Questions you’ve wanted answered

The trash is picked up early on trash days. But the recycling trucks come by later—sometimes much later. This problem occurs most frequently in the North End and South End and on Beacon Hill among the downtown neighborhoods. But all downtown neighborhoods, obsessed with cleanliness, have tried to get bags of every kind off the sidewalks as early as possible. Why are the pick-ups so late, and what can be done to get them picked up earlier?


In 2013 after a clamor from the downtown neighborhoods, the city reduced the number of trash pickup days in several neighborhoods and added a recycling pickup day. This has increased Boston’s recycling amount by 17 percent, said Rob DeRosa, the city’s superintendent of waste reduction. It has also made the city cleaner.

“We can’t get it all done at once,” he said about the extended pick-up time. These trucks serve 60,000 residences every trash day. Citywide, Boston generates 200,000 tons of trash and 37,000 tons of recycling annually. More trucks are deployed for trash than recycling.

“It’s our goal to have the trucks finished by 1 p.m.,” he said. But sometimes it stretches into the late afternoon—unacceptable in residents’ minds. DeRosa outlines problems the trucks encounter, such as long lines at the recycling plant or rerouting because of street construction, which is more common in summer.

This past fall there was one Monday when the recycling was not picked up until after 6 p.m. DeRosa said a cascade of problems beginning with a larger number of operators who called in sick and some equipment problems caused that delay, but it was an anomaly.

The city pays $5 a ton for recycling but $65 a ton for trash disposal, so it is in the interest of everyone’s pocketbook to recycle.

The good news: Boston’s trash does not go into landfills. Instead it is burned in the waste-to-energy plant in Saugus. Recyclables go to the Casella facility in Charlestown. And, said DeRosa, complaints about trash left behind or spilled have declined considerably. Furthermore, maybe because of that awful Monday and the pressure the city may have put on the hauling companies, recycle pick-up time seems to have improved over the last couple of months. We’ll see how things go.


If you voted early, and 47,909 or 11.5 percent of those registered in the city of Boston did so, you probably remarked at the efficiency of the process—at least until you got to the last stage, in which you had to insert your ballot into the same kind of envelope used for absentee ballots. Why not just insert your ballot into a machine at the time you voted? Isn’t it a pain to have to open all those envelopes—many more than would be generated by absentee voters?


It turns out that the process was as efficient as it could be, given the election laws, according to Dion Irish, Boston’s election commissioner.

“The law allows ballots to be scanned only on election day; that is why we did not have machines at the early voting locations,” he said in an email. “The envelopes were needed to meet the requirement of checking voters off the list again on election day at their respective precincts before putting their ballots through the machine.”

So while you could vote early, you couldn’t vote often here in Boston, where 85 percent voted for Hillary.

Like absentee ballots, early voting ballots are counted at the precinct that the early voter is registered to vote in. It takes 60 to 90 seconds to open the envelope, unfold the ballot and insert it into the machine, according to Irish. Many precincts were able to process their early voting ballots throughout the day and were able to provide a final tally shortly after the 8 p.m. closing of the polls. A few precincts had lines throughout the day and hundreds of early voting ballots, so they were not able to process all ballots until a few hours after 8 p.m. Six people were then sent to three precincts to assist with processing early voting ballots.

There are currently 415,536 registered voters in Boston, the highest number in the city in more than 30 years. Prior to the 2012 presidential election, there were 387,142 voters registered in Boston.

Good reads

Every year about this time I recommend a few books about Boston or by Boston authors that might make good holiday gifts for your friends or relatives. Here are three for you to consider.


Winter Storms by Elin Hilderbrand


This book is not literature. But it is also not junk, as I feared. It was quick and fun.

The story follows an extended family whose members have complicated, theatrical lives. One has two boyfriends, one is at war, another is in jail, still another is a news anchor. All are in touch with one another—old lovers, step-children, former spouses, half siblings. All have a base in Nantucket, where the author must spend much time. She also lives in downtown Boston.

The story has a strong sense of place, which is both good and bad. The book captures the spirit of Nantucket. Beacon Hill also gets a mention, but the distance between one character’s home and Whole Foods is wrong. Readers lose the narrative when they follow a character through well-known terrain if the author doesn’t get it right.

