The Myth of Sisyphus on the Streets of Oakland

Jason Witt has mastered the art of recycling and the art of the samurai sword. His hands have been toughened into recycled steel and he hauls mountainous loads all by himself. It looks as if he has the strength to pull these impossible burdens forever — yet he faces life-threatening illnesses.
Jason Witt and Heather Holloway carry massive amounts of recycled materials to Oakland centers every day.

Jason Witt and Heather Holloway haul massive amounts of recycled materials to Oakland centers every day.

by Terry Messman

Like the myth of Sisyphus come alive on the streets of Oakland, Jason Witt carries out the Herculean task of pushing and pulling mountainous carts stacked with thousand-pound loads of bottles and cans on winding, 15-mile routes to recycling centers in West Oakland.

His daily life is a long, uphill haul, and just as Sisyphus was fated to push a gigantic boulder up the hill, and was then forced to push it over and over again each time the boulder rolled back down, Jason must push his heavy carts all day. And when the morning sun rises, he must find the strength to get up to do it again.

He has been toughened by years of hard labor in rough neighborhoods. Every day is an uphill struggle to survive as he pulls a cart loaded with an estimated 800 pounds of glass, 50 pounds of cans, about 200 pounds of plastic, on a 15-mile route that he compares to a truck route.

“I pull more stuff to any recycling center than anyone can,” Jason says, as he hauls carts loaded with precariously balanced recyclable materials that seem far too large for a single man to handle.

Amir Soltani, co-director of Dogtown Redemption, who filmed Jason on the streets of West Oakland for seven years, also invokes the figures of mythology, calling Jason a “Titan” of recyclers.

After phoning Jason’s father for detailed directions to his son’s concealed homeless encampment in West Oakland, I arrived at the primitive lean-to near the I-680 freeway only to find a scrawled note Jason had posted on an abandoned vehicle telling me he had hit the streets with his shopping cart and was on his way to National Recycling at 14th and Kirkham Street in West Oakland.

When I entered the recycling center, Jason was inside, rapidly crushing cans, emptying bottles and sorting recyclables into different bins, his ragged, tattered clothing darkly soiled from the hours he had spent collecting recyclable waste from trash cans. He appeared fatigued and battle-weary.

Toughened by the Street

Pausing from his work long enough to offer a quick handshake, Jason began giving an intense running commentary on the life of a recycler while he laboriously sorted through huge bags of cans and bottles, plastic and paper. As casual as his handshake was, it was a crushing grip.

Jason has suffered serious illnesses and street assaults in recent years that have landed him in the hospital, but the streets have toughened and strengthened him, and forged his hands into recycled steel.

That image of steel was confirmed a few minutes later when he asked me to guard his cart while he took his recyclables to be weighed and get paid, and I saw the four samurai swords tied to his cart.

He prizes his cherished swords so highly that he never let them out of his sight all day long, keeping close watch on them on his recycling rounds. I wondered why he would add such a distracting addition to all the dozens of bags and hundreds of recycled goods he must keep track of during his endless miles pushing a cart through West Oakland.

But to Jason, the swords are not a distraction or a burden. They are a vital part of his identity. He has earned a black belt in the art of the samurai sword, but more importantly, the discipline and spiritual balance of martial arts have given him a kind of affirmation and healing he was unable to find anywhere else.

He told me flatly that without the discipline and strength and hope he found in the martial arts and in his regular training sessions at the dojo, he would not have survived.

It’s a tough, grinding experience to have your selfhood scoured away on the sandpaper of the streets. It’s a life of ceaseless toil to dig through society’s garbage and dumpsters and it often is dishonored in our society. Street recyclers are often condemned by the public, and targeted for removal by city officials. It wears and tears at your sense of self-respect to have uncomprehending people look down on you as a scavenger, a ragged scarecrow.

Jason’s Metamorphosis

After we had dropped by Jason’s camp by the freeway in West Oakland, guarded by his fighting dog Ninja, we drove to his dojo in Concord, first stopping for an interview over pizza at Round Table. After we finished our meal and our interview, Jason darted into the restaurant’s restroom, tying it up until the kitchen staff pounded on the door for him to come out.

He emerged from the restroom like Clark Kent from a phone booth, no longer the haggard and exhausted street survivor in grimy, tattered clothes, but garbed now in martial arts attire and samurai sword.

