DATE December 18, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Actress Christine Baranski talks about her life growing
up and about her acting and singing career in theater and
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Christine Baranski, is starring in the new sitcom "Welcome To New
York" and co-starring with Jim Carrey in the new movie "Dr. Seuss' How the
Grinch Stole Christmas." She won an Emmy award for her role on Cybill
Shepherd's sitcom "Cybill" as the witty and neurotic best friend. She's won
Tony awards for her performances in Neil Simon's "Rumors" and Tom Stoppard's
"The Real Thing."
In "Welcome To New York," Baranski plays the witty, neurotic and successful
producer of a TV morning show in New York. On the first episode, the show's
new weatherman has just arrived. He's from Indiana, and she's worried that he
doesn't look or sound New York enough and he'll never fit in with the
Manhattan elite. And looking right is all important to her. In this scene,
the weatherman, played by comic Jim Gaffigan, is having his first meeting in
her office. She's wearing a telephone headset, and midway through their
conversation, takes a phone call.
(Soundbite from "Welcome To New York")
Ms. CHRISTINE BARANSKI ("Marsha Bickner"): Please, sit down. Everyone is
really looking forward to your Garrison Keillor-esque approach to weather.
Mr. JIM GAFFIGAN ("Jim Gaffigan"): He's from Minnesota.
Ms. BARANSKI: Who?
Mr. GAFFIGAN: Garrison Keillor.
Ms. BARANSKI: Oh, yes. I love him. How is he?
Mr. GAFFIGAN: I don't actually know him.
Ms. BARANSKI: But he's from Minnesota.
Mr. GAFFIGAN: I'm from Indiana.
Ms. BARANSKI: Oh.
Mr. GAFFIGAN: Look. The reason I wanted to come in a day early is so that I
could run some ideas by you.
Ms. BARANSKI: Yes.
Mr. GAFFIGAN: Like instead of a five-day forecast, how about a seven-day
Ms. BARANSKI: No. I don't want to hear about it.
Mr. GAFFIGAN: I'm sorry. Oh, I didn't...
Ms. BARANSKI: No. No. No. Tell him no.
You were saying?
Mr. GAFFIGAN: You're talking to me now?
Ms. BARANSKI: Yes. Actually, we were talking about your jacket.
Mr. GAFFIGAN: I don't think so. Remember? I was talking about the
Ms. BARANSKI: I was thinking about your jacket. Amy, can you call Jerry in
and see if he can squeeze in a fitting for tomorrow? We're going to get you
Mr. GAFFIGAN: Are you getting me clothes? I've always chosen my own
Ms. BARANSKI: No, no, no, no, no. Jim, we do not want to change you, just
your clothes. Amy! Maybe give your face the illusion of color.
GROSS: Christine Baranski, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have
Ms. BARANSKI: Thank you. It's lovely to be here. Thank you.
GROSS: You're an executive producer...
Ms. BARANSKI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...of "Welcome To New York." Does that give you some degree of
Ms. BARANSKI: Well, yes, it does. I mean, I asked for that specifically so
I could protect myself. I wanted to be able to say, `No, that's not good
enough or that's dumb or that's not the kind of humor I'm interested in
doing.' And I wanted to be heard when I said that. Fortunately, I don't feel
I have to voice that control very often, because I really adore my writers. I
think they're terribly smart. They have a lot of taste and style. And I love
collaborating. I'm from the theater. I would say most of my career has been
in the theater. And so one of the greatest joys in the profession is
collaboration with other talented people. And I think being an executive
producer allows you a greater degree of collaboration.
GROSS: Had you had experiences on "Cybill" that made you think it was
important to have control so that you could draw the line when you wanted to?
Ms. BARANSKI: Yes. I didn't have--I wasn't an executive producer on
"Cybill," and I did question things or have difficulty with choices. And it
was clearly not my place to, you know, express those concerns. I mean, I
could express the concern, but I was not in a position to wield power, so in
the wake of that, I did ask for that title.
GROSS: What are some of the difficulties of doing a line or doing a scene
that you just don't believe in?
Ms. BARANSKI: Yeah. You know, that is a difficulty. And I think
television's a very fast--it's just such a fast medium, you know. In five
days you have to do a show. You get there, you go to the table, you read
it. They rewrite it overnight. You get a new script. You begin blocking it.
They come to a run-through. They rewrite it again. You hope there are the
changes that will finally kick a scene into position.