This is the third book in a trilogy, but it is easy to get up to speed on the characters. If you lived in a family like this you’d be exhausted from the drama. But as a read, this family provides imaginative entertainment. This book would be a nice gift for a female friend who likes some fluff—but good fluff—in her life.


Boots on the Ground; Flats in the Boardroom by Grace Crunican and Elizabeth Levin


Few women worked in the transportation sector when the authors began their careers. This book tells the stories of some of these pioneering women. They were business majors, planning specialists, community organizers, political neophytes, civil engineers. They ended up running airports, railroads, consulting companies and transit authorities.

Similar threads weave through the stories. All faced low expectations, discrimination and unfair treatment. They also found mentors, both female and male, who helped them develop their skills and find new connections. They usually give their parents credit for their drive. Their family life often suffered from their job responsibilities. Their connections served them well when they wanted or needed to change jobs. One of the biggest obstacles to their success was counteracting the attitude of many public officials that transportation for the public deserved little respect—it was for the “other.” Some officials call those of us who use public transportation the “transit dependent,” as if we were in need of an intervention or a 12-step program. The reader quickly understands that to those officials, the people who matter drive cars.

The stories are compelling even though they are laced with the alphabet soup of transportation acronyms. The authors helpfully include at the end of the book a guide to these pesky strings of letters. The stories are short, which is both an advantage and a problem. The reader gets an interesting, fast-paced telling of a person’s professional life. But skipping over certain details means leaving questions unanswered. “Then-husbands” come and go, and we’d like to know more. Especially frustrating is former MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott’s portrayal. She came to Massachusetts well-prepared, with success behind her. When the 2015 winter blizzards crippled the T, Scott took the fall for the agency, which surely had been in disarray prior to her arrival. But we don’t understand what happened from Scott’s point of view.

In addition to Scott, several women who are profiled came from or worked in Massachusetts, so this book could have great interest for those who want to be reminded of the state’s history over the last 30 years. It would be a good gift for those people and also for teenage or college-age girls contemplating a career in transportation.


The Lively Place by Stephen Kendrick


I wish this delightful book about Mount Auburn Cemetery were a coffee table book, though that might have been too expensive to produce. The writing is eloquent, picturesque, all about nature as well as death. Photographs would have illustrated the writer’s already vivid prose, especially since the book’s structure is based on the seasons. As it is, we’ll make do with the rich interweaving of Mount Auburn’s facets and the charming black and white drawings.

The author is the minister of the First Church of Boston and has acquainted himself well with Mount Auburn. While he describes the people who have walked its paths and occupied its earth, he also muses on the history of horticulture, the history of Boston, the beginnings of Transcendentalism, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the nature of decay, the obsession with birding, the pleasure of walking and the innovation in burials that created Mount Auburn and that continues even today with the cemetery’s “green” burials designed to assist in the movement from dust to dust.

Almost anyone with an inquiring mind will like this book, so bestow it liberally this holiday season.

Winter ahead

This is the week that seems to begin winter even though we know December 21 is the actual date.

So after the turkey is finished and the guests have gone, some people look ahead and see months of cold and bleakness.

I may have mentioned that I’m not that way at all. And I hear from many of you that a silent majority out there actually likes winter too. Here are some reasons.

First, the length of winter is way over-rated. It gets cold after Thanksgiving, but December is usually so busy that no one notices. And cold in December is unreliable. Even before global warming we’ve been in Arizona over the holidays in temperatures colder than Boston.

Spring breaks winter’s hold usually by the second week of April. Even if the temperature is low, the bulbs are beginning to flower. Reliable spring and summer last from May through most of October, so now the outdoor restaurants stay open well into the fall. It all adds up to a good six months of warm weather. So winter haters really have only January, February and March to endure.

To enjoy, rather than endure, it helps to make yourself cozy. It helps if you have a fireplace that works. If not, a few restaurants and hotels have fireplaces. Sometimes you can dine in front of them. Search out all the fireplaces you can.

Winter lovers actually hope for snow. Lots of it. City dwellers don’t have to suffer snow’s ill effects as do people who live elsewhere. The electricity never goes out on our street, although I’ve been told a few people in downtown Boston have had that experience.

Most of us don’t have to drive in the stuff. And if we’re in charge of shoveling, we have to do so for only the 18 feet in front of our building. Most of us don’t even have driveways, and even if we do we can usually leave the car where it is, sometimes until spring. Those who park on the street have a more difficult time. That’s when many residents start thinking Zip Car is a good idea.

