The Other Hills
Everyone knows the way it is on the hill. The rule is, first picker up takes the best pitch, gets first try at the best stuff. You don't even have to fight for it. You're the first one up, you even get to choose your own team - 'less you're a loner, like me: or who's going to pick for you, if you've not got the hands for it but you're fast and tough enough. It don't matter how sharp you are, its who's first on top that counts. You're slow and getting old and your legs don't work so good, breath comes in gasps, like me - I don't get a chance. But I won't team up with anyone. Too late for that.
Although there's always someone ahead of me up the hill - and most times its one of the teamsters Zack and them controls gets to the top first. I think they watch me watching so as they can tell the days the drop's going to be worth running for. How careful I watch out for the dumpster trucks, when they're coming and where they're coming from. Thats the skill of it, see; forknowing where the good stuff's dropped at, not guessing it, using your brains. And brains do matter, don't matter what Zack and his pickteam says; its not just being strong and running good and being mean and hard enough to kick the others down the hill. They can laugh - let them! I can still dodge by and keep on going.
Me, I can feel in my bones when a good drop's coming. Don't need to look. I'll take a breath and know just where the smell's coming from, how far it is away and even when its the special trucks that go at nights because the richfolks mustn't be disturbed by their streets being cleaned. Its hard - I can't always wait up all night to watch and sniff out which end of the city the dumpster trucks are working; if its the Southside slums (which ain't worth the bother) or the Business Centre or the Northside shopping precinct or if its downtown; which one of the suburbs. And I can tell by the special quietness when, like if there's an overload, there's a drop off being driven in from the protected zones where the boss people live. Not many pickers can judge the wind like I can, or listen out for the different wheel sounds coming over the roads.
You have to know because they're always changing the days; if the weather's hot or if its cold and when its raining heavy or there's a big wind or a storm; if there's a driver off can change it too. The collection times always move if there's something big on in the city - like an election or a festival or a riot. And there's always something happening in the city - you'd think having houses to live in and enough to eat would make folks want a bit of peace and quiet -like I would. Maybe more of those rioters with the shouts and placards should come out here to work the drop. When the dumpsters come its as good as a festival, I'm telling you. If you don't know enough to keep out their way, you'll get buried with the garbage under the hill and get chopped up by the hopper too, as easilly as one of those bodies that turn up from the downtown areas and the Southside, regular as anything. You've got to watch out for that and for booby traps.
Always use a stick before your hands go in. If you've got nothing but your hands, you're going to get them covered in shit and a lot worse. You've got to keep a sharp eye out and if you don't got eyes you better have good ears or a lot of luck or friends or something, or you will get buried. Because the dumpster trucks keep coming in the mornings while we're working the hill and they don't watch out for the likes of us Stinking Hillbillies. Thats what drivers call us pickers. Some of the drivers'll just run you over and say they have to, a picker's in the way, its in their rules they can't turn aside. Maybe it is but anyway, they just don't care. Just another body to go under; body parts and deadmen's clothes. Stuff like that you got to dodge away from on the hill, like condoms with sickness in them. But the wind blows it over us anyway.
When the wind blows you're going to get covered in a stinking mulch from the market, stuff you can't eat, 'less you're desparate. You get eggshells in your hair, crap up to your knees, you fall over the bones the rats already gnawed. Dead cats and such can be good eating if they're not too mangled up. All over everywhere there's plastic wrappers. The kids are already grabbing them out, straigtening them in the wind, looking for the telltale holes and tears. Fussy pickers like them to cover their mouths and noses up with but me, I don't bother. If I get up the hill late again, it don't matter whats in the drop. If I wake up late, or something else happens to stop me or I can't run much, like sometimes I can't, I might just as well dig in anywhere at all because I won't get a chance to have a look around, see what's good and where to get my stick in first.
But even if you're at the bottom you can still get good stuff sometimes, good eats too. Suburban drops the best for food. From the houses that is, not the eating places - the skivvies sell all the leftovers on down before the scavengers even get to the skips. They eat so well out there in the suburbs, especially over west, under them Blue Hills, they throw half their food away. Their pet dogs and crocodiles even throw food away. From the Northside drop, you might get computer parts or furniture. Last week I even got a carpet. Maybe not good enough for Zack. 'Course he's so fussy now he's getting to be a Big Honcho, he don't like dog fleas or the smell of other folks' piss, come to that. More than good enough for me to take to my shack to sleep on though. Must have come from the Southside - Poorfolks - drop. Stuff they throw out, its like what got thrown out futher down the hill last week. Downtown drop's there's not so much to pick up anymore. Its all contracted out. If you get machine stuff that's not all broke to pieces now, you're the lucky one. Or even bits the menders have any use for.
In the old days when I was a kid and the dump was new - before it was a real hill even - it was easy times. All the rubbish from the city came here and we got it all to pick. Weren't so many of us either and we worked together, if you can believe that. So we lived all right, trading stuff, with enough food in the drops after the plants for gathering died away. It wasn't such a big deal between the drivers and the pickers either - like now they're too good even to spit at us. These times, its all payoffs to the drivers. You got to get a licence now to get the real good stuff. Thats stuff gets sold or traded before the dumpsters take it. There's gangs as get the seconds off the licenced pickers too, recycling teams they call them. Not even all the rest comes here - there's special dumps for the richfolks' rubbish. You got to be lucky here to find enough to keep on eating or you can be like Zack and be a picker boss. Soon he'll make enough to pay a driver for his pickings maybe. If the rest of us are lucky he'll be out of here but I don't believe in that kind of luck.
