23 May 2022 Things Moving, People Doing
Somehow the things we need get from “there” to here, but it’s not just about the things; *people* make the global supply chain work. Here are stories of some of them, from a sea captain whose first working voyage had his knees knocking, to pedal-powered trash haulers, to residents of a tiny city at the nexus of multiple supply routes. Music from Blue Dot Sessions.
First Aired: May 9, 2022
Lauren Shrack: Where did your house come from? Unless you live in a tree, it probably didn’t just sprout from the ground. Unless you live in a log cabin in the woods, the materials probably weren’t there to begin with. And unless you live right next to the manufacturer for every single material you need for a house, they probably traveled for a long distance to get to you. So, how did they get there?
Quash Hopkins: “Your entire house that you live in, came on a truck. All the brick, all the block, all the cement, all of the plywood, all the shingles, all the siding, came on the back of a truck.”
[music fades out]
Lauren: That’s Quash Hopkins, a truck driver who operates locally in Massachusetts. And it’s not just your house that comes on a truck.
Quash: “Everything that we have in society, unless you live close to a processing plant, comes on a truck. I just delivered fish, now I’ve just picked up a load of Starbucks Coffee. Picked up ice cream, pizza rolls, your toothpaste, your toilet paper, your playstation 5’s, your laptops, your favorite sneakers…”
[music fades out]
Lauren: The supply chain is so ingrained in our lives that we barely even think about it. But if you take the time to look a little closer, you realize that there’s a lot more to it than things getting to where they need to be.
Lauren: Today we’re popping open the hood of the supply chain, and taking a close look at individual stories of people whose lives are affected by it.
Sarah Hernandez: Imagine a big, burly sea captain. You wouldn’t expect him to be scared of anything right? Turns out, even he has experiences that shiver his timbers. So this captain devotes his life to teaching students to be confident, and competent, out at sea, so that they don’t face the same fear. Let’s hear from Malachi Macon.
[transition music fades out]
Malachi Macon: Captain David Mackey, a veteran maritime officer, had a … nerve-wracking first job experience on a ship. I mean, while talking to a conference room full of college students, Captain Mackey said that…well, I think it’s better if he tells the story.
Captain David Mackey: “I was 22, on a thousand foot long natural gas carrier, coming out of school and left out of going through the greek isles over there. I flew over to greece, got on the ship, Captain said ‘ok, fixes every 15 minutes I’ll be in my room if you need me’, and I was like, I looked around and I had a helmsman, who was my Dad’s age, and it was me! Y’know those knees were knocking but I’m like ‘but I gotta do it!’. So, yeah I was pretty scared to put it blunt… But, you learn quickly.”
Malachi: Nowadays, Captain Mackey teaches at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, guiding its cadets into a future career in maritime shipping. Cadets have to go through a lot of training at the Academy before graduation, and part of their training involves a ship simulator. But not like one that’s just on a computer, it’s a full room sized ship simulator.
[low whirring and beeping sounds]
Malachi: You walk in and the walls are all one big screen, showing a digital version of the world, as seen from the bridge of a cargo ship. Under the low red lights, you see a multitude of replicated instruments and panels in front of you. Things like a compass, electronic navigation and depth charts, and so much more. And with a change of a few settings, the virtual ship appears to pitch up and down, as it moves through the waves of the ocean, and you lean with it as if you were there.
Captain Mackey: “This’ll be a capstone course, where they can use all their navigation skills. They learn each one of these pieces of equipment independently and now they can put all that together, and we can allow the cadets to make errors…”
Malachi: …that way, cadets can be as prepared as possible for the real world. Now, of course there’ll be some things that they weren’t expecting to happen. For example, in the ship simulator, Captain Mackey explains…
Captain Mackey: “The first time on a thousand foot long ship, to watch the wave hit the bow, and literally be able to watch the wave come under the ship and the ship undulate underneath it. I’m going ‘holy cow! I thought this was made out of metal.’ Well metal bends, right?”
Malachi: But, if they ever find themselves in a situation like that, then they’ll know what to do.
Captain Mackey: “So their knees aren’t knockin like mine were, the first time I got up here and the captain went down below and said ‘call me if you need me’. Yeah, ‘I need ya! There’s a ship out there, I need ya!’ No. We’re expected to be able to handle the job.”
Malachi: And as Captain Mackey said back in the conference room, they are certainly able to get the job done.
Captain Mackey: “These guys are workers, these guys are intelligent, they’re educated, they’re trained, but they know how to work. They really know how to go to it.”
Sarah: For our next story, Tova Kleiner will tell you about a group of people who have found a creative way to haul trash. Here’s how they become intimately familiar with the waste they collect, and their neighbors because of it.
