Last week I walked the trail above the Georgia Pacific site and met Hippie Jim wearing boater's camo, carrying his hand-cranked radio and a five gallon plastic bucket. We stopped to chat and I asked him how he came to live here.
"Why Bellingham?" Peering intently at me with his cyanide blue eyes from under bushy brows, Jim laughed, shook his long hair, beard and bucket, and said, "That's easy! I'm here for the mercury!"
"What?" I yelped, eyes fixed on the large shiny silver wobbling blob in Hippie Jim's bucket. "Where did you get that?"
"I dug a hole to bury my poop in these woods here and hit a geyser! OOOoeeee Hot Diggity!" Jim crowed.
"Isn't it toxic?"
"Yes ma'am, that's why I love Bellingham! I got born in a pile of polychlorinated biphenyls courtesy of the General Electric Corporation in Scary Schoharie County, New York. Age four I moved to Rottenwood, Arizona, (Cottonwood, AZ) home of the world's second largest pile of copper waste, owned by the Kennecott Copper company, who owns the largest pile too, in Utah. We kids used to play in the leach ponds with the fine alkalis wafting in the breeze."
"Really!”I stammered, shocked, but I had to admit, “Here in Bellingham, children of our generation constructed endless models using glues and paints in poorly ventilated spaces." Trying to remember, I added, "And oh my, we inhaled so deeply when they passed out those mimeograph, purple ink, assignments. Did you have those in school, Hippie Jim?"
"You bet! I blacked out on 'White Out'!"
I tried to hide my growing discomfort by joining in, "You know Jim, I excelled at math back then but soon as they stopped using those mimeograph rollers to print daily problems I lost my abilities. Or maybe it was puberty?"
"That purple ink! Choice! Did you ever try Xerox copy toner?"
"No!” I screeched, completely horrified. “Doesn't that make your nose black?"
"I used it as eye shadow, during my dark Goth period. I was mourning the earth," said Hippie Jim and he winked at me! I frowned at him and he seemed more serious when he said, “I moved to Bellingham back in 1974. I felt right at home but sad, because my dog died down on Bellingham Bay when he got into some toxic black goo. Yet in Bellingham I can roll out my bed of tin foil on the mud flats under the pier, apply some zinc oxide and charge my radio off it, that's how much mercury we got! I never want to miss hearing Sehome High School talk show hero Glenn Beck! Something funny happens to those who eat too much of our local shellfish.”
"Thanks Hippie Jim, glad you like it here.” I told him dismissively, deciding to end the conversation and continue my walk.
“Hell yes, what a shoreline! Bellingham is such a beautiful toxic place! We have that big ball of tin slag sitting in the water North of Taylor Street, and those tanks in Boulevard park that contain residue from extracting gas from coal, not to mention the Cornwall Ave and Holly Street garbage dump landfills, and GP's caustic plume and their Chemfix Sludge Solidification Project - and don't forget the pentachlorophenol, dioxin, copper, zinc and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon compounds in Squalicum Creek and there is so much more! The other day I saw a tourist spill a bottle of balsamic vinaigrette on the beach at Little Squalicum Park and a big white cloud jumped out of the sand and I thought it got him but I didn't read about it anywhere.“
“He probably got away, lucky bloke.” I murmured as I initiated three little steps to the side, giving wide berth to Hippie Jim's bucket swinging gently from the fingers of his right hand.
“Hey, isn't that mercury heavy?” I asked him suspiciously.
"Sure is,” Hippie Jim assured me swinging it back and forth in front of me, back and forth, the shiny bright liquid metal flowing, displaying lovely patterns of rippling light, quite entrancing…”You tell the folks who read your articles that Hippie Jim says leave the Bellingham waterfront alone. Make the Georgia Pacific pulp mill site a big post-modern industrial park open to the public. Maybe call it Mercury Heights!" Hippie Jim declared and then quickly edited, "No no, wrong elevation. Mad Hatter Flats! Or how about - Shinytown?"
I yawned and asked him a bit dreamily, "Like Gas Works Park in Seattle?"
"Except better because we have MERCURY here!" Hippie Jim chortled, and he danced a little jig with his bucket, breaking my trance. "Georgia Pacific left us hundreds of tons of mercury in Bellingham Bay, sprayed on logging roads and dumped in county ravines, so lots of mercury is flowing down the Nooksack River and creeks! I like being on the shore when the water and sky and air are all the same monochromatic shade of mercury. The world becomes a big thermometer on days like that. The beach is so silvery and shiny, like one big Etch-a-Sketch.
“Don't you think we should clean up the pollution in Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound?” I asked Hippie Jim snippily.
“No maam. Some days I miss the smell of high-test leaded gasoline. My childhood was spent in the back seat of a car burning gas to light my cigarettes. Came from a lead minded community, too poor for potato chips so we ate paint chips. I'm happy that Georgia Pacific left us with mercury, though I miss the vinyl chloride and chlorine, and the various pulp processing smells - like Tuna Gas, remember that one? - around the Old Town Cafe, but beggars can't be boozers. Inhale deep, mercury is cheap!"
“Well good luck to you Hippie Jim in finding backers to transform the former Georgia Pacific pulp mill site into 'Shinytown – A Quicksilver Theme Park'!” I nodded my head at him politely and started to step away.
But Hippie Jim set his bucket down right in front of me, blocking my path. “I expect this to be worth it's weight in gold soon.”
I picked up the bucket handle with my right hand and tried to lift it. I tried both hands and couldn't heft that bucket one bit. I dropped the handle and stood straight, forcing my gaze away from the bucket's shiny contents - looking out over the old grey Georgia Pacific site, the sky and waters beyond, both silver. I inhaled deeply a couple times and soon felt my humor restored. I turned back to face Hippie Jim and recited:
of things in the air
that we can't see
(by Dr. David T. Mason)
Jim grinned at my message and shook his head. He told me, "Soon as I find an investor I'm making a t-shirt!"
"Really?" I leaped easily over the bucket and headed up the trail towards Boulevard Park, stretching my legs, continuing to breathe deeply, enjoying the thick silvery air.
Hippie Jim called after me, laughing confidently, "It'll have a beautiful shot of Bellingham Bay, all cosmic, colorful and sparkly, showing off the old Georgia Pacific site.”
“Really?” I yelled back at him. Feeling light-hearted and free, I hollered, “What's the caption going to say, Hippie Jim?”
“Bellingham! It's The Mercury!”