He doesn't scare me now like once he did. I'm too old for him to notice in that way. Its the drivers frighten me; they're getting harder, some of them could kill us all, even Zack. The men mostly but the women too. Sitting up there behind the wheel, like they're the lords of all creation with their dark glasses on, coming through the barbed wire hurdles, even knocking down our shacks if the load's too big or its too much trouble to drive up the East road. They don't look at us, its like we're fleas, less important than the rotten stuff they're dumping. We've got to scramble out their way, clinging to the rubbish that the wind blows down the Stinking Hill. Its them that named this place, the drivers, the Stinking Hill or the Smoking Hill and its what they call the people. They sneer at us and say we stink too. But there's still some of them like to take a piss or have a smoke over here by the prickle bushes, where its shadier, despite the smell. Or to take a poke at one of the girls in the shanties before the drop. Then they call them Stinking sluts and hold their noses. So why'd they do it if we're such shit to them? Some of our picker women and the younger men think thats the way out of here, to hook up with a driver. But I don't know about that. I never did associate with drivers. Didn't have the looks and now, thank god, I'm past them seeing me. Even when I was a young'un and I got offers - because even though I was ugly, I was quick and there's plenty of men like to see a girl run - I never spoke to any of them even. I didn't think I'd end up still living off the hill, dependent on their dumpster trucks for my living. Can you believe, I thought I was going to get away.
Before it was the Stinking Hill, this was the place where I was born; here, not in the city slums like most of the other pickers. Thats what makes me different. Before the dump got started, it was here my ma gave me my life under a tree that used to grow all green and cool. That's how she told it anyhow. I growed up here with the dump growing into a hill but then the Hill got so big it got its name and it buried my birthing tree and there's nothing green left but those prickle bushes down below. No trees here like on those other hills, not since the dump came. There used to be trees, a lot of trees like you can see on the hills beyond the city in the west, out where the top bosses' new protected village is being built. I can see right into those hills on good days when there's not so much fug, all blue as the sun goes down. Those other hills, the blue hills all covered with trees so you can't hardly see the houses. They're big the houses where the boss people live. Even the servants of the boss peoples' houses are big. I heard a driver talking to his girl once about how its going to be as big as the whole city - bigger even. How at nights there's festivals and parties with hundreds of people, but very quiet, he said. Not that I believed him.
Now they don't come here anymore, the special dumpster trucks that collect out of the protectorate of the West Wing and now the Blue Hill where all the boss people and the super-rich ones live. Their rubbish goes to a special dump I don't even know who you got to pay to pick the skips the stuff gets put in. I've been there just to look and its scary. There's dogs and barbed wire and guards in uniforms with guns and masks for breathing. I don't know why even the stuff the richfolks throw away's too good for us to have a little sniff at except when there's an overload at their special dumping place. But then, if we're lucky, they might come here. Late at night the special white trucks with the purple writing down the side and the lovely smell that's to protect the top people from being poisoned by their own crap. You can smell it on the breeze, the perfume that comes from the Blue Hills. You can even smell it on the uniformed drivers, all in white and the guards with guns. The wheels of the trucks are muffled somehow and they drive up so quiet you can't hardly hear them coming. Thats because everything must work like a quiet machine works where the big bosses live. ike a computer thats never been mended and put together with scavenged bits, thats so new and shiny, all you need do is whisper at it and it does whatever you want it to, even shows you your dreams. I watched one like that in one of the shops in the city precinct not so long ago. But the guards saw me and chased me away, back here to the Stinking Hill.
I've got to be ready for when the white dumpsters come. Because then its got to be me that gets to the top first. So I'll get a chance, that once in a blue moon chance of finding something so good I can go down into the rich part of the city to trade it. Sell even, for real money, enough to buy my dreams. All I want, all I dream about, is to be able to go into the Blue Hills. I want to lie down in the blue grass under the trees, eating oranges. I dream of oranges, of finding some good and whole and almost clean under a whole load of rotten stuff, food that's gone so bad there's nothing left to bite off or suck out anymore. But under where they've gone all whitey green and soft and stinking and you can see the little worms curled up inside all nice, like babies - you can eat them too but they don't taste of much - there might be a bit of brightness, a scale of golden flesh, so sweet.
I bet I could find some of that good fruit now but there's no time for that. I'll miss finding that good thing which I can trade for money I can take in my hands and spend on fresh new oranges from the market if I like. If I'm lucky enough to find a buyer who won't report me to the guardians. Then they'll chop off one of my hands for stealing, because its got to be by stealing that I've got something to sell that came out of the West Wing or the Blue Hills, even if it was thrown it away. If one of us pickers, one of us off the Stinking Hill has something that the bosses have thrown away and they find you out, they'll punish you. Then you've only got one hand to pick with, like it happened to my ma, or no hands and you'd better stop or you'll loose a foot as a third-time thief and never get up the hill at all but die at the bottom of the dump eating the stalks of cabbages all covered with flies and shit, like she did. Rotting away at last with the broken stuff and the dead cats, the disappeared people with their faces cut off and the babies the drivers made the women in the shanties have. Like the one I had, long ago, when I could still run fast but not fast enough.
- Noa Kleinman (July 1996)