[transition music fades out]
Tova Kleiner: Every Monday, Wednesday, or Thursday morning, you might hear the sighing of the garbage trucks inching up and down your street, the beeping as they back up, and the loud rumbling of their engines. But in Northampton, Massachusetts, trash pick up day looks a little different. It looks like a trailer on the back of a bike.
Ruthy Woodring: “You know, I’d describe to people what we were doing and they’d be like ‘noo, you can’t do that, you can’t haul trash on a bike!’. I’m like ‘well, we are!’”
Tova: Ruthy Woodring is one of the co-founders of Pedal People, a bike-powered trash-hauling co-op. We met her and her fellow haulers in a school parking lot, right across from the waste transfer center where haulers drop off their loads. They brought out one of their bikes and trailers to show us, skeptical as we were, that it is indeed possible to move trash by bike.
[bike and trailer sounds, music fades out]
Tova: In Northampton, there are no municipal waste collection services, so pedal people are in high demand.
Ruthy: “We pickup for over a thousand households and businesses, and we’re the biggest local hauler…”
Tova: Unlike other types of hauling, working on a bike allows Pedal People to closely observe all of the stuff they pick up. And there’s nothing more personal than someone’s garbage.
Tova: “Do you like, make perceptions of people based on their trash?”
Ruthy: “Oh yeah. And sometimes it’s really wrong, but sometimes you make perceptions of people not based on their trash, and then you see their trash and you see that things don’t match up that way either, based on professed values. It’s good practice to not be judgemental.”
Tova: Yet, it also offers a strangely touching and humorous way for Ruthy to get to know her neighbors.
Ruthy: “I had a customer that had a baby and they were very excited they had a baby, and I was like ‘ugh, diapers’. And so, every week I’d come to pick up and they had 30 pounds of diapers or something like that, and then I picked up for like two and a half years, and after a couple of years it gradually sort of tapered off and I was like ‘yes! I outlasted that baby!’ – and they had another baby.”
Tova: It’s the personal connections and impacts that motivate Pedal People to keep doing what they do. Sure, it’s better for the environment.
Ruthy: “I really want to walk gently on the Earth.”
Tova: Sure, they can make a few bucks.
Ruthy: “Can we really make a living? A lot of people think that we’re volunteers. We’re like ‘no’. This is hard work, I would not volunteer.”
Tova: And sure, they can pursue their cycling dreams.
Ruthy: “Actually I wanted to be a professional athlete when I was younger. But they say that the average career span of a professional male basketball player is like 6 years. And I’ve been doing Pedal People for 20. So I got my dream!”
[music fades out]
Tova: But what ultimately keeps them pedaling is their commitment to the Northampton community, and their love for what they do.
Ruthy: “We get a lot of support. You know you’ve made it when the little kids are dressing up for halloween like a Pedal Person.”
Tova: Pedal People are the trash-hauling heroes of Northampton, and this is their theme song.
Ruthy, singing: “I saw it sittin’ there on the side of the street. I could tell it must have been there about three weeks. The wind was smelling strong, like something good and gone. But, I knew it wouldn’t be long, ‘cause it was with me. Yeah, me! Singing’ I love hauling trash! Put another bag on my trailer baby! I love hauling trash! Never gonna stop, ‘cause it never ends!”
Sarah: Have you ever gone someplace that looks completely ordinary on the outside, but is completely not ordinary on the inside? Deepta Gupta has.
[transition music fades out]
Deepta Gupta: These are the sounds of a wholesale flower market in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on a Tuesday mid-morning. From the outside, it’s your typical tall gray, metal, and concrete warehouse, surrounded by an ordinary looking parking lot. But inside, it’s a different world.
Deepta: Flowers fill the space, in every color, shape, size and texture you can imagine, their lush scent tickling our noses. The voices of different vendors echo, describing what’s coming in, what’s going out, who’s ordering, and the sounds of frantic phone calls overlap with carts rolling, stems being snipped, and wrapping paper crinkling. Watching the whole warehouse move to take in and send out flowers, we become curious. What turns an ordinary warehouse into a colorful market, bustling with life?
Deepta: We long to understand more about the people who keep it going, so we start talking to them. One person we meet is Paula Parziale, who says she’s the first woman wholesaler in the area, maybe New England. Everyone seems to know who she is, and she’s in high demand. She’s quick on her feet, and it’s like she knows every little detail of the supply chain, to the hour and minute things will get here.
