Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Matter Very Close to Home: Bottle returns in NYC

Before coming out to New York City, I spent much of the 1990s living in Michigan, land of the ten cent bottle and can deposit.  Being a frugal sort I've never been one to let spare money slip through my hands, especially when it adds up as quickly as it does in Michigan, and I brought that habit with me when I moved back east, even if the payout was half what it was in Michigan.  

Even in Michigan I generally preferred to let a few six packs accumulate so that I got a couple of dollars back, but it soon became apparent that this was the only way for it to make sense in my neighborhood here in NY.  Our main local store only accepts bottles during the week, and like everybody else in NYC has limited space, which bottles fill up quickly.  What is more when the bottle station is open there is a line of can and bottle people who have scoured the neighborhood and filled up one or sometimes two carts with bottles and cans. A bit further afield there is a somewhat larger supermarket with a battery of machines that accept plastic bottles, cans, and glass bottles.     Here too there is often a line and when the machine fills up it can take quite a while for the supermarket employee  to empty it.  Nonetheless, for these near ten years in New York I have put up with a growing pile of beer bottles until my wife could take no more and then going through the ritual of taking the bottles to the machines and hoping the line wasn't too bad.  

My one concession over the years is that I stopped storing large beer bottles that I occasionally bought and dropped them off in our apartments recycling bins as a gift to the local bottle scavengers, but as of Friday, I give up.  The scavengers will start getting all my bottles, because my experience Friday demonstrated that returning bottles here just isn't profitable unless you even when surviving on a very restricted income.  On Friday, it took me over two hours and visits to both the above mentioned supermarkets to get rid of about thirty bottles, and still left me with about 12 bottles the machines would not accept and the other store had refused because they had no room.  The net result $3.50 -- the extra fifty cents coming from a guy who lived one block away from the supermarket, who had given up on getting rid of the bottles himself long ago.  So do the math, $1.50 an hour plus fifty cents in tips and a heck of a lot of waiting and frustration.  It's just not worth it, and I'll just have to accept that my weekly six pack of beer is thirty cents more expensive than I've been reckoning comfortable knowing that I'm actually employing a local bottle scavenger with that surcharge.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Hope that Survives in Ukraine

I'm getting to this late, thanks to a plateful of activities, but in the July 11 edition of the Financial Times Chrystia Friedland had a most interesting article about the migration of veteran Russian reporters of the Glastnost/ Perestroika, and then Yeltsin years, to Ukraine, where they are enjoying and contributing to the open atmosphere in Ukraine.  Coming at a time when there is a great deal of cynicism both within and outside Ukraine regarding the three main political factions' ability to govern in the interests of the country this story, which has been largely overlooked in the west, is a welcome tonic.  

 For all its muddling through over its near 18 years of independence, and there is much to be dissatisfied about, the most intriguing aspect of how history has unfolded is that Ukrainian has remained more pluralistic than any other non-Baltic former Soviet Republic.  What is more, the Putin dominated efforts to draw Ukrainians back into the fold have generally had the opposite affect, as witnessed by Moscow's harsh reaction to the 300th anniversary of the Mazepa Uprising, which in eighteenth century Europe was a cause that carried comparable significance to the Tibet today.

Not long after Ukraine became independent I was speaking with an old college friend, who by then was making himself known as an important scholar of Pre=Petrine Russia. He was in disbelief about the prospects for Ukrainian independence, likening it to our U.S. state of Georgia suddenly breaking away.  (Texas would actually have been a better analogy)  A  few years later,  he was still shaking his head at what had happened.  Perhaps even now he still does from time to time.  To be fair to him, the autonomy of the early modern autonomous Cossack state, or Hetmanate, lasted over a hundred years, even if Russian interference after Mazepa's rebellion grew steadily, so in the long run there is ample time for Russia to reassert dominance, if not outright political control of Ukraine.  Still each passing year the number of Ukrainians who have known no other state grows, and with them the likelihood that Ukrainians will willingly return to Moscow dims.

That said, while some Ukrainians may place primacy on the maintenance of independence over the survival of a democratic order in Ukraine, the real hope for Ukraine lies not in its independence, but in its development as a state with more than one locus of power in which different factions negotiate rather than seek total domination.  This is what makes Friedland's story so interesting.  It was not that long ago when people saw Putin as the force that would finally enforce something akin to the state of law, and now important journalists who worked in and believed in the values of a free press etc. have had to leave, and Ukraine is offering an alternative.  This is something Putin certainly doesn't like.  The existence of a democratizing East Slavic state on Russia's southwestern frontier undermines his own implicit view that Russians do not value Democracy -- though it was interesting to note that at least one of the journalists Friedland talked to still commutes to Kiev from Moscow, and did not suggest that his activities in Ukraine have caused him problems.  But if there is hope in Ukraine, it must remain for Ukraine first.  Apart from offering a potential sanctuary for those dissatisfied with political life in Russia, it can do little to affect real change in Russia.  Indeed, the very freedoms that Ukraine's newest journalists find exhilarating, appall many Russians.  Until Russians en masse decide to rethink how they look at politics, and the economic power becomes more diffuse the hope that Ukraine inspires applies to Ukraine alone. 

 's effortscitizens are as a whole more comfortable with independence than they are with a revival of the Soviet Unionnot to mention the huge inequities between rich and poor, the most intriguing aspect of Ukraine has been how the divide between East and West has ended up having a stabilizing affect