Treating Homeless Recyclers Like Human Beings

They worked harder than anyone I have ever seen. They took tons of recyclables carelessly thrown in the trash and kept them out of the landfill and put them back into circulation. They saved trees, natural habitat and the energy it takes to make aluminum, glass and paper from raw materials.

by Daniel McMullan

When I was homeless, I was caught in a trap. Because of my disability, I could not escape at night up into the serene Berkeley Hills and bed down in peace. I had to negotiate the dirt and police in a four-block area around Telegraph Avenue.

I discovered a porch on an old Victorian about half a block down on Dwight Way that was converted into offices for counselors. If I got up early enough in the morning, no one was the wiser and I had a place out of sight, above the fray and out of the wind and rain.

The problem was that I had friends, and one by one, they joined me. One day, one of the counselors showed up early, but instead of giving us the expected bum’s rush, he gave me a little job of getting everyone awake in the morning, and sweeping the porch down.

He even gave me 50 dollars a week and enough to buy everyone a Bongo Burger egg special at $2.75 every now and then. Those mornings were special and memorable. They were wonderful people at the “Psychology Porch.”

My wake-up cue every day was the same: the carts. I could hear them rolling from far off — feel them really, rumbling right through my bones. They were being chased through the cold, misty fog by whatever devils chase a person at such an ungodly hour. For some, I found, it was the dope man, and for others, the rent man and school clothes man. Whatever their motivation, there were a lot of them and I had plenty of admiration and respect for them.

They worked harder than anyone I have ever seen. They took tons of recyclables that were carelessly thrown in the trash and kept them out of the landfill and put them back into circulation, and saved trees, natural habitat and the energy it takes to make aluminum, glass and paper from raw materials.

I knew by the time the carts passed me, that it was time to get the crew up, sweep down the porch and make myself scarce, along with my motley retinue.

Years later, when I lived indoors, those very same people would pass by my place and pick up the stuff I left out for them and glean a stray bottle or can one of my kids threw in the trash. We would say “Hi” in passing and it was nice to hear a “Hey Danny!” from people I have known longer then just about anybody.

When I lived in Southwest Berkeley, things started to change. It was a nice neighborhood with a few problems, but it was alive. We put a community garden over on Oregon and it mellowed things a bit. But as it became more and more gentrified, the smiles went away. There were no longer kids playing outside and it started to become deathly quiet.

We moved just a couple of blocks over to the north, and it was like a ghost town. That was when the big housing bubble popped. Families that had lived in Berkeley for generations were replaced by people that could snatch up the houses for pennies on the dollar. The prices were right but you had to have the credit rating of a Rockefeller to buy.

All the people that moved in were of some greatness that my poor peasant brain could not comprehend, for they would walk right by me like I was invisible. I would try to look them up to see what Nobel prize or Pulitzer they may have won but could find nothing. (Besides I know a Nobel winner and he was nothing like that.)

But I am being unkind and unfair. It was right after 9/11 and people were terrified. We as a people, a country, were being conditioned to fear each other and everything, anything planted in our jittery Peet’s coffee brains. Is it Red Alert Day? Yellow? Mauve? Is today the day the BART explodes in the tunnel and drowns me? Every show that was on TV was either a police show, a homeland security drama, or a “reality” show about vapid, shallow, stupid and selfish people. True murder, war, disaster and everything in between.

Then as the economy tanked, our sanctuary city was no longer hiring the immigrant men who stand on the corners in West Berkeley to remodel their homes without permits and at pennies on the dollar. I started seeing pick-up trucks making the rounds the night before trash day that I had never seen before — rounds that were once the livelihood of the homeless with their overloaded shopping cart trains. It kind of bothered me.

These homeless people had this one gig and absolutely NO SANCTUARY. The pick-up trucks also were not as meticulous in picking up after themselves after they looked through the cans. I think they were afraid of getting in trouble and wanted to be quick, and the old timers and their carts were taking the heat for it. I certainly understood the desperation at play, but I had friends that depended on those cans and bottles.

One morning I heard the trash trucks far off as I was lying in bed and it hit me. I forgot to put the cans out! I jumped up and pulled on some sweats and grabbed my crutches and banged out the door. I was making an awful racket and was drag crutch, drag crutch, drag crutching the last container down the driveway, when a recycler called over to ask if I needed a hand. I joked, “Another leg would come in handy. (I am an amputee.) But I got it, thanks!”

Just then, a woman came out and started yelling about the damn “trash pickers” making too much noise and leaving her trash all over the sidewalk. It was the only time in two years I ever heard a word out of her.

I told her, “If you paid attention, this man is not even at your house yet and there is trash already on your sidewalk. There is another group that comes a lot earlier. Maybe you should yell at them. I appreciate the job that the homeless and poor are doing out here. It is a huge benefit to the community and the planet!”

These are the “working homeless” and the “working poor” and deserve our respect and even admiration. I didn’t notice that a few others had come outside hearing the ruckus, until I heard the clapping (and even a “right on”).

One good neighbor went inside and brought out more cans and bottles. It was the first time since moving there that I felt that I had neighbors. It made me feel good that maybe someone else had thought about this and these people.

Our recyclers do us all a great service and the City should afford them the same protections and services we provide for our migrant workers. There are complications in both issues but we can never go wrong treating people with dignity and humanity. And with finding solutions that raise the quality of life for us all.

“West Oakland Recycler” Art by Leon Kennedy

“West Oakland Recycler” Art by Leon Kennedy

 

Gimme Some Truth

Compiled by Daniel McMullan

“I’m mad keen on recycling because I’m worried about the next generation and where all this waste we’re producing is going. It has to stop. I wash out my plastic containers and recycle envelopes, everything I possibly can.”

— Cherie Lunghi

“We live in a disposable society. It’s easier to throw things out than to fix them. We even give it a name — we call it recycling.”

— Neil LaBute

“Thanks to my mother, not a single cardboard box has found its way back into society. We receive gifts in boxes from stores that went out of business twenty years ago.”

— Erma Bombeck

“All the human and animal manure which the world wastes, if returned to the land, instead of being thrown into the sea, would suffice to nourish the world.”

— Victor Hugo

“Even if through simple living and rigorous recycling you stopped your own average Americans annual one ton of garbage production, your per capita share of the industrial waste produced in the US is still almost 26 tons. That’s 37 times as much waste as you were able to save by eliminating a full 100 percent of your personal waste. Industrialism itself is what has to stop.”

— Derrick Jensen

“Rich people’s garbage was every year more complex, rife with hybrid materials, impurities, impostors. Planks that looked like wood were shot through with plastic. How was he to classify a loofah? The owners of the recycling plants demanded waste that was all one thing, pure.”

— Katherine Boo

“But our waste problem is not the fault only of producers. It is the fault of an economy that is wasteful from top to bottom — a symbiosis of an unlimited greed at the top and a lazy, passive, and self-indulgent consumptiveness at the bottom — and all of us are involved in it.”

— Wendell Berry

“A friend at school was always being laughed at because his father emptied dustbins for a living. But those who laughed worshipped famous footballers. This is an example of our topsy-turvy view of “success.” Who would we miss most if they did not work for a month, the footballer or the garbage collector?”

— David Icke

“A real New Yorker likes the sound of a garbage truck in the morning.”

— R. L. Stine

A Green Song

One green bottle,

Drop it in the bank.

Ten green bottles,

What a lot we drank.

Heaps of bottles

And yesterday’s a blank.

But we’ll save the planet,

Tinkle, tinkle, clank!

— Wendy Cope

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