But the bottom line is you've got to learn the material and go in front of
cameras in five days. Sometimes you have a four-day work week. Sometimes a
script is almost completely rewritten. We've actually, on "Welcome To New
York," done a three-day work week when one show--one script was totally
revamped. So I think what I'm trying to say is there's not a lot of time to
agonize over it. I mean, you can question it. You can say, `I'm not
comfortable with it.' But I think it's got to get up and out there rather
quickly. That's why I think it's terribly, terribly important to, from the
start, align yourself with people that you trust, whose taste that you trust,
whose fundamental sensibility you are in sync with.
GROSS: Now in "Welcome To New York" and in "Cybill," you've played
neurotic, kind of snobbish characters. When were you first exposed to people
Ms. BARANSKI: I love this. Well, I hate to say it, but I think when I first
came to New York. I'm a Midwest girl. I mean, I consider myself--like,
Buffalo is the beginning of the Midwest, and I'm actually from Cheektowaga,
New York, which is a suburb of Buffalo. And I came to New York in 1970. I
got a scholarship to Juilliard. And that was just such an amazing transition
to go from an all-girl's Catholic high school in Buffalo to Juilliard. So
the answer to your question is certainly when I came to New York.
And I don't even think I began playing these kind of characters until maybe my
30s. I would say the very--the first real character that had that kind of
hauteur that I played was Charlotte in "The Real Thing," although I had done
"Sunday In the Park With George." That was another haute, aristocratic
character. That was the workshop of "Sunday In the Park." Stephen Sondheim
and Mike Nichols saw me in that and I was cast shortly thereafter in "The Real
Thing." And then it sort of continued in my career. Not that I only play
those characters, but I seem to play them a lot.
GROSS: Well, these are characters that have money and live in a world where
stature is very important. What social economic class did you grow up in?
Ms. BARANSKI: Well, gosh, I would say we were very much middle class, you
know, and grew up in Cheektowaga. My father was...
GROSS: That's a kind of industrial suburb, isn't it?
Ms. BARANSKI: Yeah. My mother worked at an air conditioning factory called
Buffalo Forge Company. My dad died when I was eight. He had worked on a
Polish newspaper and--but he died when I was eight. And my mother had to go
back to work. And she worked at a place called Buffalo Forge. And I was
something of a latchkey kid, my brother and I. She worked--had to work very
hard to support us. I got ballet lessons once a week, but that was all we
could afford. I wanted to play the piano or learn the cello, and my mom said
we couldn't afford, you know, the instrument or the lessons. And I grew up
with a sense that, you know, one had to work very, very hard and that money
was tight. We weren't poor by any means, but we weren't--we didn't have
So I got into--acting became my passion by the time I was about 15, 16, and
then I'd read about the Juilliard School. It had just opened in 1968, so I
was the third class in. And I got a scholarship there and still had to live
very, you know, close to the bone. Mom was working very hard to send money
and try and keep me in New York during those years. So I wasn't, like,
living the Upper East Side life until much later.
GROSS: Right. Were you exposed to much theater in Cheektowaga?
Ms. BARANSKI: No. You know, the funny thing is my grandparents were actors
in the Polish theater. There was a Polish, you know, community--you know, a
very large Polish community in Buffalo. And my grandfather was an actor. And
my grandmother saw him on the stage and kind of fell in love with him. And
then he met her and fell in love with her and wooed her when she was 16;
wanted her hand in marriage. And she--he had to wait until she was, like, 18.
But they married and they did Polish theater. And my grandmother was an
operettas. I have a wonderful picture of my grandmother. She was a very
vivid woman. And I lived with her. We shared a bedroom in my childhood.
This is before my dad died. But we shared a room and she was a very vivacious
woman. And she had a radio shown in Buffalo, a comedy show she wrote with
another woman, and they played two comedic characters. And so she was a
writer. And after my dad died, we moved away, and I really didn't--I didn't
live any longer with my nana, but I think she was a huge influence on my life.
And to answer your question, I didn't see a lot of plays, but I remember going
to concerts. We heard Polish concerts, and my most vivid memory as a
child--and I often think it's the reason I am a performer--is shortly before
my dad died I was taken to the Polish ballet. A Polish singing and dancing
group called Schlonsk(ph) was appearing at Kleinhans Music Hall, and I went
alone with my father. And he was sitting to my right. And the concert was
just filled with beautiful Polish music and dancing. And he was a great lover
of Polish culture. And at the curtain call--now I'm about seven years
old--eight year--I'm seven years old. At the curtain call my father was so
overwhelmed and moved that I remember--he was a very large man; very tall,
very well-built man. At the curtain call, he started shouting `Bravo,' and
there were tears streaming down his face. And I was so embarrassed. I
said--I poked him and I said, (Polish spoken) you know, like, `Stop,' you
know, `You're embarrassing me.' And it was such a moving--now, in retrospect,
I'm so--I'm just very moved when I think of my father's, you know, love for
those singers and dancers. And I often think, you know, this little girl
watching her father, you know, looking up and seeing him crying and shouting
`Bravo,' I kind of went into performing, and I often--that moment resonates
with me very often.
