Beyond the Western
The Matter of the Dastardly Dumpster Divers
Steve Levi


Beyond the Western

Captain Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was having a terrible day. It could not be worse! Both his wife and supervisor were intown and both their IPhones, tools of Satan, electronic Beelzebubs, were charged, locked and loaded. This meant three things:

  1. His wife was going to send him on a meaningless shopping trip on his way home to purchase some exotic whatever only to find it was ‘not the brand I wanted’ so he would have to go back to the store again.
  2. The Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security would suddenly discover hints of a nefarious plot by unknown Muslim terrorists needing to be “looked into” and, as this was a “hush hush” matter, he could tell no one of his investigative work.
  3. One, Two or both One and Two.

He was mentally making the sign of the cross with his two forefingers every time he feared a buzz, clamor, ringing or sonance might turn into an electronic summons when Harriet came into his office. Harriet, the office administrative assistant and common sense guru (pronounced guh roo), had a grin that could have been described as classically sardonic. As it turned out, it was.

“Do you know what is brown and sounds like a bell?” She whined.

“No. But I am sure you are going to tell me. Let me guess, you’ve been wasting time on the internet looking for jokes.”

“Wasting my time! No way, Jose. Using the internet is the new form of education. You learn things you never knew before. Like, do you know why dogs chase their tails?”

“I give up.”

“To make both ends meet.”

“OK. And there is a reason . . .”

“You haven’t answered my brown and sounds like a bell query.”

“Query. We’re using big words this morning, aren’t we? OK, I don’t know. What’s brown and sounds like a bell?”

“Dung.”

Noonan was quiet for a moment and then he said, “I’ll bite. Why the dog and poop jokes this morning?”

Harriet pointed at the phone, “Line Three.”

* * *

“Captain Noonan?”

“I’m not sure. The morning has not started out so well.”

“Well, unfortunately, I probably won’t make it better. I’m Alexandro Yang from Pacifica Heights, Arizona. And you probably won’t believe me but I’m a garbage collector.”

“I thought you were called ‘environmental engineers.’”

“I would have used that term but then you would have thought I was some kind of scientist.”

“OK. How’s the garbage business in Pacifica Heights?”

“Picking up. And that’s the problem. Seems someone is stealing all our dog poop.”

* * *

“You’ll have to try that again.”

“No matter how I say it, it sounds dirty. That’s why it took me so long to call. But this is a serious call. There’s not a law being broken – as far as I know – but your name was given to me as someone who solves odd circumstances.”

“I do what I can.”

“Now, joking aside, Captain Noonan, I am serious. We are a very small subcontracting partner in a very large urban modernizing project. The umbrella spread of company is in the trillion dollar range. The corporate venture purchased what was once an upscale suburb that went downhill five decades ago. The venture purchased the dilapidated neighborhood, about 200 homes, and is bringing them up to 2025 standards: on-site water and wastewater recycling facility, state of the art garbage disposal, solar panels on every home, electric outlets for hybrid cars.”

“What does this have to do with dog poop?”

“We, my company, Yang Inc., is responsible for the pickup and recycling of the dog poop. We are not really in the garbage business. We are in the recycling business. Primarily at the organic end. We process thrown-away food from restaurants, old fruits and vegetables from supermarkets, unsold meat going rancid, and, of course, dog poop. We also handle glass, plastic and rubber but not from Pacifica Heights. We don’t recycle it in the conventional sense of the term. We regenerate it, our term, and turn it into new, usable, salable product. Like fertilizer or top soil enhancing for the organic material. The plastic and glass go into roadways. Other solids go into things like stadium chairs, baseball bats, egg cartons, berry boxes and even coffins. What you throw away is money for us.”

“OK,” Noonan said. “I’m enlightened.”

“The reason I am calling you is because of the dog poop. That’s our contract in Pacifica Heights. We are paid to make the pickups and then profit from the regeneration. That’s why we do the poop pickups at the eight dog parks. Do you have a dog?”

“No.”

“Well, people who walk their dogs carry doggie bags, poop bags. When the dog poops, they pick up the material and put it in a small plastic bag. Then they drop the filled plastic bags into a dumpster. Once a week we empty the dumpsters, take the material, shall we say, to our recycling facility. Keeping this as simply as possible, we divide the fecal material from the plastic. The fecal material becomes fertilizer for the lawns, parks and sport fields in Pacifica. The plastic is consolidated into fuel pellets which are burned for power.”

“And someone is stealing the dog poop.”

