Lead Story

Extreme plumbers: Julio Cesar Cu, 42, works as part of a team of four frogmen to unclog and repair Mexico City’s antiquated sewers, according to an April Los Angeles Times dispatch; the divers operate exclusively by touch–the water is so murky that flashlights are useless–and wear waterproof rubber armor to protect them from the “sea of human waste and industrial chemicals.” The city’s location–it occupies a valley surrounded by mountains–contributes to frequent flooding and poor drainage, and its sewer system directs storm water into the same pipes as the waste generated by its 20 million inhabitants. Said one environmentalist, “You walk the streets, smell the stench of raw sewage, and can only imagine what’s happening underground.”

Cultural Diversity

According to an August report in the Washington Post, women in Kenya are now openly defying a tradition they’ve long hated: the requirement that a newly widowed woman pay to have sex with the village’s “cleanser” to dispel evil spirits before she can attend her husband’s funeral or remarry. Cleansing is low-status work, and often a dullard or drunkard will end up with the job–the cleanser in the town of Gangre, an unkempt alcoholic the women call “the terrorist,” reflected, “It’s not bad for me since I get to be with the beautiful ladies….They need me.” Cleansers are thought to play a major role in the spread of HIV, since they believe condoms keep the ritual from working.

Least Competent People

In August in Charleston, South Carolina, grad student Mohammed Talha Shekhani, 23, was charged with assault and lewd conduct after following the advice of a friend who told him that the best way to meet women was to walk up to them and touch them. In one day Shekhani publicly hugged, kissed, and groped five women and girls–including a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old, both in front of their mothers–but according to the police report, they “did not respond…the way he had hoped.” Shekhani’s lawyer said his client’s poor judgment was caused by the stress of his academic life: he’s simultaneously earning a PhD and an MD at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Least Competent Animals

In June British Airways shipped a homing pigeon named Billy back to his owners, John and Maria Warren of Bootle, England, after the bird got lost trying to fly the seven hours home from Fougeres, France, and wound up in New York City (it’s likely he made part of the trip on a boat). And in August the Shanghai Zoo flew two South China tiger cubs to a preserve in South Africa so that experts can teach them how to survive in the wild, where less than 30 of the animals are thought to remain; the captive-bred tigers instinctively chase prey, but sometimes take more than half an hour to kill it.

More Things to Worry About

At 2:20 AM on August 21 near Charlotte, North Carolina, a car traveling on the I-77 causeway across Lake Norman struck a 20-foot speedboat that had run up the highway embankment, become airborne, and landed upside down in the car’s path (the three boaters were the only injuries).

Government in Action

On the ballot in Denver in November will be a referendum calling on the city council to select and implement a scientifically sound method for reducing political, religious, and ethnic tension around the world. “The buildup of society-wide stress is like a new pollution in the environment,” said activist Jeff Peckman, a former Transcendental Medititation instructor who collected the necessary signatures. Said council member Charlie Brown, “What are we supposed to do, hand out incense sticks at Denver International Airport? Is that the image we want for our city?”

An August report in the Los Angeles Times described the problems some states are having finding housing for paroled sex offenders: In Linn County, Oregon, Bruce Scott Erbs (a paranoid schizophrenic convicted of arson as well as sex crimes) was turned away by every landlord the state contacted and now stays in a government-supplied tent on the grounds of the county jail. And because Wisconsin law requires the government to furnish quarters for paroled sexual predators if state placement services fail, it’s made a $100,000 offer on a home in West Allis for repeat offender Billy Lee Morford.

In the Last Month

Ingrid Nicholls, a black woman, was informed by her hospital in Reading, England, that the only foot prosthesis the National Health Service could provide her was white, and that she’d have to pay for a black one herself (a few days later the NHS backpedaled and apologized). The city council in Duluth, Minnesota, tried to help a local nonprofit arts group by selling it an old National Guard armory for one dollar, but the group’s check bounced. And Canada’s foreign ministry announced that, because it’s easier to match a photo to a face if the subject wears a “neutral” expression, it would no longer issue passports that show applicants smiling.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Shawn Belschwender.