GROSS: Even though you were embarrassed by him at the moment?
Ms. BARANSKI: Yeah. Yeah. I was very--I think I was very moved by it. And
my own children, when they go to the theater with me, I also get very
emotional and I--they're often--I see my children poking me, like, `Mom,
don't embarrass us by crying. And don't shout `Bravo.' And, `You're cheering
too loud.' It's kind of gone full circle.
GROSS: Now you went to Catholic school. Your character in "Welcome To New
York" and also your character in "Cybill," they really lie close. You
probably had to wear a school uniform when you were going to Catholic school.
What was the uniform like and how did you feel about wearing it every day?
Ms. BARANSKI: Oh, God, is was so dreary. I can't tell you. I--every night
of my life I had to iron these white shirts. You had to wear a crisply clean,
ironed, white shirt and this navy blue uniform that, when you knelt down, the
hem had to touch the floor. Those were the rules. And we had to wear nylons.
And we had to wear black loafers. And that was the code. And we would, you
know, iron the shirt and then iron the uniform. And, you know, by the time I
graduated, my uniform was just shiny. I mean, the whole back side of it was
just pure shine. But it was so dreary. Yeah, you've reminded me now of,
like, those utterly dreary years of wearing a uniform. And you know the f...
GROSS: It must have been great to be on stage and not have to wear the
Ms. BARANSKI: Well, the joke was that we'd leave school, and after we got a
block away from school, all the skirts got hiked up to mini length. You'd
see all these girls teasing their hair, applying their frosted lipstick and
walking out of the school looking like sluts. But I always say Catholic
girls make the most erotic women because there's so much that's had to be
suppressed or attempts to be suppressed that just translates into eroticism.
GROSS: Now you were the salutatorian in your high school class. That's the
second in command to the valedictorian, right?
Ms. BARANSKI: Oh. You know all of this.
GROSS: So you have, like, the second highest grade in the class or something?
Ms. BARANSKI: Oh, no. I don't think I had the second highest grade. I was
the salutatorian because I was president of my class.
GROSS: Oh, oh, oh.
Ms. BARANSKI: In fact, I was president of my class, if you can believe it,
for four years in a row. And I had been president of my class since the
Ms. BARANSKI: And I think that was not my great intelligence or even
leadership skills. I think it may have been that I was rather fearless
getting up in front of people and talking. And, well, of course, now I'm an
actress and I fearlessly get up in front of people and talk.
GROSS: Now at the end of your high school years, you did work with this
acting workshop affiliated with the university campus.
Ms. BARANSKI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And this was in the late '60s...
Ms. BARANSKI: Yeah.
GROSS: ...as you were saying, when things were pretty radical on the campus;
the arts as well. There was a lot of avant-garde art on the campus. And I'm
wondering if you got involved with avant-garde theater and if there--like,
what was the most far-out thing that you did during that period of your life,
Ms. BARANSKI: I did--in my senior year I was part of something called the
Company of Man, and it performed at the old Pierce Arrow plant in Buffalo. It
was this huge hangar and was like a warehouse. And I did a play by a man
named James Cheville(ph) called "The Master." And it was a two-character
play. And I--in the play I was being kind of indoctrinated by this older man
into being what it meant to be an American. And I wore an American flag as a
mini dress. And I wore this with white--high, white boots. It was really
very sexy. But what I remember most about it was being told that if the
police came, I had to hide in the bathroom because it's, of course, illegal to
wear an American flag; to desecrate the flag.
But those were the days when, you know, people were really doing serious
anti-war pieces. And there was really an avant-garde. And there was a lot of
passionate talk about another kind of theater, you know. This was the Living
Theater and Joe Chakin and the Open Theatre. I actually took workshops with
the Open Theatre. They came to the University of Buffalo, and I remember
seeing Joe Chakin and working with the Open Theatre and hearing Yeshik
Ratovski(ph) speak. And it was, actually, like my career could have gone a
whole other way...
Ms. BARANSKI: ...except for the fact that I got into Juilliard, which
was--it was just very different. I mean, those years stopped for me of doing
avant-garde theater. I was--began doing classical training--European
GROSS: Now you've also done some singing. You sang in an Encores production
in New York of the Burt Bacharach musical "Promises, Promises."
Ms. BARANSKI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And you were--you performed with Martin Short in that. That was just
a really delightful production.