Coming only a few hours after I first met the worn-down laborer rummaging through mounds of cast-off waste, it was a remarkable metamorphosis. It was startling to see the depth of his sudden transformation from a grim-looking, 42-year-old street survivor into an excited and proud young man on his way to his dojo.

Yet it was a transformation marked by some anxiety, for on our drive to his Concord dojo, he told me nervously that several of the martial arts students came from high walks of life, and he was worried about being worthy of their acceptance. It mattered very deeply to him, and he took great care to cleanse his appearance, scrubbing away the dirt, and shedding his ragged clothing.

I realized how much work he had done to carefully pack his martial arts uniform and all his swords that morning, and how he must have worried all day about finding the time — and the restroom — to clean up and change so as to fit in with his peers at the dojo. Jason’s low-roofed shanty had no sink to scrub away the grime of the trash bins, no closet for his clothes.

After a grueling day of walking miles while hauling a heavily burdened cart, how difficult it must have been to find the mental and physical energy to practice the highly disciplined martial arts and sword moves. I could not imagine how he had accomplished that — even more so in light of his severe health problems.

Transformed Spirit

The transformation was more than a matter of clothing. It was a transformation of spirit. The martial arts have helped restore Jason’s sense of self-worth, given him renewed discipline and purpose, and built up his physical strength. Perhaps the most important benefit of all has been the friendship and brotherhood he has found.

Near the end of Dogtown Redemption, we watch a close-up of Jason’s face as his harsh, stoic features unexpectedly brighten and become joyous when he is warmly embraced by his martial arts teacher and his brothers at the Concord dojo.

It is a deeply moving moment. Jason’s toughened visage — the face that his mother Marjorie Witt described as “sky-blue eyes now sunken behind the gaunt mask of his hardened face” — softens in response to the love and brotherhood and acceptance he receives from his brothers at the Contra Costa Budokan. His sky-blue eyes well up with tears of gratitude.

Jason describes the martial arts as “a way to get peace” into his life. “Nothing’s every really made me feel like this. It might’ve already saved my life.”

At the end of the film, his fellow students surround Jason and one says, “He is our brother now. He is part of our family. He is our brother and we’ve got his back. Remember that, Jason.”

Jason said, “I’m choosing to be around people who are actually doing something with their lives. This feels like a family.”

It is a moment of amazing grace, considering the depths of estrangement and loneliness that homeless people undergo and the hard blows that make up the life of a street recycler.

A Titan

Film director Amir Soltani calls Jason “the Titan of recycling” — and a genius.

After spending seven years filming endless scenes of many recyclers working in West Oakland, the director said in an interview, “No one carries as much recyclables to the recycling center as Jason did. When I saw his shopping cart, it just arrests you because of the amount of material that he carried, and also the artfulness of it.”

Not many would describe the work of street scavenging as an artistic accomplishment. Amir stands by his metaphor.

“To attach 50 or 60 or 70 bags to one recycling cart is a very difficult and delicate process,” Amir said. “Jason uses things like clothes hangers to create layers upon layers that he can hang the bags on. He’s very sensitive to the balance of the cart, and that’s a real art form.

“It takes a lot of intelligence to navigate the streets with a shopping cart piled so high. It’s a little bit like navigating a boat that you’ve packed to the very top.”

The difficult, constantly changing conditions on the streets of Oakland can be likened to turbulent waters at sea.

“It’s a real art when cars are zipping and zooming by and honking at you and the police are chasing you, and a pothole can cause a disaster,” Amir said. “And there are poachers who would follow Jason at times and steal his recyclables. It’s like trade routes, and you have to protect your resources. You have to protect your trade secrets and not leave a trail behind.”

The overloaded cart is so precarious that a minor dip in the road can spell disaster. Jason said, “I’ve got all this weight on there, and if you pull on the wrong side, the whole thing’s gonna flip over ‘cause of the road.

“Every day I’ve got it all worked out what I’m gonna do, where I’m gonna go and who I’m gonna avoid because there’s other recyclers that try to figure out my routes and stuff so I’ve gotta keep my route secret because there are a whole lot of other recyclers trying to do the same thing.”

 

In a highly moving moment in Dogtown Redemption, Jason’s peers at the Concord dojo tell him he is part of their family.

