Miguel - otherwise known as 'Recyclone' from a 90's eco-show - still wants to change the world. But it's getting harder every day. Especially since his Uncle Tio wants him to use his skills in alchemy to transmute gold instead of plastic.
It Ain't Easy Being Green
Miguel clutched the empty soda can and uttered the incantation, “Alkahest.” The aluminum transmuted and rippled in his hand like mercury. He spun it into a metallic bead and pushed it into the surface of a large sculpture.
He stepped back and checked his reference photo, a poster of Mahatma Gandhi. The old statesman’s thin brown head poked up from a bulky white gown. He looked like a kid playing in the snow, a wide smile below his owlish glasses. Beneath the picture was a quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” These were the words Miguel lived by.
In his sculpture, Gandhi cradled the Earth in his upturned palms. Countless beads of glass and polished aluminum had been recycled to create a sparkling skin. Miguel sipped from a mason jar of homemade kombucha tea and gazed at his shimmering reflection.
He stepped back further and knocked over a small statue of a dolphin. He shoved it back into a line of replicas. His cramped studio was littered with leaping dolphins, glittering rainbows and docile Native American figurines. The transmuted hunks of plastic, glass and metal bore slogans like ‘IMAGINE’, ‘DREAM’, and ‘BLESSED’. Even Miguel found them cloying, but his Etsy shop was his only steady source of income. He occasionally got lucky and sold a signed comic or an unopened action figure to a collector on eBay, though he suspected most of those went to ironic millennials.
He set down the jar and frowned. It had been resting on a framed picture taken on the set of a television show, the 1990 Time Warner ‘Earth Day Special’. A mob of grinning celebrities crowded in for the photo including Doogie Howser, Ice-T, Bea Arthur, Bill Cosby, Kermit the Frog, Kid n’ Play, E.T. and finally Miguel, in his tight green superhero costume. That television event was the official premiere of ‘Recyclone, the Environmental Avenger.’ This was before his goatee and pony tail. He was clean shaven back then, an earnest face beaming a smile at Generation X’s disaffected youth. He had finally achieved his dream, to transform the cynical refrain of ‘whatever’ into ‘whatever it takes to help the planet’.
The stench of cigar smoke crept through the screen door. Uncle Tio entered wearing a crisp white guayabera and a pork pie hat. A fat cigar protruded beneath his salt and pepper mustache. He appraised the large statue. “You’re gonna get killed on shipping costs.”
Miguel fanned the cigar smoke with a bundle of dried sage. “It’s not for sale. Can you knock?”
Tio scrunched his bulldog face into a grin. “It’s a screen door. And it’s my guest house!”
Miguel opened the door to clear the air and gasped. A tiny blue nymph frolicked in the yard, jumping for joy as it sprayed the grass with dew. “Why is there a water elemental out there? We’re in a drought! I told you, you should pull up your lawn and put in native plants.”
“Ay carbron, I didn’t leave Mexico to look at a bunch of cactuses.”
“I came for a big house, a big car and a big green lawn. Besides, just look at the little guy, he loves it. Maybe I should put in a pool. Of course, I’d have to get rid of the guest house.” He studied the floor. Buried beneath the clutter was an ornate circle painted with alchemical symbols. “It’s not like you’re doing anything with the place.”
“You mean I’m not making gold.” Miguel slammed the screen door and folded his arms. “Jesus, are you really going to extort your own nephew?”
Tio stubbed out the cigar on a sculpture of a sad Indian Chief, sending a tear of ash down its cheek. “Miguelito, please. You’re the most talented alchemist I’ve ever known. You could make mountains of gold! You could do anything. Don’t squander the rest of your life.”
“You think the lesser elements are worthless, but I’m making something greater than gold. I help people think differently about glass, metal and plastic. I became Recyclone to show them the way. I’m the only superhero that knows what it actually takes to save the planet!”
“You’re 40 and you live in my guest house.”
Miguel grabbed a reusable shopping bag. “Forget this noise, man. I’m going someplace people understand me.”
He jumped on his bike and pedaled furiously to the Whole Foods Market. He needed to be with other eco-conscious people, plus he was out of quinoa.
