Through the Smog Darkly
by Greta B. and John deJong
This manuscript was found stuffed between the seats at the Egyptian Theater in Park City after this year’s Sundance film festival.
Scene: the Cinik Grill, somewhere on South State Street, Salt Lake City, Utah
Circa: about tea time, if this were the Beehive Tea Room, but it isn’t
Dramatis personae: in order of appearance (those whose appearance is better than others are listed earlier).
Ralf Cinik, new owner & proprietor, The Cinik Grill. Graduate, Provo MTC (class of Feb. 1969). Ward Clerk, 173rd Ward (Mar. 1, 1972-Mar. 13, 1972). Senior Goat Wrangler, Hill Cumora Pageant (1972).
Sweet Militia: woman of the afternoon, resting her dogs after unsuccessfully walking up from 1700 South State; former USO Donut Dolly.
Dr. Nedra Bishop-Smith, PhD., LS/MFT, lecturer in Environmental Philosophy at BYU, scioness of the Oakland California Smiths.
LaJohn Dwayne, associate engineer, Amalgamated Defense Industries PLC. Proud father of five (and counting) precious daughters; husband of LaMerkin Velveeta.
Fredricksan Watanabe Wannabe III, CEO, Nomura Cash Bank, scion of Sapporo Watanabes Wanabes; in town to check out real estate for his bank’s new North American head
“I was gonna call it Ralf’s Pretty Good Bar, but some guy back in Minnesota has Ralph’s Pretty Good every-flippin’-thing trademarked,” Ralf Cinik explains to Nedra Bishop-Smith as he pours dry-roasted cashews into shallow bowls. “So I gave Ray an extra $500 for the Cinik Grill name and saved the $1,000 I was gonna use for a new sign.”
“Are those ashtrays?” asks Nedra.
Ralf nods. “I’m a big fan of reduce-reuse-recycle,” he says. “And you know we don’t need ashtrays any more.”
Ralf Cinik is the proud new owner of his brother Ray’s bar, the Cinik Grill. Ray’s emphysema finally got out of hand and he has left town in search of a cleaner climate.
“I don’t understand why I get all the horny guys in Hummers comin’ on to me,” Sweet Militia says absently from her seat at the far end of the bar where she nurses a Keystone Lite.
“Has it occurred to you that it might have something to do with your camo fishnets, dear?” Nedra asks in her rhetorical way.
A shaft of dirty yellowish light brightens the room as the front door swings wide. LaJohn Dwayne strides in.
“What are you doing in here at three in the afternoon, LaJohn?” Ralf asks, pushing a PBR draft across the bar.
“Oh, they shut down the clean room at the plant because the air is so dirty it flips up the product.” La John takes off his MSR ‘Three-Nines-and-a-Seven’ HEPA respirator.
“When you say ‘flips up the product’ what exactly do you mean?” asks Sweet, sweetly.
“I mean,” LaJohn says, pausing to quench his thirst, “that the clean rooms down at the plant can’t keep up with the pollution. We can’t make high-sensitivity hydrodynamic sensors when the air in the valley is this dirty. Can you imagine what would happen if one of our submariners on the front lines in our fight against Albert Kaeda can’t get a reading off his sonar because of dirty air in Salt Lake City? Clean rooms up and down the Wasatch Front are closed.”
“That could be good for heavy industry,” Ray muses. “How’s this for a Utah Industrial Commission promotional slogan: ‘Loose Laws, Bad Air-Come to Utah!'”
“Not good for children who have to breathe that air,” Nedra Bishop says.
La John nods. “I spent my last paycheck on HEPA filters-one for each of the girls’ bedrooms; I’m getting one for Gordan B’s doghouse, too; he’s been wheezing lately.”
“What about you and your wife?” Ralf asks.
“Well, with six HEPA filters at a 99.97 % efficiency, and six little pairs of lungs with 100% efficiency, I figure Merkie and I have nothing to worry about, as long as we stay inside.”
“And you think your ‘Three-Nines-and-a-Seven’ HEPA respirators will take care of you when you’re out and about?” Nedra asks pointedly. “99.97% efficiency means that .03% of the ‘merde,’ pardon my French, they put into the air gets into your lungs.
“That’s okay with oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, they won’t kill you… right away,” she lectures, picking up a piece of chalk and writing a few symbols on the pool tote board, “but that proposed petroleum coke electric power plant at the Holly Refinery in West Bountiful is going to put out some really nasty stuff if it ever gets going: heavy metals with no known safe exposure levels, for which standards have never been established.”
“One of those guys at the Department of Air Quality says it’s okay; he told me personally,” Sweet says.
“Air Quality, my sore assets,” Nedra sputters. “Dirty Air Quality Board is more like it. It’s all about loopholes. As long as the sharp operators at Consolidated Energy Systems, LLC have found the right loopholes and dotted their I’s and crossed their T’s, the Utah Dirty Air Quality Board is going to give them a permit.” She gestures with her pool cue. LaJohn ducks. She continues:
“Loophole #1:Air quality restrictions get stricter at 110 megawatts. So this plant is designed to put out only 109 megawatts.