Ms. BARANSKI: Yeah, it really was. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And you also did a production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" in
Los Angeles with, oh, Kelsey Grammer.
Ms. BARANSKI: Kelsey Grammer.
Ms. BARANSKI: Yeah.
GROSS: So how much do you like singing on stage and how often have you done
Ms. BARANSKI: Well, I love singing on stage. I actually have studied
singing for years now. And because my career has concentrated so much on
acting and I got a late start in training my voice--if you can believe it, I
went to famous Juilliard School of Music and really hardly took any singing;
did not concentrate on developing my voice at all. It wasn't until my
mid-20s that I began studying singing and then discovered that I had a very
rangy voice of, like, almost three octaves--like a high mezzo-soprano voice.
And at one time I became so enthralled with singing, and I was just taking
singing lessons every day and then listening to opera recordings and learning
arias and worked a lot on classical singing and studying leader and all.
Now nobody knows--people don't know this because I don't actually get up and
sing opera or leader, but it's been an ongoing passion of mine, this kind of
singing. And right before I did "Sweeney Todd"--right before I was asked to
do "Sweeney Todd" a few years ago, Skitch Henderson asked if I would be the
guest soloist for the New York Pops' opening night concert. And he said, `You
can sing anything you want.' And I actually did get up and sing the
"Segradia,"(ph) and I sang a beautiful Flore piece. And it was just a thrill,
I mean, standing with an orchestra and singing--doing this kind of singing
that I'd always considered so much a part of my life but never really got much
expressed, you know. And then it was great to have that kind of training, as
I began work on "Sweeney Todd" because I think you really need a very
well-trained voice to sing that score.
GROSS: One last question.
Ms. BARANSKI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: I understand that you were at the canonization of Mother Katharine
Ms. BARANSKI: Yes.
GROSS: And is it right that your husband is a distant relation?
Ms. BARANSKI: Well, not that distant, actually. She's a first cousin,
Ms. BARANSKI: He remembers her from his childhood as Cousin Kathy at his
grandma's house. His grandmother was a Drexel. His great-grandfather was
Joseph Drexel, and that was the brother of Anthony Drexel. And Katharine was
a niece of Anthony. And she founded this religious order called the Sisters
of the Blessed Sacrament, gave her entire inheritance over to native and
African-Americans out West and established schools and hospitals. And she
And we were in Rome in October with many members of the Drexel family, and,
yeah, we were outside in St. Peter's Square. Oh, it was quite amazing. I
mean, I was sitting next to my husband, who said, `Wow, Cousin Kathy.' I was
like, `Wow.' It was pretty amazing.
GROSS: Oh, that is. I'm sure everybody in the Catholic school you went to
would have been mighty impressed.
Ms. BARANSKI: Yes, those nuns. They would have been a little easier on me
had they known I was married to a relative of a saint.
Well, Christine Baranski, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
Ms. BARANSKI: Oh, it was lovely. Thank you so much.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Collection of current hit singles called "Now That's What
I Call Music 5"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Remember those compilations that used to be sold on late-night television by
companies like K-Tel. A record of Ken Tucker has noticed that what used to be
considered the bargain basement of the pop world has become a product that now
zooms to the top of the charts. Here's his review of a collection of current
hit singles called, "Now That's What I Call Music."
(Soundbite from song by Destiny's Child)
DESTINY'S CHILD: (Singing) Ladies, leave your man at home. The club is full
of (unintelligible). And all you fellahs leave your girl with her friends
because it's 11:30 and the club is jumping, jumping.
KEN TUCKER reporting:
Recently, a collection of The Beatles' number one hit singles, a collection
called, with numbing unimaginativeness, "1", debuted at--What else?--number
one on the Billboard pop chart. The number two debut album that week was a
collection called "Now That's What I Call Music 5," a gathering of some
teen-oriented hit singles and the fifth such collection to become an instant
hit. The CD includes music from acts as various as the Backstreet Boys, Jon
Bon Jovi and Janet Jackson, who, by the way when I wasn't looking, dropped her
last name and just goes by the name Janet now. Who does she think she is,
Cher? And why does becoming Cher suddenly seem like a sensible goal for a
floundering singer like Janet?
(Soundbite from song by Janet)
JANET: (Singing) Doesn't matter what your friends tell you. Doesn't matter
what my friends say too. It just matters that I'm in love with you. It only
matters that you love me too. It doesn't matter if they won't accept you.
I'm just thinking of you and the things you do. Just as long as it's you,
nobody but you, ba, ba, baby. All for you. All additional love too. Got to
get up, get up, get up, get up and show you that it really doesn't matter what
the others see, because I'm in love with ...(unintelligible). It doesn't
really matter what they could mean. What matters to me is your love for me.