It was a beautiful day in Venice, California until Miguel got stuck riding behind a gas guzzling pickup truck. It coughed and spewed exhaust from a rusty tail pipe. The fender wore a faded ‘Bush/Cheney’ bumper sticker over a pendulous pair of ‘Truck Nutz™’. Miguel thought about reporting the vehicle for an emissions violation, then bit his lip. What if the driver couldn’t afford a smog check? Times were tough for everyone in the bottom 99%. Maybe together they could find a mechanic that worked pro bono.
A plastic bag flew out the truck’s window and sailed past him. It hit the pavement and a large Styrofoam container burst, hemorrhaging soy sauce soaked Chinese food. Miguel violently squeezed his bike horn in outrage.
“Hey! Come back here, you…you…don’t-give-a-hoot-er!”
He scooped up the dripping bag. He imagined that truck endlessly driving across the land, tossing garbage, farting smog and swinging its nuts. Had the driver never seen a P.S.A.? How many slobs were out there undermining Miguel’s hard work? Were all his sacrifices destined to be in vain?
He inspected the bag and winced. The plastic bag was a greasy mess and the container was made of accursed Styrofoam that could never be recycled. All he could do was transmute the lot of it into water to clean up the spill. “Azoth cauda pavonis!” The container melted in a prismatic flash. “Aqua fortis!” The burbling runoff became a crystal clear wave and swept the food into a gutter. A skittering cockroach danced for joy.
A Humvee rumbled through the intersection. Miguel spotted a white plastic spork still stranded in the road. The massive chrome-rimmed tires plowed over the utensil. The spork popped up in its wake, none the worse for wear.
Miguel retrieved the spork. He held it aloft and smiled despite his frustration. The spork was a match for any situation, a marvel of human ingenuity. A spork made from 100% recycled plastic? That was a beautiful thing.
He caressed its concave face and ran his thumb through its short tined hair. A simple incantation transmuted it into putty in his hand. He stretched it between his fingers and let the sunlight play on its amorphous surface. Plastic could become anything people needed, from a tooth brush to a contact lens to a sterile bag for blood transfusions. Why did people throw it away like garbage? The potential of glass, metal and plastic was limited only by people’s imagination. With the proper separation of waste streams this world could be a paradise. Recycling was alchemy for everyone.
He placed the blob of plastic into a recycling bin. “Farewell, sweet spork. May we meet again in your next reincarnation.”
He hopped back on his bike. A few blocks later he found himself behind the same pickup truck. He looked at the open window that had vomited the trash. Maybe it was time to set this filthy polluter straight. He waited for the next stop sign to make his move. He angled his handlebars to roll up on the passenger side door.
He was almost wiped out by a Prius.
The back bumper and rear windshield of the Prius were completely plastered in bumper stickers with messages such as ‘Coexist’, “Say NO to GMOs’, ‘Free Tibet’ and ‘You can’t hug a child with nuclear arms’. The window facing the truck slid down and a middle finger shot out, followed by the frizzy blonde head of a screaming woman. She unleashed a visible spray of spit along with a rant about wars for oil, S.U.V. subsidies, air pollution and former President Bush.
Miguel pulled his wool cap low and stared at the ground. As Recyclone, he tried to avoid conflict and promote cooperation, yet he couldn’t help but chuckle. The lady hit all the grievances listed on the back of her car and then some. The pickup roared off in a cloud of smog. Miguel was surprised it still had its Truck Nutz™.
He reached the Whole Foods and locked up his bike. He took off the wool cap. He didn’t mind being recognized by the funky clerks and cute, earthy cashiers. Sometimes the dude at the deli counter threw in a free slice of tapioca cheese.
He hit the first aisle and his face resumed its usual knot of worry. There was Soy in everything. When he became a Vegan he forced himself to live with the taste, but he’d just read in MOTHER EARTH NEWS that soybean farming caused soil erosion, toxic runoff and deforestation. Being a hero was more complicated than putting on a mask and punching robbers in the face. Every dollar was a vote, every purchase a solemn battle in the struggle to save the world.