“Correct. For the past few months we have found one or two poop dumpster empty. Lately it’s been six and even seven. I know this sounds odd but we need the poop to stay in business. Our contract calls for us to remove a certain tonnage per year. If we do not reach our tonnage requirement, we are out of the contract.”

“So you need me to help you find tons of dog poop.”

“That’s the nicest way of putting it.”

“OK,” Noonan said. “Assuming this is not a crank call, I need more information. Do you have a pen and paper?”

“I have a computer.”

“That’ll do. When did the poop thefts start, how much actual poundage are we talking about, how big are the poop dumpsters, how do you clean out the dumpsters, is there another use for dog poop, are there any human diseases associated with dog poop, are you required to have any kind of a certificate to pick up or use the dog poop?”

Noonan took a breath and then continued. “Has any other pickup business been hit? There’s a lot of waste in any construction project. Have any of the companies who pick up construction waste been affected? If so, by how much?”

“Well, as to the first collection of questions . . .”

“No. Call me back in two days with the answers. I need to do some research first.”

* * *

Finding the history of Pacifica Heights was not hard. It was one of those futuristic developments which was to be the model for ‘cities of the future.’ Yang, as it turned out, had misrepresented the condition of the homes to be refurbished. It was certainly true Pacifica Heights had been an upscale community.

In 1954.

It had been a ‘planned community’ for the well-heeled far enough out of Tucson to attract corporate execs.

In 1954.

Homes were air conditioned, rare in those years, had swimming pools, when water was plentiful and unlimited electrical power because oil was cheap.

In 1954.

The city was laid out in squares, much like the townships in New England and the elementary, secondary and high schools were centrally located and state-of-the-art.

For 1954.

Gradually the octopusean metropolitan reach of Tucson extended into what was then called the desert and consumed Pacifica Heights. The advance accelerated in the 1970s and by then the area was no longer high income. It was on the progression down the economic food chain; first to upper middle class, then middle middle, then lower middle, and upper working and finally to ‘inner city in the suburbs.’

By the 1980s it was crime-ridden, had ethnic gangs low riding the neighborhoods and the richest residents were drug dealers and number runners.

The community went down from there.

Around 2010, America began taking a second look at the inner cities even if they were not ‘inner’ or in ‘cities.’ These areas had everything needed to become vibrant except opportunity. From a business point of view, the land was incredibly cheap, all of the utility systems and roads were in place and residents were available who were willing to work in the area. Additionally, and even more appealing, city, county, borough, parish and state governments were more than willing to bypass property and business taxes to draw businesses into the area. Euphemistically referred to as ‘ghetto homesteading,’ it offered companies an open window to economic development.

But such development was not easy. The filth, rubble and decay of a half century of governmental and economic neglect was deep. It was going to take a lot of cash and personnel to turn the economic corner. Further, the personnel needed would have to live in the area, the requirements of the city, county, borough, parish and state governments, to make sure local money circulated in the local economy. So every new business had to be with locals, from CEO to janitor. Housing for the janitors was in situ. For the top brass, there had to be the revitalization of the surrounding, dilapidated neighborhoods. In the case of Pacifica Heights, a massive plant to manufacture computerized medical equipment was built on 20 blocks which had previously been drug houses, flop houses, drug flop houses, charity houses and “disorderly houses.”

Immediately adjacent to the emerging emergency medical equipment facility was the so-called “Pacific Heights.” It included about 200 rundown, substandard, dilapidated, abandoned hovels which had to be renovated. Enter now a trillion dollar cooperative effort by a handful of mega-business from New York who had tax credit dollar signs flashing in all corporate eyes. The publicity alone would be worth the effort – financially speaking, of course. So “Pacific Heights” became Pacifica Heights and the construction dollars became a Niagara.

Then Noonan switched his search to the local newspapers. Pacifica Heights did not have a local newspaper, entirely reasonable since it was under renovation and did not have a stable body of residents yet. So he went with the Tucson papers.

What surprised Noonan was not only the size of the project but its sophistication. While the end product would be homes in the same location as they were in 1954, they would be physical, scientifically and ergonomically altered beyond recognition. Visually speaking, each home would be on the same lots – about 1/3 of an acre each – but be about 50% larger. One in three would have backyard fences, two in three would have extended, south- or west-facing wooden decks, one is six would have a hot tub (if the home also had a fenced-in backyard). All would have a three-car garage but none would have a swimming pool. There was to be a large, centrally located shopping area complete with a neighborhood swimming pool, golf driving range, open area for picnics alongside several croquette fields and three bocce enclosures. In the center of the subdivision was a modest clubhouse with a large open room – 3,000 square feet – and four meeting rooms for social gathering.