It doesn't really matter...
TUCKER: Why are these devilishly eclectic anthologies so popular right now?
I think it's because they fulfill an old pop culture need that rock radio
stations no longer provide the current generation of teens. They're the CD
version of top 40 radio. You may remember top 40, it was the place where, in
any given half-hour, you could hear the Temptations, followed by the Rolling
Stones, followed by the Carpenters. This was the time before the era of
advertising demographics slicing and dicing the audience into stations that
specialized in only one kind of music, hard rock, alternative, urban, MOR.
It's obvious to me that kids still crave that kind of variety, and they get it
on these collections.
(Soundbite from song by Everclear)
EVERCLEAR: (Singing) I close my eyes when it gets too sad. I think thoughts
that I know are bad. Close my eyes and I count to 10. Hope it's over when I
open them. I want the things that I had before like a "Star Wars" poster on
my bedroom door. I wish I could count to 10, make everything be wonderful
again. Hope my mom and I hope my dad will figure out why they get so mad. I
hear them scream, I hear them fight, they say bad words and they make me want
to cry. I close my eyes when I go to bed and I dream of angels who make me
smile. I feel better when I hear them say, `Everything will be wonderful
someday.' Promises mean everything...
TUCKER: That's Everclear, a white rock band whose average member is probably
twice as old as Britney Spears, who is also represented here. To me, there's
a lot of good catchy songs on this collection, with one terrific piece of
music by the rapper called Mystical. The song here is an edited, cleaned up
version of a more profane lyric, but that doesn't stop it from being the best
James Brown rip-off I've heard in a long time.
(Soundbite from song by Mystikal)
MYSTIKAL: (Singing) Shake it bad. Watch yourself. Shake it bad. Show me
what you working with. Shake it bad. Watch yourself. Shake it bad. I came
in with my mike in my hand. Don't make me leave here with my foot in your--be
cool. And don't worry 'bout how I'm ripping, and what I'm flipping, what I'm
pimping, that's just what I do.
I'm effervescent and I'm off that crescent. Nastier than a full grown German
shepherd. You better keep steppin'. They don't mess with us, and they don't.
Y'all can't catch me, and you won't. Pay ya fare. Fix ya hair. Throw that.
Got a Prada for boonapalist, and Donna for my babooski. You think I'm
trippin'? Well, I ain't trippin'. I'm buyin' if you got nice curves for your
iceberg. Drinkin' Henn and actin' like it do somethin' to me. Hope this
indecent proposal make you do something with me. Here's a dollar, girl. Pick
up 50. Forget that coward, girl. You need a real fella. Off top
knick-a-boxers hurtin' me. Tell me what you're workin' with. Shake it bad.
Watch yourself. Shake it bad.
TUCKER: That's a great rhythm wedded to a great vocal. Mystical offers young
listeners the very definition of what they're elders call the grain of the
voice. Now that's what I call music.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Benjamin Miller discusses the history of garbage disposal
TERRY GROSS, host:
The biggest landfill in the US will soon be closed to more garbage. Fresh
Kills landfill from Staten Island will close next year. And New York City
will be shipping tons of garbage to other states through a network of
stations, barges, trucks and trains. My guest Benjamin Miller is glad this
isn't his headache. He's the former director of policy planning for the New
York City Department of Sanitation.
Miller has studied many of the garbage headaches of the past. He's written
a new book called "Fat of the Land: A History of New York Garbage Over the
Past Two Hundred Years." I asked him to describe some of the most smelly
and offensive ways New York dealt with garbage in the past.
Mr. BENJAMIN MILLER (Author): Well, I suppose those colorful operations that
took place on islands around the city, humans, men, women and children, would
pick through the stuff to pull out anything that might be saleable. Bits of
buttons and glass and so on. And the rest was taken inside and cooked up in
huge vats with naphtha or kerosene or water, and turned into grease and
nitroglycerine and fertilizer. And these processes were very odorous indeed.
GROSS: What islands are you referring to?
Mr. MILLER: Well, this all began on an island called South Brother right
between Brooklyn and Queens in 1849. And the city inspector at the time,
whose idea it was to take the garbage out of the city for the first time--he
was trying to deal with an epidemic of cholera. And formed this company, in
which he was a secret, silent partner--obviously, it would have been illegal
for him to be involved. In fact he invented what I consider the modern waste
management model, which is to say, deciding for the first time that garbage
had to be removed from the city, designating a place where it would be taken,
saying it had to go to one firm, saying that it was illegal for anybody else
to scavenge the garbage was on the streets, and then paying this firm an
enormous price. All of that he invented in 1849 on a little island called
South Brother. And they would take the garbage up there in barges and dump it
on the shore and feed it to hundreds of hogs that were there, and boil it to
bones and so on.