In a highly moving moment in Dogtown Redemption, Jason’s peers at the Concord dojo tell him he is part of their family.

 

It is often a lonely and comfortless existence. After long days spent pushing heavy carts through neighborhoods where his work is not honored and his presence is not always welcomed, Jason hunkers down at night in his flimsy, self-built squatter’s camp next to the I-680 freeway.

Through sheer will power, Jason has refused to let the street beat him. He has been able to persevere for so many years only because he has found the strength it takes to earn a living on the tough streets of Dogtown with no help from anyone else — despite suffering serious ailments and diseases that might have long since taken the heart out of an ordinary man.

The Street’s Gonna Pay Me

Jason has learned the hard way that he must rely only on himself. In the film, he says that neither his mom or dad, or the church, or anyone else in the world is going to help him. He must rely on himself, and can only survive another day by claiming his pay from the streets.

“The street’s gonna pay me. In one way or another, the street’s gonna pay me.”

In the film, Jason said about his fellow recyclers: “All these people are working very hard to get this, very hard. No one can get a fucking job. This is the lowest form of work you can get in the United States, and what we’re doing is very hard.”

During our interview, I ask what it is that is most difficult about his work.

“When you’re working doing recycling, people look at you like you’re a degenerate,” Jason replied. “I really think that the value of the work you do for the planet should give you your status. It should be very highly valued but it’s not. It is important work for humanity and for the other beings on the planet as well.”

He describes the hostility and lack of respect towards street recyclers as “the world’s abrasion on you.”

Despite the hardships of being without a home, he said that it is important that he is living homeless because his most important influence, Miyamoto Musashi, wrote that when you train in martial arts, you have to undergo the hardest training possible. Musashi was a 16th century Japanese sword master and samurai, and the author of The Book of Five Rings.

Passers-by may see street recyclers as downtrodden burn-outs. Jason’s days are consumed by endless hours of hunting through other people’s garbage to scrape out a bare living, and his nights are spent in a flimsy, self-made shack next to the freeway, battered by the traffic’s roar and exhaust, and watched over by his junkyard dog and loyal friend, Ninja.

Yet he has many dimensions that remain unseen to society at large. He is a father of a son and he has been with his companion Heather Holloway for 17 years now, and she is very special to him. He loves his junkyard dog Ninja. And his homeless camp is not as stark as it seems on closer inspection.

The artistry of a homeless camp

You might not expect this rough homeless camp to have an intricate and creative rock garden, adorned with imaginative figures and little sculptures. At first glance it’s a disorganized homeless camp behind a freeway wall, but a closer look shows the care and meaning he and Heather put into it.

I asked Amir what he thought of the artistry of Jason’s little sculpture garden.

“To me Jason is a genius,” Amir said. “He has a way of approaching and seeing the world that is entirely his own. You realized there were just layers and layers to this guy.”

Amir saw something important that I missed in Jason’s rock garden.

“Jason and Heather would carry the ashes of their friends with them, and also the ashes of Heather’s mother, so there was always a sacred dimension to their rock garden. It meant a lot. That was also what made moving very hard for them when they were forced to relocate.”

On a recycler’s wages, it is very difficult to pay the high rents in the East Bay.

“It’s very hard,” Jason said. “Just everyday life is so expensive. The price of living indoors is about $1500 a month. Also, the situation of everyday life can get crazy because you never know when you’re going to be asked to locate somewhere.”

Jason gave powerful testimony to the Oakland City Council about the destructive impact the closure of Alliance Metals would have on the livelihood of poor people, a moment captured in the film.

In our interview, when asked why Alliance Metals was crucial for poor people, Jason said: “You have to have a place where anyone can make money and have an income. If you don’t you’ll have crime, or if not crime, you’ll have poverty and you’ll see people dying in your society.

“If the recycling center closes, then there’s no means of money for a lot of people other than crime or prostitution or drug dealing. And people will be emotional wrecks if they’re forced to do those things they don’t want to do. It’s going to be so much stress for them to handle, and that’s really dangerous for society.”

 

Jason Witt (at right, in white) undergoes martial arts training at the Contra Costa Budokan Martial Arts Academy.

Jason Witt (at right, in white) undergoes martial arts training at the Contra Costa Budokan Martial Arts Academy.