[music fades out]
Paula Parziale: “If things got here on time, that would make all the difference in the world. We always get a big delivery on Saturday morning, it doesn’t even come until sunday sometimes, sometimes Monday now! And half of that would’ve been sold on Saturday and Sunday. Now it shows up Monday and it’s not sold. So it just backs everything up in here, and more to dump and less to sell and missed sales…”
Deepta: But even when there’s delays and issues, Paula knows exactly how to get what, from where, and when.
Paula: “A lot of things are available worldwide different times of the year. So, Peony for instance. Everybody thinks that Peony’s in the spring. But we can get them in the winter now from New Zealand or from Chile…”
Deepta: And she makes sure to do so, for her customers.
Paula: “So if you have a bride or something that has their heart set on something that is not available that time of year, it is available, somewhere. So it’s very confusing for people. They’ll be like ‘Can I get…’ and, yeah you can! It’s crazy but it’s great!”
Deepta: Although Paula might be able to get any flower whenever she needs it, she still takes care with what flower she stocks.
Tova Kleiner: “What’s your favorite flower in here?”
[music fades back in]
Paula: “I couldn’t tell you. The ones that sell! There are flowers that I actually personally do not like, and I will not even bring them here. It’s kinda strange, but it’s personal too. It’s like my house in here everyday all day so I have to like everything.”
Deepta: Next, we talk to John Williams, another flower wholesaler. He’s chopping stems of flowers when we approach, and he seems quite lively. John Williams is someone who thrives in the hustle and bustle of the flower market.
John Williams: “Come on a wednesday morning at five o’clock, and you’ll see this place jumpin’. I wouldn’t even have time to talk to you, believe it or not. We don’t even have time to eat lunch some days. It’s a really intense business, it’s pretty cool, I like it.”
Deepta: For John, when the business is booming, he’s a happy camper.
John: “People being born, people being married, people dying… It’s kind of a crazy business, I love it. Hah, I love it!”
Deepta: John doesn’t just love his job. He takes pride and ownership in what he does.
John: “You tell your friends you work in a flower shop. ‘Oh how’s that little flower shop doing?’ And you say ‘Yeah, come pick some flowers up for your girlfriend.’ They walk in, they’re like ‘Oh My God!’. There you go buddy, that’s my ‘little flower shop’.”
Deepta: We leave the warehouse energized, feeling as if we were let into a secret garden. A vibrant little corner that we hadn’t known existed. So much passes through here. So many flowers touched everyday by the people who work here, and who shared their stories with us.
Sarah: The New England Flower Exchange is just one of the many transportation hubs in Chelsea Mustafa Al-Obaidi tells us about what it’s like for Chelsea residents to have so much stuff, moving through their city.
[transition music fades out]
[brief background conversation]
Mustafa Al-Obaidi: We are in Port Park in Chelsea, and next to us are piles upon piles of salt, destined for roads all across eastern New England.
Karl Allen: “Welcome to Chelsea, it’s a pleasure to have you all here. My name is Karl Allen, I’m a planner with the city of Chelsea. So, Chelsea is the smallest city in Massachusetts. It’s somewhere around 2 square miles. Buy and large, the community views itself as a blue collar, immigrant community.”
[sounds of cars driving by on a road]
Mustafa: Despite being the smallest city in Massachusetts, many of the products that serve the New England area are housed here. From the New England Produce Market that feeds 9 million people every day, to the flower market where trucks come in daily from all over the country. From a substation that transforms electric power for the local area, to tankers that carry petroleum products through Chelsea Creek so often that they have come up with a special name for the tankers.
Karl: “There’s a special class of tanker, called the Chelsea Class. Purpose-built, to fit through this channel.”
Mustafa: We spent an entire day visiting some places that products go through, all within a few minutes drive from one another. But what we didn’t see firsthand, was that within these two square miles, there are 40 to 50,000 residents building their lives. How does all of this affect them?
Mustafa: Karl takes us a few blocks down to Greenroots Chelsea, a local community-based organization dedicated to protecting the local environment and public health. Maria Belen Power, Associative Executive Director of Greenroots, tells us the impact that the emissions from freight traffic has on the residents.
Maria Belen Power: “Then again, no surprise that we have large public health concerns. One of the largest rates of childhood asthma hospitalization, and also concerns around heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and just other respiratory problems.”
Mustafa: John Walkey, Director of Waterfront and Climate Justice Initiatives, tells us how the things other communities get to enjoy are covered in the footprints of transportation in Chelsea.
John Walkey: “We were doing a slide presentation, with some slides that show pictures of nasty industrial stuff in Chelsea Creek, and then pictures of like the Charles River and the Esplinod. And go back and forth and say like ‘Why does one community like Cambridge and the Back Bay get this beautiful recreational asset, and then we get this bull$*@# all up and down the creek?’”
