I have had a lot more sympathy — even respect — for those amateur/professional recyclers since one who was rummaging through my building’s Dumpster turned out to be an old friend. I’d known her for many years; saw her off and on at various clubs and occasionally at the home of a mutual friend. It had been a while; and (let’s call her) Grace had suffered a series of bad breaks — drugs, particularly hard drugs, will impair one’s ability to make good decisions.
The bad ones in this case led — don’t know the order — to a crack cocaine habit and marriage to another addict. As one might expect, no bluebirds flew around the couple. Not even, I’d venture, in Grace’s imagination. As I said, I’d known her a long time, as a good, intelligent and enthusiastic person. Somehow, those qualities continued to show through.
No surprise; the husband turned out to be bad news. He may have been handsome and charming when they met; later on (before the dumpster incident, I saw her every once in a while) he was jealous and violent. And when I drove Grace home from a party at out friend’s house one night (God knows how she got there), he was standing in front of the building. From their actions, I don’t believe the woman with him was his sister, or his mother. I believe that’s when Grace moved out.
Our friend helped as much as she could, and I lost track again, until that afternoon I went to throw out some trash and the woman reaching over the steel container in her search for bottles and cans turned, spotted me, and called out my name.
I don’t know how she felt, seeing someone she knew while in that state. She is a proud person, but showed no particular embarrassment (nor should she have). I tried to help her out; slip her some money, at least. But she turned it down. She did ask for a soda, though, and did on the several subsequent visits I witnessed. I have a pretty good idea where the empty cans wound up.
“Recycling,” as she called it, is neither easy nor particularly rewarding; you push your grocery cart from building to building, accumulating what you can while hoping that property owners or tenants don’t chase you away and that the “real” trash collectors haven’t already emptied the blue plastic container (which weren’t used hereabouts during the time of this story). And not everybody bothers to use the blue container, so an industrious recycler will reach as far as possible into the big steel box as Grace did. There’s a phrase for that, of course: “dumpster diving,” which hints at an enterprise more entertaining than it is in actual practice.
Then you take your cart — filled as it can be, on a good day — to the recycling center; the closest one to me was between a supermarket and a Home Depot, a few miles away. Then she’d go home (taking her cart with her, of course) which was a couple of miles from my place as well, but in the opposite direction. A full cart might bring in (I’m extrapolating here, from experience with a few trash bags full of the stuff, cashed in to see what I could get) maybe $20; probably less, based on weight. It takes a lot of aluminum cans and plastic bottles to weigh much.
The next time I saw Grace, she’d cleaned up considerably; I’m sure with the help of our friend, at least, possibly others, but of course most of the “doing” was her own. She’d ditched the guy, and found a job where she’s risen through the ranks like the smart, motivated woman she is She’s now living in an increasingly fashionable part of town, in the same building as another mutual friend, and is computer-savvy. She smiles a lot.
Grace has been talking about writing her memoirs, and of a possible movie based on her life. It couldn’t do her justice.
These days, I generally stockpile empties until I can take a fair amount back to the blue containers. On those occasions I spot a guy with a shopping cart out front, particularly an empty one, I bring the cans and bottles directly to him.