 

As I spent the day with Jason, he seemed strong all day while making his recycling rounds, and then after we ate that evening, he came out of the pizza joint in his black belt and sword and I drove him to the Contra Costa Budokan.

His night was only just beginning. There would be a long session at the dojo and then he would catch the BART back to his freeway encampment.

Amir said, “The kind of mental acuity and discipline that Jason’s martial arts require of him, and the kind of training that it requires is phenomenal. Here is somebody that everybody said can’t follow the rules, but you follow the steps and instructions in martial arts. And he can move that sword in so many steps and rules. The number of movements you learn and memorize blows everybody away.

“That was one of the most interesting parts of this film project. Homelessness was really just a surface image of people. Often when you dug the way we did, there was always a core. There was always passion and beauty and humanity. It was always there, at least in the people we filmed.”

Jason in the hospital

A few days after our interview, Jason’s mother, Marjorie Witt, sent her story about her son to Street Spirit. I saw Jason’s tough life and his health problems through the eyes of a mother who has been shaken by the physical and mental problems her son faces, the homelessness and addiction that she feels powerless to solve for her child.

After reading her account, I replayed the part of the film where Jason is in the hospital. It is a stark scene, with Jason hooked up to tubes in a hospital bed, looking really out of it, gaunt and emaciated.

Jason said, “I was in the hospital for lymphedema, so my lymph system is fucked up, which is a result from endocarditis, HIV-positive, or Hep-C or whatever. It’s really hard to just keep going.”

Jason told me during the day that he has life-threatening health problems and doesn’t expect to live a long time. He is 42 years old.

Notice the scenes in Dogtown Redemption where this small, wiry man is pulling a mountainous load all by himself down the streets of Oakland. He looks stubbornly strong, as if this lone man has the strength to pull that impossible load forever, never needing help, never expecting anything else out of life.

All day long, Jason seemed so strong to me, and at night, as he prepared to enter his dojo, he seemed even stronger.

But he is not strong. He is ill. He is still able to pull that heavy cart, but someday he will no longer be that strong.

Epilogue

Ever since the day I interviewed him, I keep thinking of Jason and Heather and Ninja the warrior-dog and the life they live in their little camp near the freeway.

Sometimes, in the course of 30 years of homeless activism and advocacy journalism on the issues of poverty and homelessness, one sees too much.

I only wish the Oakland city officials who want to close Alliance Recycling, and who criminalize homeless people and demolish their encampments, could see all I have seen.

I wish they could understand that the lives of Landon Goodwin and Miss Hayok Kay and Jason Witt and Heather Holloway are as sacred and valuable and meaningful as any lives on the planet.

I wish they could have visited Jason in his hospital bed, or Landon after he was beaten on the street, or Miss Kay after she was beaten and hospitalized.

I wish they could understand that all of these homeless recyclers have loved ones and family and friends who care about them, worry about them, and love them. People who will mourn them when they are gone.

A Life Consecrated to Compassion and Justice

On the bleak streets of the Tenderloin, a sister took a stand against inhumanity. Her solidarity was inspired by the beatitudes and consecrated to the poor.

The Invisible Natural Cathedral of People’s Park

Builders, please go away. Allow the beauty of an Invisible Natural Cathedral to remain, a living shrine of open space that gives refuge to all people.

Street Spirit Interview with Sister Bernie Galvin

This atrocity was happening in a very wealthy city. It was happening right under our noses. It was very visible. And there was not the united voice of the faith community speaking out. That was the spark of Religious Witness. From that moment, I knew what I had to do.

Interview with Sister Bernie Galvin, Part Two

“What’s forming in my mind is Jesus in the temple when he became angry at the unjust and very exclusive systems of society. That is the very reason that there are the poor and the marginalized. It is not enough just to provide food, clothing and housing.”

‘Such Is the Magic and Spirit of People’s Park’

The mayor has no understanding of the awful defeat the loss of People’s Park would be. No comprehension of the cost in lives and the sacrifices people have made for the Park’s ideals. So many still find it a refuge in a country needing a political and spiritual overhaul.

I Remember Who I Am

“And Now Where?” Lithograph by Rockwell Kent

By and by, I calm down. I meditate. I pray. It is a beautiful day. The sun is setting. I weave my way toward the spot where I sleep, where nobody knows where to find me. I look to the stars, and say my prayers to the God who believes in Me.