Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Great ledes I have known - Part II

I was talking with someone at the Herald today about the lack of really great stories in the paper lately. And the possibility that great writing will become even more scarce if the latest round of cuts at the paper materialize.

The person reminded me that the Herald's always had great writers but they haven't always given the freedom or time to produce great stories.

He reminded me of this great story -- and lede -- that appeared on the front of the local section almost 8 years ago.



The Miami Herald - Saturday, June 9, 2001
Author: ELINOR J. BRECHER , ebrecher@herald.com

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there was no greater punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

- The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus.

Jack cleans the Miami River .

There may seem no more futile and hopeless labor than sifting a river 's floating detritus, but this is Jack 's chosen mission - not a punishment inflicted by the gods - one rejected or ignored by both government and environmentalists.

One man with 91/2 fingers on two grimy hands performs this distasteful chore on their behalf.

The result is an expanding trash pile on the muddy north bank of the Miami River under State Road 836. Jack says someone in authority told him that it will be hauled away. He's been waiting for months.

It's unclear who's responsible for that particular stretch of the river and its shoreline.

``We'd probably consider that area an orphan,'' said Pat Hanson, the Army Corps of Engineers' operations manager for the Miami River .

It is ``one of the ugly areas,'' concedes David Miller, managing director of the Miami River Commission.

Miami-Dade County once had a boat called Miss Cleanup, ``which was almost like a front-end loader with a catchment basin,'' according to Miller. But ``that was discontinued. . . . I guess [ Jack ] has taken over.''


Jack began cleaning the river last winter. He didn't have much else to do. So one day, he waded into the muck and started snagging trash.

``It was messy,'' he said.

Now the garbage heap is bigger than an SUV, though not as tall. Jurors, witnesses and lawyers bound for the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building park in lots a few steps away, near Northwest 12th Avenue and 12th Street.

The few who stray toward the water glimpse a fleet of grimy strollers and supermarket carts. A moldy office chair. A sodden wardrobe of jeans and T-shirts. Sufficient sneakers to stock a sporting goods store. Scores of cans, bottles and boards. Horseshoes. Beach balls. Poultry.

Jack often overnights at the site on a salvaged sleeping bag. In the morning, he finds dead chickens scattered among the rotting flesh and bleached bones of their sacrificial ancestors. Sometimes he spots a martyred parakeet in the mud, like those sold in botanicas.

Jack could be in his 60s. Or maybe 70s. It's hard to say, given how the elements and his protective instincts obscure the usual indicators.

``Too old to cut the mustard,'' he jokes.

He prefers to live ``outside,'' the bucolic euphemism that homeless people use to describe their logistics. He says he has four kids and 13 grandchildren in Maine who would welcome him, but he doesn't want to burden them.

In an unmistakable New England accent, he says he's a Navy veteran who retired from the Scott Paper Co. with a pension. He's divorced and has spent part of every year in South Florida since 1981.

Jack has bright blue eyes and conventional manners. He is amiable and coherent, if deliberately nonspecific about certain details - like his last name.

Some days he's relatively clean, diligently scrubbing his sneakers with half a lime - it cuts the grease, he explains. Other days he's gritty from his submersion, dirt etching the deep lines in his face. He's apologetically reluctant to grasp a clean outstretched hand.


Miller, of the River Commission, is amazed that Jack isn't sick, at least visibly.

``I've heard members of [the Department of Environmental Resources Management] talk about the fact that there are high levels of sewerage . . . and high levels of fecal coliform,'' a bacterium, Miller said. ``That's why there's no swimming in that area.''

Though he said some people seem to think that nearby Wagner Creek, a tributary, is a ``solid waste dump,'' Miller explained that most of the river garbage originates far from that penultimate destination.

``It comes from 69 square [surface] miles where storm sewers drain into the river . Every plastic cup and cigarette butt on the ground washes into the storm sewers when it rains,'' he said.

And yet the river is ``much cleaner than it used to be - believe it or not. But we need continuing education of the population not to litter.''

Whether Jack 's mound constitutes a festering rebuke to a disposable society's thoughtlessness or evidence supporting a littering citation could depend on the humanity of the municipal bureaucrat who ultimately authorizes its disposal.

That probably will be someone from the city of Miami's Solid Waste Department.

``Technically,'' said one city official who asked not to be named, Jack could be ticketed for illegal dumping - no matter his altruistic motives.

``If someone was enforcing the litter laws, he has created an eyesore in the community,'' the official said.

But Adrienne MacBeth, the Solid Waste Department's assistant director, doubts authorities will hard-nose Jack .

``I don't think all of that came out of the river ,'' she speculated, after eyeballing the mound. ``Some of that is his stuff. But I don't think anyone is out to do anything to the homeless.''

You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. . . . At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. . . . The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.''

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