seeing us. They barked for a very tense ten seconds or so until an old woman threw some stones at them. The way the people looked at us we might as well have stepped off a spaceship and had antennae growing out of our heads. Here we were, a Westerner and a city slicker from Pune, dressed in jeans and wearing large backpacks, arriving without warning at the back end of a remote village that had no road, nothing modern, nothing to tie it to the outside world except a foot path. When we told them that we had just come from the jungle, they thought we were mad. Didn't we know there were tigers in there? A mob of children gathered around us as we filled our water bottles at the back of someone's house. We asked for directions to Karjat. They pointed us down the path to a village with a road and said we'd be able to get a bus from there.

As we were walking down the path we came to a farm. There was an old man, a young woman, and a cow. The man gave us a couple glasses of milk from the cow and Kuldeep told him our story. I didn't understand the conversation, but as we left the farm Kuldeep told me the old man ripped into him. Said something to the effect of, "You city people have no idea what it's like out here in the villages. You could've gotten killed in the jungle and nobody would've known. You were so foolish," and on in that vein for a while. Kuldeep felt bad and took the old man's admonition to heart.

We continued on the path under the noon day sun. Kuldeep told me there was a cave nearby that had been inhabited by the Pandavas, the five brothers from the Mahabharata. We eventually arrived at the village where the road began. We were told by a shopkeeper that a bus would arrive that afternoon. We went into small shrine and rested.

The bus arrived. As we got on we learned that Karjat was about 60 km away. The one Bhimashankar resident who told us what we didn't want to hear, that there was no way we could walk there in one day, was the one who was right. A couple hours later we were in Karjat. Wada pav never tasted as good as it did that day.

Personal Experiences of 9/11, the First Six Months

I had just moved back to Chicago after a year abroad. On the morning of 9/11 I walked to my old bank to reopen my account. I didn't watch TV or talk to anyone that morning, so I didn't know about the attacks until I was waiting in line at the bank. On my way home I was accosted by three Puerto Rican guys hanging out in front of a mom-and-pop corner store. They asked me if I was a Palestinian spy, if I had anything to do with the attacks, and other insane questions. I didn't tell them my ethnicity (Puerto Rican and Irish); I just stared at them dumbfounded, hardly believing what I was hearing. Then I thought about my appearance. I had short hair and a thick beard and I was wearing some vaguely foreign-looking clothes: a colorful vest from Costa Rica and a little red had with dragons on top from China. They didn't like the beard and the hat and commented to each other about it in Spanish, thinking a Palestinian spy like me wouldn't understand. I immediately took off the hat, they laughed, and I went home. Turned on the TV and saw that all Arab neighborhoods in the city were shut down by the police. No one was allowed in these areas without ID to prove that they lived there because vigilante attacks against Arabs had started almost immediately. I hardly left the house for a couple weeks.

I decided to keep wearing the beard and the Chinese hat even if it made me a target for rude comments and death threats. If the US of A is the great land of liberty that American nationalists say it is, then I was going to exercise the freedom to be myself rather than be cowed by pseudo-patriots. However, I didn't feel like sticking around Chicago anymore. I spent the next few months traveling around the eastern US.

I was in Boston for a week in mid-October. When I boarded the Amtrak train in Erie, the conductor saw that I was holding a newspaper with a headline announcing the commencement of the invasion of Afghanistan. He said, "Did we start nuking those bastards yet?" When I got to Boston and Cambridge, I saw that some stores had signs in their windows that showed an American flag next to a green flag with a star and crescent moon. They expressed solidarity with Muslims who suddenly found themselves living in a hostile environment and said that in these shops, at least, they "need not fear guilt by association." There were peace demonstrations on the streets. Local police took photographs of the demonstrators and said that they had been told to do so by the FBI. There was a cafe under construction on Mass. Ave. near MIT. The owners put up temporary wooden construction zone walls around the cafe. People from the neighborhood painted the walls with images and messages of peace. It was a beautiful and spontaneous communal effort.
I was in a bar in Central Square on October 11. George Bush was giving a press conference. His answer to every question, no matter what it was, was some variation on the phrase "We will bring Bin Laden to justice." He used the word "justice" easily over 100 times. Not surprisingly, the headline of the Boston Globe the following day read something to the effect of, "Bush Vows Justice for Bin Laden."

I went back to Chicago briefly over Halloween. I saw a young guy on the street at Logan Square who was dressed up as the anthrax envelope that was mailed to Senator Tom Daschle. It was actually very well done. He had the handwriting, the stamp, postmark... it looked just like the real envelope, except that this version was four feet wide. He was holding white powder in his hand and asking passersby, "Ya want some anthrax?" He was really pushing the envelope.