Mustafa: Chelsea has been carrying much of the burdens of the New England area upon its shoulders, at extreme cost to its residents. But GreenRoots’ role is to stand up for its surrounding community, and fight for improvements in Chelsea. The trucks at the produce center were a source of concern for residents.
Karl: “You see these tractor trailers that were pulled up, kind of tight to the loading bays, and they were using that surplus refrigeration and in order to keep them cold, they were running diesel engines 24 hours a day. And so, what the people at Greenroots did is worked with them, got some grants and replaced the diesel engines with electric engines.”
John: “So, getting that pulled offline was like thousands of pounds of pollutants taken out of the air every year.”
Mustafa: But it’s not always the case that Greenroots has resounding victories. For example, Eastern Minerals, the company that distributes salt, was not required to cover its salt piles.
Maria: “We actually fought Eastern Minerals, and lost that battle. There were residents that were complaining about the salt pile not being covered, but Eastern really felt that that was too costly; too expensive for them to cover it up. So, we lost the battle, but there was some small victories, where they are now investing in the community, in a way where they didn’t before. And so, Port Park, the park that you guys were at before, is one of those examples.”
Mustafa: When they win, it’s hard earned. And when they concede, it’s done strategically. And while there are never perfect solutions, and there’s always more to do, through the work of Karl, Maria, John, and others, Chelsea and its residents have a spot at the bargaining table.
[music fades out]
Lauren: Now that we’ve heard from people from so many sides of the transportation industry, do you still remember Quash Hopkins, the truck driver we met at the very beginning? Hopkins told us all about the goods he moves from place to place. But who is Hopkins, and why does he do what he does?
Quash Hopkins: “I love knowing that the job that I do, it helps other people. I’m bringing essential products to people, I’m bringing people their soap, their food… That makes me feel good. As a Dad also, being a provider is kinda what I do, so it kinda fits within that role that I fill.”
Lauren: Hopkins wishes that more people were aware of just how important truck drivers are to our society, and gave them the respect that they deserve.
Quash: “Just understand that there’s people behind the wheels, and that we do this not only for our own lives, but for yours too. So, if you have a chance, thank a trucker.”
Lauren: Truck drivers like Hopkins, along with everyone else we met along the way, ensure that virtually everything we have in society, gets to where it needs to be. But, much more than the goods they transport, the people who work in and around transportation live fascinating and complex lives. It’s easy to forget, but behind every product you encounter, there are dozens of stories. The stories of the people who worked to get it there. And at the end of the day, it’s not just about the things moving around, it’s also about the people, every step of the way.
Gabriel Rodriguez-Castillo: This piece was produced by Terrascope Radio, a class in the MIT Terrascope Program, which is a first year undergraduate learning community, focused on solving complex environmental problems. Terrascope Radio was developed in collaboration with MIT’s program in comparative media studies. We would like to thank everyone involved in this project. Great thank you to:
All of the people we spoke to, for sharing their lives and knowledge with us.
Our instructor Ari Epstein and our undergraduate teaching fellow Katherine LiYue Pan for ongoing support and guidance throughout this class.
Professor David McGee, for directing Terrascope as a whole.
Elise Chambers, Joan ??Silverlict ??-Epstein and Joel Grimm, and Libby Hsu, for their contributions to the terrascope community, and for making our spring break trip possible.
Music from blue dot sessions.
Gabriel: This piece was brought to you by Terrascope Radio 2022: Tova Kleiner,
Tova: “We interviewed a plant. It went well”
Gabriel: Sarah Hernandez,
Sarah: “This is brown basmati rice. Gourmet, and organic.”
Gabriel: Deepta Gupta, and Athena Wang,
Deepta: “You can always find life.”
Athena: “You just have to chew a little bit to find it.”
Gabriel: Lauren Shrack,
Lauren: “I derive deep fulfillment from all forms of destruction.”
Gabriel: Jaden Anderson,
Jaden: “It’s Monday, and there was Tuesday, and like Wednesday too but, [indistinct] really different days.”
Gabriel: Kai Van Brunt,
Gabriel: Mustafa Al-Obaidi, and Gabriel Rodriguez-Castillo,
Mustafa: “You are the flower of my life.”
Gabriel: “I am the flower of your life? Ooo.”
Gabriel: Eldar Urkumbayev,
Eldar: “But it’s valid.”
Gabriel: Richard Chen,
Richard: “Well let me tell you a story ‘bout a man named Charlie on a tragic, and fateful day…”
Gabriel: Malachi Macon.
Malachi: “It smells like fish over here!”
Gabriel: Thank you for listening.
How to spell this?