What also surprised Noonan was the aggregate number of subcontractors. He had never been in the construction business so he had no idea how many subcontractors were needed for a single home, let alone 200 of them. And the primary subcontractors did not include the subsidiary businesses like wood, roofing materials, glass, piping, insulation, window frame, cement, brick, linoleum and concrete blocks – not to mention, shrubs, grass seed, gravel, sand, mulch, flowers, lawn ornaments and, of course, fertilizer. The sheer number turned out to be massive and Noonan understood what that meant to the area. Every dollar earned and spent in the area was going to turn over about five times. That made Pacifica Heights big potatoes, financially speaking.

But there were problems. These were not presented as such in the papers but Noonan could ‘read between the lines.’ First, with so many construction projects there was a shortage of materials. This was temporary in the sense the shortages were not due to market forces but transportation considerations. All materials had to come in by truck or train to Tucson which, on a good day, was an hour and a half on the highway from Pacifica Heights – depending on day, time and traffic. Then, in the construction zone, there was a massive traffic jam 24/7. Construction was a 24-hour-a-day operation and every nail, 2 by 4, plywood sheet, foot of wire, window and Yellow Rose of Texas had to fight the bumper-to-bumper on the streets of Pacifica Heights.

Second, the actual construction work was being done by subcontractors. On a single house this would not have been a problem. But, with 200 homes to be refurbished, roadways to be upgraded, lawns and gardens to be installed, a mall to be constructed, a community swimming pool and locker rooms to be created from the ground up, there were a plethora of subcontractors: some union, some not, some hourly, some gig, some per function, others per structure, some with overtime in their contract, some with no contracts, some with health insurance, some with not, some with illegals, some not. There was no even balance of pay and benefits and no level playing field. This lead to what were called by the paper “administrative disputes” which Noonan knew to be ‘pay us more or we will strike.’

Finally, as Noonan knew all too well, every person, tree, dog and kitchen cabinet is different. This meant the entire project, all 200 plus homes and the mall and the swimming pool and the croquette and bocce courts, was composed of individual units for which the cookie cutter approach was not possible. So there was army of ‘adjusters’ who came in late – or early – in the construction time frame to make each of the 200 plus homes and the mall and the swimming pool and the croquette and bocce courts ‘fit.’

It was organized chaos.

The Egyptian god of organized chaos, Set, would have been right at home in Pacifica Heights.

But there was not a hint in the history of Pacifica Heights or the Tucson newspapers giving Noonan a clue as to why dumpsters of dog poop were disappearing.

* * *

Yang’s answers were meager.

“I don’t have specific answers for some of your questions but I’ll give you what I have.”

“I’ll take what I can get.”

“The dog poop thefts, if you want to call them that, started about a month ago. They increased as the construction of the homes ramped up if that’s a clue.”

“Maybe,” replied Noonan.

Yang continued, “The dumpsters are 22 feet by 8 by 4 and can hold up to 20 cubic yards of material. The volume in the dumpsters has been going up because, as homes are completed, people are moving in. More people means more dogs. Six weeks about we averaged about five cubic yards a week. Three weeks ago, before the thefts, we were averaging 10 cubic yards. Three weeks ago we were cleaning the dumpster with a soapy water spray but haven’t had to clean any dumpsters in three weeks.”

“Do you carry the soapy water spray with you?” asked Noonan.

“Yes,” Yang replied. “It’s a health consideration, not because of the smell. And required by law. But the bottom line is we don’t want anyone saying their dog picked up a disease because of a poorly maintained dumpster.”

“Did the people who stole the dog poop clean out the dumpsters?”

“Nope.”

“Go on.”

“I cannot think of another use for dog poop. Most people just want to see it gone. And it’s not a popular regeneration item, as you can imagine.”

“I can.”

“Human diseases can be picked from dogs but it’s rare. From bacteria, humans can get E. Coli, Salmonellosis and Campylobacteria infection which can bring on cramps, abdominal pains and looseness in the intestines. Then there are ticks, roundworms and ringworms. But most people, and particularly those in Pacifica Heights are at arm’s length from the poop. As far as business licenses are concerned, ours is just an administrative formality with the State of Arizona. Federally, we have to follow Hazardous Waste restriction and be licensed, bonded and insured. As long as we meet the federal standards, the State of Arizona is happy.”

Noonan was not happy. Yang had not told him anything he could not have figured out on his own.