GROSS: Now what about the river, the East River and the Hudson River? What
were some of the things that were just dumped into the river?
Mr. MILLER: Well, everything was dumped into the river at the start of the
city, just as it was in most cities around the world. The East River was the
first problem because it's a relatively narrow river. The currents are pretty
rapid, as it is, and it was the most important river for commerce. That's
where the South Street Seaport was where these sailing vessels would tie up.
And it was really messing up the maritime economy. So the first laws against
waste disposal were to protect the East River.
GROSS: You describe how bloody entrails, I guess, from butchers and meat
packing plants were dumped into the river. And it got so bad it impeded
navigation. That sounds pretty ugly.
Mr. MILLER: Yes, that's exactly what was going on in the East River. And
that's why it was outlawed from the 1850s on. But Inspector White(ph) in 1849
had the notion to forbid the stuff from being disposed of in the city. Until
then, people had boiled it up--they're called bone boilers nuisances, and
there were vats all over the city, manure piles and so on, where people sort
of cooked it up and fed it to hogs and dealt with it right there. It was
White in 1849 who said, `We cannot have this going on in the city. I'll take
care of it.' And that's when we started dumping it in--he was hauling it away
on barges, but he was being paid so much that it became--he sort of lost
interest in hauling all of it away to South Brother Island and later Barren
Island. So at that point he encouraged people just to throw it into the
river, so he was really making the problem that he was trying to solve worse.
GROSS: What do you think some of the historically smelliest parts of New York
Mr. MILLER: Well, South Brother Island was smelly for the couple of years
that it lasted, but that operation was sent down to Barren Island, a little
island around the corner from Coney Island in the mouth of Jamaica Bay.
That's where Inspector White took his company after they were thrown off South
Brother Island. And that island was the main repository for the city's trash
from 1852 until 1916. That was an amazing place. Hundreds of people lived
there. Thousands of hogs lived there. There were all sorts of factories in
which this stuff was taken and cooked up after humans had sorted through it to
take out, as I said, anything saleable. And these smells created problems for
the neighbors for decades.
GROSS: So on Barren Island, the people who worked with dealing with the trash
actually had to live on the island with the trash?
Mr. MILLER: Absolutely. And they lived there for generations. There were
literally generations born and died on the island. And those people very
rarely got off the island. Many of them came straight from Ellis Island to
Barren Island, the way these urban ethnic opportunity niches often work. And
Barren Island was an amazing place because it had Slavs and Italians right off
the boat from Ellis Island, and African-Americans. It must have been one of
the most mixed populations around.
GROSS: I know when I was a kid and driving, say, from Brooklyn to Queens
through the Belt Parkway and other parkways, there were periods of--there
were parts of the ride where you'd pass landfills and it would just stink.
And there'd be like sea gulls flying overhead. And I used to think that
sea gulls were birds that ate trash. I had no idea that they were even
connected to the sea. I thought these were the birds that liked trash because
there would always be sea gulls by the landfill near the ocean.
Mr. MILLER: That's absolutely right. The Belt Parkway is extended past some
magnificent large landfills that Robert Moses created. And he, in fact,
landfilled almost anything along the Belt Parkway.
GROSS: So what kind of vermin did these landfills attract?
Mr. MILLER: Well, sea gulls certainly are landfill birds. I have friends who
are naturalists and they made a film about Roger Tory Peterson. And they
re-enacted a trip that he'd taken to Maine in the '20s to see a sea gull
colony. He thought it might be the last colony in the Eastern seaboard and
thought they might be becoming almost extinct. They certainly bounced back
thanks to Fresh Kills.
GROSS: Fresh Kills is a huge landfill. Are landfills still commonly used in
New York, is that more or less going out of style?
Mr. MILLER: Well, from now on they're illegal in New York City. The Fresh
Kills landfill must close according to state law on the last day of 2001.