The struggle was real, and it got harder every day. Were local farms less efficient than factory farms? How to calculate ‘food miles’? If organic goods were shipped from overseas did they leave a bigger ‘carbon footprint’? He agonized over every choice, determined to lead by example.
He picked up a bottle of toilet cleaner with a green sticker that said ‘Eco-friendly!’ He scoured the label and learned that it contained no genetically modified organisms. That was a relief. Everything on the shelf was marked ‘organic’, ‘all natural’ or ‘pure’, and none of it was true.
The 90’s were a much easier time to be an environmentalist. All it took to fix the hole in the ozone layer was banning cans of hairspray (Miguel’s air elementals certainly helped, but he gave all the credit to the E.P.A.). When the Exxon Valdez spilled oil on a beach, people only needed to scrub rocks and seagulls (Miguel’s water elementals enjoyed it much more than the birds.) And best of all? A generation of young people were ready to help the planet. They were ready for Recyclone.
What they got was ‘Recyclone and the Enviro-teers’, a Saturday morning cartoon about saving the world, one six pack soda ring at a time. The producers invented a team of perky, clean-cut tweens to appeal to a younger audience. That meant less screen time for Recyclone, but Miguel was just happy to broadcast his message to millions of kids. He even co-wrote the theme song. “Look out, looters! Watch out, polluters! We’re gonna school all you don’t-give-a-hoot-ers!”
Companies had lined up to slap his image on comic books, toys, t-shirts and lunch boxes. Miguel vowed never to enrich himself with alchemy, but the toy companies and advertisers made a fortune. He tried to keep his message clear above the din, ‘Caring is cool’, and ‘Awareness is where it’s at!’ The only message that reached most people was, ‘Watch more TV’, ‘Eat processed food’ and ‘Buy plastic junk’.
So Miguel made the hardest decision of his life. He walked away from the spotlight. Or would have, if the ‘eco’ trend hadn’t ended. The market had moved on to Furbies. Or maybe it was Pogs.
He sighed and reached for a bag of quinoa.
“Are you really going to buy all that plastic packaging?”
Miguel glanced up. A woman frowned at him. He smiled back. “It’s made from a type of corn starch. It’s biodegradable.”
“But you have to compost it at a special facility.”
Miguel nodded. “Well, better than making normal plastic.”
“That stuff can’t be recycled. It will probably end up in a landfill.”
“I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Fine, go ahead. Make everything out of corn while people around the world are starving.”
Miguel forced the smile back onto his face. He never used his powers to win an argument, but this felt like a ‘teachable moment’. He balanced the package on his palm and uttered the mystic incantation.
The plastic ballooned into a shiny, quinoa filled globe and the labels split into tiny continents. “Be the change you wish to see in the world. Together, we can find a better solution…for less pollution.”
The woman’s eyes widened with recognition. “Oh my god, you’re Recyclone!”
Miguel suddenly recognized her as well. She was the woman in the Prius.
“You should be ashamed of yourself! Your show filled the world with plastic crap. Your stupid toys are probably still stuck in whale’s stomachs.”
“They were, um, made from 100% recycled plastic. I insisted.”
“They were made in sweatshops!”
“I didn’t…know where everything was made. How could I?”
“And those sweatshops weren’t even in America!”
Miguel clenched his fist and popped the globe. Dry quinoa pinged off the shelves and scattered everywhere.
“What have you ever done for the planet, huh? Bumper stickers? Did that stop global warming? Keep tweeting, maybe that will do it! Keep clicking those hopes and prayers on Facebook. Enjoy your precious outrage. But for Christ’s sake, stop attacking anyone that sticks their neck out and tries to change the world!”
She clamped her jaw shut and turned red as a pesticide-free beet.
A guffaw drifted down the aisle. “Check it out, Recyclone is freaking out on this chick!”
Miguel noticed the teenaged boy holding up a smartphone. “Did you record me without my permission? Delete that.”
The boy shrugged. “Sorry, bro. It’s in the cloud.”