Yang continued. “But I do have something odd. Something that might help you. I did a causal call around to the other solid waste contractors. They will talk to me because I’m not a competitor. They do not pick up what I do and I do not take away what they collect. The ones I talked to were pleased as punch. On the same schedule as our dog poop disappearances, they have been seeing dumpster emptied nightly. They don’t care because every dumpster they don’t have to empty saves them cash. A full dump truck will spend an hour and a half on the highway each way to dump its load in a landfill. The companies I talked with were more than happy to see the empty dumpsters. But then again, they are not a legal risk with their garbage. Yang, Inc. is.”

A dull chime reverberated in Noonan’s cranium.

“Any idea how many dumpsters we are talking about and how full they were?”

“Not really. The four contractors I talked with have six dumpsters apiece and they were all being emptied. “

Now the chime was CLANG!

* * *

The next week, just as Noonan was getting his first (and last) cup of coffee at 10 am on Monday, Harriet stumbled into Noonan’s office with an open envelope as she wagged a sheet of paper. With no preliminaries, she collapsed into the wooden chair in front of his desk. Noonan glanced at her over the top of a cold case file with a ‘what’s going on here?’ look.

“I’m pooped,” she said as she put the back of her right hand to her forehead.

Noonan shook his head softly, sadly, and with faux irritation.

Harriet shook the letter in front of her face as if she were fanning her cheeks. She looked plaintively at Noonan said, “Well, you really know your . . .”

“Not around here,” Noonan said, cutting her sentence short.

“ . . . stuff.” She finished the sentence with a smile. “Seems Yang, Inc. is only half-satisfied with your work.”

“Best I could do,” Noonan replied flatly as he put the cold case file down on his desk. “There was no crime so there was no case. Yang simply has to live with the indignity.”

“He is and thanks you for your,” she pretended to read from the letter, “patience, understanding and insight.”

“Things will be back to normal fairly quickly.”

“Uh, huh,” Harriet said with a questioning stare. “Why?”

“Because,” Noonan smiled, “the circumstances of the missing dog poop are, shall we say, evolving.”

“Really? And how do you know?”

“Money, Harriet, money. At the end of the day – and most cases – it’s about money. That’s why we follow the money. Sometimes it leads us to a . . .”

“Don’t say it.” Harriet looked around with false concern. Then she whispered, “You never know who’s listening.”

“The truth will out,” Noonan replied softly. Then he replied in a normal voice, “It was always about the money.”

“Where’s the money in dog poop?”

“It wasn’t the poop that was valuable; it was the cubic footage.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely. See, in the Pacifica Heights project there were 113 homes with swimming pools. Those pools were not going to be renovated. So they had to be filled. I’m guessing the masterplan was to have the pools filled with gravel.”

“Seems logical.”

“True. But to fill them with gravel, responsible subcontractors had to get the gravel from the far side of Tucson. That’s a two-hour drive away. If the traffic is light. So every load of gravel was at least a four-hour journey. Time is money in the construction business.”

“Aaahhh,” Harriet said with sudden understanding. “But getting dog poop was just a matter of going around locally.”

“Yes. But it wasn’t just the dog poop being picked up. It was construction debris like broken boards, water soaked plywood, sawdust, broken cement blocks, old driveways. Anything that was tossed away. There were tons and tons of it. The dog poop was the only hazardous material that had to be handled carefully.”

“So someone was simply collecting garbage and dumping it into the empty swimming pools. Filling them up, just not with water.”

“A lot of someones were. But only the dog poop people complained because they were the only ones on the federal hook. Yang, Inc. was handling federal, legally identified, hazardous material which could harm human health. Yang, Inc. had to account for all the material it had collected as well as any material it had not.”

“That seems odd.”

“Not if you are with the feds. The EPA takes hazardous material seriously.”

Harriet was quiet for a moment. Then she said in a light bulb suddenly brightening tone, “So, if there was an audit . . .”

“. . . and Yang, Inc. came in short of projections – way short – there would be consequences.”

“But Yang, Inc. didn’t do anything wrong.”

“True, Noonan commented. “but that would only be discovered after an investigation and investigations are long, complicated and expensive.”

Harriet brightened. “So you think you got the call so Yang, Inc. could get a police report stating what Yang already knew.”

“He did not impress me as a stupid man. I think he was covering all the bases. If I were him, I would have too. So he got what he needed without asking for it.”

“Or paying for it,” Harriet replied.

“The sign of a very bright man,” Noonan tapped his temple and then said, with a smile, “And, for you,” he looked directly at Harriet. “Do you know what you get if you consume too much alphabet soup?”

Harriet groaned as Noonan replied, “A vowel movement.”