I went to New York two months after the attacks. I stayed with a couple of friends in Brooklyn, one of whom worked on the 51st floor of Tower 2 (the south tower) and the other in a building across the street that was severely damaged by falling debris and eventually demolished. They both started work late in the morning and so saw the events unfold from the roof of their apartment rather than up close. Since the trains didn't run for the rest of the day, a lot of people had to walk home. A river of people walked past my friends' place on their way to various points on Long Island. Residents stood outside their homes and gave out snacks and drinks to the foot commuters. My friend who worked on the 51st floor was pretty shaken up. He was having nightmares and would jump at sudden noises. He declared that he'd never work in another skyscraper again.
I went into Lower Manhattan. They were still cleaning dust off the streets and buildings in the neighborhood. The wreckage was still smoking and I could see the pile of debris over the top of the fence they put around the World Trade Center site. There was a steady flow of pilgrims coming and going to see Ground Zero. I distinctly remember a small contingent of sad clowns. Some local stormed through the crowd with a mean, angry face grumbling about the "fuckin' tourists." A couple blocks away was a sticker on the side of a pay phone that read "We have the right to go after the ARAB MUSLIMS (emphasis was capitalized, boldfaced, and italicized) who murdered thousands of our countrymen." I took a photo of the sticker before peeling it off and throwing it in the garbage.
Along a fence in Battery Park was a memorial people put up to their individual loved ones. People left flowers, teddy bears, cards, pictures, letters to the dearly departed. Throughout the city were posters with pictures, descriptions, and WTC places of work of the missing. One described a four-year-old girl who put her dead father's cologne on his shirts and slept in them every night. It was heart-wrenching.

In my home town of Danville, PA I got a lot of Taliban/terrorist/Muslim comments. Some of them were just jokes, though I didn't take them that way, and some were truly threatening. On Thanksgiving I walked into a bar (Knight Trax, for those who know Danville) wearing the little red hat and some meathead had a big problem with it. I tried to explain that it was a Chinese hat and pointed out the dragons so beautifully stitched on top. He kept saying, "I don't care! It looks like a Muslim hat!"
I went to a costume party in the neighboring college town of Bloomsburg wearing an Indian turban. It was cold out and nothing warms the head like nine yards of cloth. A drunken frat boy put his arm half around my shoulder and half around my neck and yelled, "Bin Laden! I found 'im! How do you fell about all those people you killed, huh?" Then he ripped the turban off my head, saying, "You can't wear a turban in America!" I didn't feel like partying anymore and left. As I was walking out to my car, he screamed after me, "Yeah, take it personally. USA! USA! USA!"
I was at the Sheetz gas station in Elysburg. I saw some guy in a t-shirt that had an outline of Afghanistan. There was a bullseye emanating from the middle of the country and a caption that read, "WARNING: NUCLEAR TESTING ZONE."

I went to New Orleans for the winter. Some guy ran up to me on Canal Street after a Mardi Gras parade, put his hand to my head as if it was a gun, and said, "Bin Laden! I kin get a million dollers fer you! Pow!" Then he walked away laughing.
I was walking past a couple of teenage kids leaning against a wall in the Central Business District when I heard one of them say, "He look like he from Islam. Let's smoke his ass."
I started writing a song called "I Am Not Bin Laden." I was sitting on a bus when I overheard some guys glancing at me at making Bin Laden jokes. I happened to be working on the lyrics at that moment and showed my notebook to one sitting closest to me. He sounded out in a sub-literate monotone, "I... am... not... Bin... Laden." He had a good laugh at that one.

I decided I'd had enough of America for a while and went to Europe. My first week there I was walking through Brussels at sunset when a man in a sleek black car pulled up next to me, rolled down the window, yelled "Terroriste!" and drove off.

Murders in Meknès

A man walked into a bar (no, this is not a joke) and ordered a drink. After he finished his beverage, the bartender told him to pay up. He pulled a severed head out of a bag, put in on the bar, and said, "My friend will pay."

A man told his wife that he wanted to marry her daughter from a previous marriage. She was so upset that she killed him and chopped his body into lots of little pieces. Then she threw all the pieces one by one out the window of a car on the road from Zerhoun to Meknès.

Two brothers ran a kefta stand on the street (kefta is ground meat on a stick cooked over charcoal). Day after day the smoke wafted up into a lawyer's house/office. The lawyer repeatedly filed complaints with the authorities, including allegations that the men used donkey meat in their kefta. In order to prevent the possibility of their business being shut down, the brothers killed the lawyer and his wife and put their bodies through a meat grinder. They probably would have gotten away with murder if they hadn't talked about it to their friends. One of the brothers was arrested and the other one fled. Rumor has it he's hiding out in Spain.