Landfills nationally, however, are increasingly used as a waste disposal
GROSS: Now you mentioned this Fresh Kills landfill. There's--What?--13,000
tons of raw garbage deposited every day in this landfill, which is located in
Mr. MILLER: Well, yes. That is to say, it's no longer 13,000 tons a day
because the city is gradually weaning itself off. So I think something only
like 3,000 tons is going there right now. But until the last couple of years,
when the Giuliani administration sort of turned off the spigot, it was
13,000 tons a day. In fact, before then it had been much more, in the
GROSS: What are the incentives for another city to take New York City's
Mr. MILLER: Well, the proposal right now hasn't been adopted--it hasn't been
finally approved by the state of New Jersey--is to build a massive transfer
station in Linden, New Jersey, which is literally an infield fly away from
Fresh Kills, across this little creek called the Arthur Kill that separates
Staten Island from New Jersey. If that plan has been approved by the city, if
it's approved on the New Jersey side, that will probably become the largest
waste transfer station in the world. Garbage will be taken from barges,
delivered from New York, put on to rail cars and hauled somewhere. Who knows
where? The city of Lyndon in turn for that will get a significant amount of
money. The estimates range between a couple of million and $5 million a
Mr. MILLER: ...as a host fee.
GROSS: How did you get into the sanitation business in the first place?
Mr. MILLER: Probably a strange route. I started as a graduate student in
urban ecological anthropology. And I was interested in the planning process,
and what that revealed about class relations and power structures in our
society. I was interested in finding for a dissertation topic an
infrastructural planning process that I could really observe from the inside.
And instead of going off to Samoa or someplace like that to do more field
work, I took a job with the sanitation department.
GROSS: How was trash dealt with when you were a kid? What were some of the
things you remember about trash from your childhood that's really different
from how it's dealt with now?
Mr. MILLER: Well, I grew up in the Midwest where there were town dumps, and
you could take your stuff out there and throw the stuff away and see rats. So
you really, yeah, disposed of it yourself. Quite different from our
experience where very few people have ever been to Fresh Kills on Staten
GROSS: Have you been there?
Mr. MILLER: Oh, sure.
GROSS: Describe what it's like. This is the dump where there used to be
13,000 tons a day of trash.
Mr. MILLER: Right. It was a 3,000-acre landfill, the largest landfill in the
world in terms of size, in terms of the amount of garbage that's there, and
it's the sixth biggest landfill in the country in terms of its remaining
space. It looks like mountains. The tallest peak is about 170 feet high
which, of course, is a fraction of what it was originally planned to be. The
peaks were planned about 10 years ago to be as high as 500 feet, which would
have made them as high as Mt. Cadillac, practically; certainly the highest
point south of Mt. Cadillac. The smell varies a bit but it's not--I think
it's been largely exaggerated. Of course, I'm not a Staten Islander. I
haven't lived around it year-round. And, of course, it depends on which way
the wind is blowing so--and there are lots of smells out in the part of the
world, partly because of things blowing across the river from New Jersey.
There are lots of chemical plants and so on, so all of the smells can't be
blamed on the landfill.
It's covered every day, the garbage that is dumped there, with clean dirt.
Because it's such a large landfill, houses are not as close as they might
otherwise be to it. The parts of the landfill that are closed are covered.
They look like mountains. They look like unnatural mountains. You would
immediately spot them, as you would spot any landfill of any size across the
country. They're planted with wild grasses and small trees and so on so they
look like hills with grass blowing on them.
GROSS: When you're filling in land with garbage and then building on that
land, what do you have to do to the garbage to make it solid enough that you
could actually build on it?
Mr. MILLER: You can't really build on it. In the past, a lot of Manhattan
and the other boroughs is made out of garbage, but that garbage is very
different from the stuff we've been generating for the last half century. In
the old days, a great proportion of what was called garbage came in dust bins
or ash bins. It was coal ash. We didn't have oil so everything was coal and
that was a big part of the garbage. There's also street sweepings. Manure
was on the street because we didn't have cars and that lot of stuff was
straight organic, so you mix that stuff with ashes and you can put it down and
you can build on that sort of thing after a few years, which is exactly what
was done around the turn of the century.
From the '30s on, we have not been able to build successfully on garbage.
LaGuardia Airport is made out of garbage and it settles to this day. It has
produced major problems over the years with buildings cracking, with runways
cracking, with rats thriving so much that planes had to come back for
emergency landings because rats were running down the aisles. You cannot
build on garbage.
GROSS: So if you can't build on modern garbage, what happens to the Fresh
Kills landfill on Staten Island?
Mr. MILLER: No one is every going to--in the foreseeable future, no one will
be building any buildings on Fresh Kills. Of course, you can sink piles
hundreds of feet down if you wanted to, but that's not realistic. Fresh Kills
will be something that you could walk on someday, perhaps 30 years from now
when it's all safely closed. We're just not able to build on landfill. In
Tokyo Bay, the Japanese built a landfill out of garbage that they're very
proud of. I walked on it. They've made a golf course out of it. It's the
only golf course in the world that doesn't allow smoking, to prevent
inadvertent holes in one. The methane coming up from it make it unusable for
a smoking golf course, much less building something on it.