“Loophole #2: ‘Non-criteria’ pollutants: Remember that. No standards. No laws. Pet coke is a devil’s brew of complex carbohydrotangles that the last four Republican administrations have chosen not to study or set criteria for. Those guys get lousy grades in high school chemistry and now look what we get.”
“Is ‘devil’s brew of complex carbo-hydro-tangles’ what scientists are calling Volatile Organic Compounds these days?” LaJohn asks as he racks the balls.
“No, it’s what I call them so our readers who don’t know a VOC from an SOV will have some idea what nasty merde we’re talking about.”
Ralf looks at Nedra disbelievingly. “Those Consolidated guys-and the DAQ, too-must be nuts if they think our legislature would let’em get away with that. Heck, those folks up on the Hill care so much about our air that they very considerately banned indoor smoking for us; sure smells better in here lately, don’t you think?”
Nedra is about to reply, then checks herself.
Instead, she leans forward and almost whispers: “What those sharps at Consolidated are really angling for is one of those licenses to pollute. The whole energy industry is jockeying for position for when the feds hand out a bunch of pollution permits. Even Rocky Mountain Power is gearing up to sell us more electricity.”
“I thought a carbon tax was a more equitable way to allocate the environmental costs of pollution,” Ralf says.
“It is, but corporations don’t give a flip about ‘equitable’ when it conflicts with the bottom line. They’d much rather get paid for not polluting -it’s sort of like bribery -than to be fined for polluting.”
Ralf brightens. “So they really don’t want to pollute? That’s so sneaky. Hey, maybe Rocky Mountain Power could give everybody little electricity-o-meters that tell us how much energy we’re using.”
Nedra nods. “If people knew how much electricity they were wasting, they could easily cut back 10-20%. Why, Rocky Mountain wouldn’t even need that ugly new substation on Eleventh East.” She turns to LaJohn.
“You got any replacement filter cartridges for a Smog Sucker 6000? I’ve got to drive back down to happy valley after tea time and the air filters in my car are clogged.”
“Sorry. Want my gas mask?”
She waves him aside.
“Besides, our air isn’t that bad- only three times the allowable limit,” LaJohn teases. “We’re right in there with Beijing.”
“Three times!” Nedra shouts. “If the EPA really wanted to protect our health instead of pandering to the polluting industries, the limits would be a 10th of what they are now and it wouldn’t allow any violations.” She grows breathless. “PM 2.5s penetrate to the gas exchange regions of the lungs….”
Another shaft of murky yellow light pierces the darkness as the front door bangs open. “Hey, you’re letting the flippin’ good air out,” Ralf coughs, sliding a third pint of PBR in LaJohn’s direction.
Fredericksan Watanabe Wannabe III steps into the relatively clear air as smog billows in past him. The “Happy Valley Hour: Tea time till you have to head south” poster on the door flutters.
“Please to inform, who is the honored owner of the well tended rice paddies in the middle of your city?” He gestures in the direction of the Merle Holding Memorial Park on Main and Fourth South. “The terracing, the little trees-100 gardeners must toil to achieve such perfection.”
“You mean the parking lot? Yeah, good old Merle’s got a thing about landscaping,” Ralf replies.
“Am I to understand that the owner of prime downtown real estate is using it as a parking lot?” queries Fredricksan.
“Yup, it’s just a parking lot with a little green wash,” Ralf replies.
“You should’ve seen it before Merle prettied it up,” Sweet Militia chimes in. “It was gross.”
“I heard that Merle’s holding on to it to sell it to the Skull Valley band of the Goshute Indian Tribe for a casino,” Ralf tells the newcomer. “Figures if they’ll go for nuclear waste, they’ll love a casino. All the Indian tribes are doing it.”
“Are you informing me that real estate in downtown Salt Lake City is of so little value that it can be used as parking lots?” Fred asks.
Ralf nods. “And they’re full of SOV’s-Single Occupancy Vehicles.”
“Does SOV rhyme with SOB?” Sweet asks.
“No, it’s ‘shove,’ as in ‘take my dirty pollution and shove it where the sun don’t shine,'” Ralf replies. Since buying himself a little condo half a mile away and taking up walking, he’s gotten pretty outspoken about cars.
Nedra sets down the pool cue and pulls out a notebook and pen from the cloth shopping bag she’d hung over the low back of her stool.
“Okay, how many of you came here today by car? What, LaJohn, you’ve got one of those SUVs? And everybody, tell me, how many people rode here with you? Only one of you per vehicle? How come? And how many miles did each of you drive? And how come we’re not at our own neighbhorhood bar?” They took that last comment as rhetorical.
“Why not take bullet train?” says Fredericksan, trying to be helpful.
Nedra looks at her friends up and down the bar: a steady, no-nonsense gaze. Bright lights at the end of dark tunnels may be only rhetoric to begin with; but they just might lead to some pretty interesting places. “We’re going to do something,” she says. “We’re going to clean up Utah’s air.”
They gaze back. They feel it, too. They have no idea how, but they know: Change is in the air, and the air is going to clear.
[Lights brighten for a moment, then go dim.]
John deJong is associate publisher of CATALYST. Greta Belanger deJong is the editor and publisher. Comments? firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com