Chasing the Sun

He lay face down in a stony ditch, twitching nervously in a restless sleep. As the eastern horizon began to glow faintly, he slowly started to lift his head and body and crawled out of the ditch like a zombie coming out of the grave. He didn't know where he was or who he was or even the fact that he was. Not a conscious thought stirred in his brain except awareness of the dim light in the east.
Stumbling like a hungover wino he lurched toward the light. As the landscape became increasingly illuminated he saw that he was on a flat rocky plain with sharp, dead mountains in the distance. The only living things in his environment were scraggly, thorny weeds growing out from between stones.
The east became ever brighter. He felt like he needed to get to wherever that light was coming from. His energy started to build as the glow got brighter. He moved from a foot-dragging shuffle to an uneven trot. Within minutes he was running as fast as he could. As the sky turned from black to blue and the east became orange-red, he had the sense that reaching that mysterious light was the most important thing he would ever do. His bare feet were bloody from the rocks but he didn't notice. He was not a man with a body that could feel pain; he was a soul flying toward its destiny, his body merely a vehicle.
Suddenly, the most unexpected thing happened. From the center of the eastern glow came a piercing yellow light that was so bright it burned his eyes. He covered his face and screamed like a wounded animal. He momentarily fumbled around in circles, trying to look at the light between his fingers and finding to his surprise that it hurt more and more each time he tried to gaze at it. This setback lasted only a few seconds, for he accepted this new development unquestioningly and continued his mad dash.
Soon the big yellow light became an orb that lifted off the ground. As it continued to rise he became less sure that he was running in the right direction. After a while he could see that to reach the sphere he needed to go up, not east. He saw the distant peaks and knew what he had to do.
For the rest of the morning he ran at top speed towards and then up the steep, lifeless mountains. He jumped improbably over giant crags like a billy goat and plowed his way up through the scree. Shortly before high noon, he reached the summit. As the yellow ball moved overhead he jumped up like a child trying to get at a cookie jar placed just out of reach.
The moment passed and he failed. He was sure he'd almost gotten it, though. As the hot yellow disc started to descend, he was able to see that it would touch land again in the west. He ran down the mountain as fast as his legs would take him. Several times he fell down great heights, twisting limbs and breaking ribs. He took no notice of his injuries and kept rolling down the mountain like one of the many rocks he displaced, determined to reach the horizon before the light did.
Returning at last to the plain, he made a marathon sprint to the west. In time the light got there ahead of him. He howled in despair. As the orb dipped and fell out of sight, he became completely disoriented and bereft of energy, stumbled around aimlessly, and eventually collapsed into a stony ditch, where he twitched nervously in a restless sleep.

Can't Be Late

He was in a hurry as he crossed the busy four-lane road. As he passed the median, coming from his right were two cars and a bicycle abreast of each other. He carelessly stepped out in front of the bicycle, causing the rider to swerve in front of one of the cars. The car hit the bicyclist and sent him hurtling through the air into the windshield of a car coming from the other direction. That car lost control and veered off to the right, plowing into some pedestrians and another car coming out from a side street. These two wrecked cars suddenly blocked traffic. A speeding tractor trailer carrying a tank full of gasoline had no time to stop and rammed into the two cars, causing it to slide forward on its side across the median and into an oncoming bus full of people. The truck and bus went up in a gigantic fireball, sending flames two hundred feet into the air and blowing out the fronts of four apartment buildings.

The man stood dumbfounded for a moment and surveyed the carnage. People were wailing as their loved ones were so suddenly and violently ripped out of their lives. Others were running around on fire, screaming amidst the mangled corpses and maimed survivors. The whole scene unfolded in less than five seconds. The man looked around for another four or five seconds, looked at his watch, and then continued hurrying on to his appointment.

Exotic Pet Shop

While walking down the street in downtown Kyoto one night I saw a shop with two cages to the left of the entrance. The upper cage was full of vampire bats. A drunken salaryman was poking the bats with a stick through the bars. All they wanted to do was hang upside down in peace. They kept trying to find a spot in the cage that was out of his reach. In the lower cage was a large capybara surrounded by about half a dozen prairie dogs. They went unmolested.
I stepped inside the shop. The floor was glass. Under the glass were tarantulas, scorpions, and other dangerous creepy crawlies. At waist level in the front room were several glass cases filled with poisonous snakes. In the back was a wolf in a cage. To the left of the wolf was a lioness on a chain. There was no barrier between the lion and the customers. She paced back and forth, angrily or hungrily or both, eyeing all the humans that passed by. She had a price tag for 100,000 yen, which was about 9,000 dollars at the time.
Upstairs it was a completely different vibe. There were dozens of exotic housecats lounging about. Some of them were the biggest housecats I'd ever seen. There were Persians and Egyptians and Siamese. Several cushy armchairs and sofas were placed about the room to encourage lingering and petting. The lights were low and the music was soft. It was quite a contrast to the deadly menagerie downstairs.
Leaving the shop a little while later, I saw that the same drunken salaryman was still outside tormenting those poor vampire bats.