Snow brings benefits. As it falls, it is beautiful, especially next to a nice street lamp. As it accumulates, it softens the noise. It brings out the neighbors to play or just walk around greeting everyone.

For the first few hours after a big snow, at least until the dogs start peeing and the snow banks begin attracting all kinds of soot and dirt, they are also beautiful. A blanket of snow that lasts all winter protects the plants beneath and waters those plants gradually in the spring as it melts. That water fills our rivers, reservoirs, wells and aquifers. One reason for this past summer’s drought was that we had too little snow last winter.

Winter brings another pleasure. It is dark early. So when you walk home from work or errands, you can peek into people’s windows and consider their décor.

Winter lovers long for a good zero-degree cold spell. The temperature kills the bad bugs that come up from the south.

Those who are most successful at winter use its advantages. They make snow ice cream. They ski or skate. One time, long ago, we skied all the way from the Longfellow Bridge to Harvard Square on thick ice on the Charles River. Winters may be too warm for that now, but we can always hope.

Another advantage of winter is the opportunity to enjoy all the performances—sports, theatre, lectures, music—and the galleries and museums and dinners with friends you miss in the summer because you want to be outside all the time or because friends go away.

I’ve always marveled at how few Bostonians who are active in their downtown community go away for the winter. They might head to some place warm for a week or two, but most people stay around most of the time.

Maybe they like the cold and its advantages. Or maybe they like their close community, which we’re lucky to have here. There is nothing that can make one feel more warm and cozy than that.

Acts of kindness and humor

Last week’s election produced fear and despair among most Massachusetts voters, who went for Hillary two to one.

But amidst the misery, some lightheartedness, humanity and kindness showed through.

Alecia told me making marijuana legal in Massachusetts was the best thing that happened on election day. “Anything to alter one’s state of mind for the next four years is an act of kindness in my book,” she said.

A friend whose son is living abroad told the story of his going to lunch in France on the day after the election. He had a grilled cheese and a beer. The waiter asked if he was American. When he acknowledged that he was, the waiter said, “I’m so sorry. Lunch is on me.”

Londoners are also sympathetic. Katharine wore a “I’m with Her” button as she bought an Oyster card. The dark-skinned London Transport man helping her said, “I’m so sorry. I love America. I’m sad for you.”

Rumor has it that the Boston Barber & Tattoo shop on Salem Street in the North End offered free Trump face profiles and “Make America Great” tattoos on the day after the election. This caused a ruckus, and they apparently had to close. It is unclear if they meant this to be funny, but it is. A Trump tattoo?

A Beacon Hill resident named Sharon wrote a piece entitled, “The United States Elects its First Clown as President.” The article begins: “As a continuation of the creepy clown phenomenon that swept the country this past Halloween, American voters last night elected the nation’s first clown to the oval office.  When asked to decide between a woman and a clown, there was no denying the huge turn out of white voters from America’s hinterlands of their choice.”

In the second paragraph, she reported that the British were relieved at the news of Trump’s victory. “Now the U.S. can take over the mantle of being the number one laughing stock in the world. We really took it on the bloody chin these past few months with BREXIT. It’s time England got its mojo back.”

I went to lunch in Harvard Square the day after the election. We ate 50-cent oysters in front of a fire. In the small restaurant were three white people, two black women, two Asian grad students, one Indian grad student and a female professor with a thick accent but uncertain lineage. Everyone was having a fine time. Mercifully, in this state we live harmoniously most of the time with everyone.

Two acts of kindness occurred on election day itself. The first was when Bostonians and those in 10 other communities voted overwhelmingly to impose a tax,—small, but nevertheless—on themselves to help fund affordable housing, open space and historic preservation. The second was when Massachusetts voters approved banning some regrettable farm animal practices. Voters decided that animals raised for food should be treated well even if it costs more.

The hardest thing, said parents, is explaining to children why a man who makes fun of people with a disability and uses bad words the children aren’t allowed to use has become the leader of our land.

One father, however, Kevin Maroni of Boston, wrote a thoughtful, encouraging message to his three children: “We have to have faith in America. This country was founded to be more than any individual person, and to have checks and balances which promote our founding concept —out of many, one.