GROSS: You know, you've written this book on a history of trash in New York.
What would you like us to be thinking about regarding trash and the place of
trash in our lives and what we do with our trash?
Mr. MILLER: Well, I would like people in New York to give some thought to
where their trash is going. Just because there will be no more landfilling or
incineration in New York City doesn't mean that our environment will
necessarily be better from a global perspective because the stuff is just
going to be landfilled or perhaps incinerated somewhere else. I'd like us to
be a little more conscious about how that stuff is being handled and try to
take some more responsibility for it.
GROSS: Do you worry about there coming a time eventually when there'll be no
place else left to put the trash?
Mr. MILLER: No, I don't think that's going to happen. Certainly we have a
lot of land in this country if that's the way we care to fill it up. I just
think that is going to be very expensive for us, certainly expensive from an
environmental perspective one day. But for the city of New York, I think what
we have just started to do is going to be very expensive as time goes on,
because the way the solid waste management industry is structured, the fact
that the city no longer has any control, I think this is a decision that
we will regret very much a generation or two from now when we're paying a
great deal just to get rid of our garbage.
GROSS: Now that you've written your history of trash in New York, do you see
parts of the city differently? Are there things you notice that you wouldn't
have noticed before?
Mr. MILLER: Well, I suppose what strikes me most is as I walk over places
that I know are landfills or were landfills. For instance, what's called the
municipal section downtown, where all the courthouses are, is on top of and
right next to a huge pond that used to be called the collect pond, which
has all been filled in. Now I have a sense of where streams used to be. I
have a sense of shorelines that were not there. Everything in lower Manhattan
that is west of 10th Avenue, for example, is landfill. I have a sense of who
put the stuff there and when for what purpose, so I suppose that's the
greatest sense I have as I'm exploring parts of New York to know that they
weren't really there before.
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. MILLER: Thank you.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Chico O'Farrill's newest CD
TERRY GROSS, host:
Composer Chico O'Farrill comes from Havana, where he started mixing jazz and
Latin music around 1945. Soon after, he moved to New York and was quickly
tapped to write Latin and non-Latin material for such band leaders as Machito,
Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton. Later O'Farrill went back to Cuba then settled
in Mexico for a few years before returning to the States to arrange LPs for
Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Gato Barbieri among others. In the mid '90s
he began leading his Afro-Cuban jazz big band in New York and returned to
making records. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews his new CD)
(Soundbite of "Carambola")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
That's "Carambola," the title track of Chico O'Farrill's new CD on Milestone.
His mambos and cha-cha-chas are straight out of the 1950s golden age of
Afro-Cuban jazz. The style was an early instance of world music, if we take
that to mean self-consciously grafting the sounds of different cultures
together. The jazz big band framework is hard to miss, but the style also has
roots in traditional Cuban rumba ensembles, with their shouted vocals, rough
harmonies and polyrhythmic drumming recalling West Africa. Listen for a
second to the rumba group Los Munequitos De Matanzas.
(Soundbite of jazz music)
WHITEHEAD: For the stylized big band version, composers like Chico O'Farrill
would stretch the melody lines to exploit the horn's greater melodic and
dynamic range and would substitute an improvising soloist for a lead singer.
But the basic feel can be similar.
(Soundbite of "Aztec Suite")
WHITEHEAD: Trumpeter Michael Mossman on Chico O'Farrill's "Aztec Suite."
When O'Farrill arrived from Havana in 1948, Latin jazz was already brewing in
the New York thanks to musicians like Machito, Mario Bauza and Dizzy
Gillespie. O'Farrill just missed being a founder of the style, but he did
design a few of its monuments. His new album includes a revival of his
"Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite" recorded in 1950 by Machito's orchestra with Charlie
Parker as a soloist. The alto saxophonist here is Mario Rivera.
(Soundbite of "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite")
WHITEHEAD: You can really hear that this is Chico O'Farrill's working band.
They play Sundays at New York's Birdland under the supervision of the
composer's son, pianist Arturo O'Farrill. On his CD "Carambola," Chico
O'Farrill doesn't limit himself to classic Afro-Cuban fireworks. He sets one
Havana standard as if it were a late Ellington Latin ballad and includes a
parody of 1920s jazz that sounds like his nightmare of music devoid of Latin
accents. O'Farrill has often written pieces outside the classic style but
since he's a direct link to that music's heyday, he's wise to revisit his
glorious past. For one thing, it lets him pass on his secrets to the
musicians who populate his band and who hang on his every note.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead reviewed "Carambola" by Chico O'Farrill on the
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of jazz music)
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