Miguel grabbed the phone. “Alkahest!” The aluminum casing evaporated. Wires, circuit boards and glass components rained down. “Aether spirare.” The components exploded into puffs of steam.
“Sorry, bro. It’s in the cloud.” Miguel stomped away, crunching uncooked grains beneath his sandals. An earthy girl leaned over her register. “Are you gonna pay for that quinoa?”
Miguel returned home in a huff and dumped his bike on the lawn. The water elemental panted on the ground, dehydrated and weak. Miguel carried it inside and nearly tripped over his uncle.
Tio had moved the small sculptures to reveal the alchemical mandala. Elegant lines of Latin script formed intricate interlocking shapes. Astrological symbols marked each point along with vials of corresponding elements and compounds. At its heart, a brazier full of charred lead ore hissed with sulfurous, eye-watering fumes.
“What the hell are you doing, Tio?”
“What the hell does it look like?”
“You’re trying to make gold.”
His uncle gave a subdued golf clap. “So you do remember what alchemy is for.”
Miguel squeezed past the statue of Gandhi and filled a mug with tap water. He carefully set the little nymph inside. “I don’t want to get into it right now. Can I please have some space?”
“No? Why not?”
“This is my ritual chamber. Why do you think I let you move in? Not so you could smoke dope and lecture me about cactuses. You are here to transmute things into gold.”
“Then I guess I’m moving out, because that’s never going to happen.”
“Ay ay ay! Miguel Filius Iliaster Rubedo, why are you being so mule-headed?”
“Because I follow a different path! It’s about intention. If I focus my alchemy on making wealth, I’ll never be able to change the world.”
“Miguelito, that’s ridiculous! Look at Bill Gates, at Warren Buffet. Even that Zuckerberg. They give millions to charity.”
Miguel crossed his arms. “Those are tax dodges. I don’t need to sooth a guilty conscience.”
“When you have the gold, you can give it to whoever you want. Save the Whales, March of the Penguins, anybody.”
“That’s just checkbook activism. Where’s the sacrifice? Where’s the commitment, with your whole heart, to making the world a better place?”
Tio sighed and drew a cigar from his shirt pocket. He snipped the end off and held it over the brazier. “Ignis”. A tiny fire salamander leapt up and set it alight.
“You have a kind soul, Miguelito. I know that. But it’s time to face facts. All the hippies in their drum circles and all the stoners juicing raw veggies will never change the world. Not like a million dollars’ worth of vaccines and mosquito nets.” He sucked on the cigar and exhaled. “Be honest. Do you really want to contribute? Or would you rather keep moping, wallowing in injustice…so you can feel morally superior to the rest of us?”
Miguel turned away to avoid spilling tears. His throat grew tight and bobbed, struggling to swallow a painful truth. He steadied himself against the statue and searched his own reflection. Did he see a righteous man? Or a self-righteous prick?
He stared into Gandhi’s eyes. Be the change you wish to see in the world.
He channeled his full power into the ultimate alchemical incantation, “Chrysopoeia.” Every bead in the sculpture’s skin strobed wildly with violent flares of color. The earth shook and the guest house shuddered. The air itself crackled with swirling, blinding radiance.
When it faded, the statue glimmered a honey luster of solid gold. Miguel stared at for a long time, attempting to recognize his warped reflection. He gradually became aware that Tio was shaking him by the shoulder.
“¡Orale, güey!” He pushed a glass of bourbon into Miguel’s hand. “Sit, drink!” Miguel slumped into a chair. “Everything’s going to be fine, Miguelito, you’ll see. Here, I brought you something.”
Tio slid a checkbook across the counter. “Who’s first?” He fished a pen from a drawer and propped it up in Miguel’s hand.
Miguel stared at the check until his hand twitched. He scrawled out the word ‘Greenpeace’, and then ‘$50,000.00’. The paper felt dry in his hand. Even the pen ran dry as Tio signed the bottom of the check.
“That’s a good start, Miguelito. Who’s next, Amnesty? Unicef? What about those kids with the messed up teeth?”
Miguel took the empty pen. He rubbed his thumb down its plastic and repeated a familiar incantation.