“This is, for all of us, a shocking outcome. It is a good lesson in making assumptions and taking things for granted, since so much of our information was wrong (and possibly based on wishful thinking). It is a good lesson that you have to see the world as it is, and not as you hope it is.

“Ultimately, each of us now has to take on the only title more important than president: citizen. We have to be kind to those less fortunate, we have to be tolerant of difference, and we have to build the country we love.

“In life, it is normally never as bad as you think it is…..or as good as you think it is. Life ultimately rewards how resilient we are and how well we react, more than planning.

“You children are getting older, and America will be what you make it. Remember that. That each of us can make a difference and everyone should try. So with an election we didn’t support, let’s go forward making sure we try.

“Love you.  God Bless America.”


A modest proposal

The noise is always a surprise. Your cab stops in the street to let you out. The driver can’t pull over because parked cars line both sides of the narrow street. A short time passes while you pay and get ready to climb out.

Before you have time to count out the money for the driver or swipe your credit card, the guy in the SUV behind you lays on his horn. With him, it’s me first, all the time. Who are you to stop in front of him? Who do you think you are to delay his trip?

You know who you are because you live here. You know that streets must be shared. This means sometimes we have to wait, and we usually do it willingly because we understand the situation.

The guy laying on his horn in his gas guzzler is probably from the suburbs and doesn’t know how to behave in a city, you think. That’s the most insulting thing—being from a suburb, the “S” word—that long-time city dwellers can think of. It’s obvious because we know in the city, we must share all kinds of things, including time on the streets.

But there has been good news recently on the sharing front, on the behavior that says, “not just me first, but everyone that is in this with me.”

Take the World’s Greatest University, as a Boston Globe writer used to call it and others still do. A couple of weeks ago Harvard said yes to its dining hall workers, agreeing that all should make at least $35,000 a year, that their health care costs will not go up and that the university will provide compensation for workers laid off in the summer months when fewer students need a dining hall. Whew.

Perhaps Harvard capitulated to its dining hall workers because it looked in its heart and saw it was the right thing to do. It is also possible that it couldn’t take the criticism after the world learned that its portfolio managers were earning from $5 million to $8 million a year for performances well under those of their counterparts at other wealthy universities. Whatever the reason, Harvard shared.

The MBTA isn’t doing so well at sharing. Janitors at its stations have faced reduced hours, which not only means lower pay but also reduced health and other benefits. Privatization may reduce costs for government, but it can also end up making life miserable for employees.

I’m not defending the MBTA’s counting house privatization, since it seems as if workers there were not up to the job. But the janitors seemed to be doing their jobs just fine.

When we cut spending, does it have to be on those most vulnerable? What if we simply took a lesson from Harvard and shared more?

For example, that playspaces on the Esplanade are beautiful. The Esplanade Association and other local people raised the money to have those places built, and they were sorely needed. Good for them.

Wouldn’t it have been nice, however, if, as they raised funds for the Esplanade, they also raised funds for a playground in some park in the DCR system that is not surrounded by wealthy residents who can build their own playgrounds?

The Friends of the Public Garden could also afford to share. They have done a superb job of supplementing the city’s efforts to keep the Common, the Public Garden and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall in fine shape. They are a lovable organization. Taking care of other parks is not their mission. A newer organization, the Friends of Christopher Columbus Park, is also a lovable, successful organization that has become good at raising funds and caring for a park.

But there are 157 park friends’ groups and 331 public green spaces in Boston, according to parks spokesman Ryan Woods. What if the more successful friends groups partnered with a friends’ group with fewer resources? It might be in work days. It might be sharing funds. If contributors knew their checks would be going, not only to the park next door to them but also to a needier Boston park, it might increase fund-raising for the more successful friends’ groups. Some people probably don’t write the biggest check they could, figuring that downtown friends’ groups have many resources already.

The idea of pairing an entity with more resources with one with lesser came from a series of meetings a couple of years ago with local parents who were trying, still unsuccessfully, to get a new school for downtown kids.

They seemed excited about mixing it up with kids of all races, ethnic origins and income levels. They asked, why not pair a successful school with an unsuccessful one and see if the two together could make headway in giving all children a fine education? They were ready to give it a chance, putting kids together and busing them between schools because they thought that kind of busing would be worth it. So far nothing has happened.

This could be Pollyanna talking. But after today, when this hate-filled election will be over, we should reach for something more, something that speaks to our better selves. Sharing is a good place to start.