The Cans

by Crawdad Nelson, March 9, 2016

Saving the earth through recycling is big business, judging by the number of can and bottle buyers set up in parking lots and empty corners throughout Sacramento. Somebody is obviously making some money, which must make their selfless devotion to the cause easier to bear, as they transport and profit in large amounts of material.

But there’s an equally visible, far less glamorous demographic out there doing the nitty-gritty tasks needed to actually save the earth from being carpeted end to end in soda, beer, and water containers: the desperately poor gatherers and movers of small amounts of material who haunt Sacramento’s alleys and streets, augmenting their otherwise limited options, which include looking on sidewalks and poking through ivy and shrubs lining sidewalks by lifting the lids on garbage cans, to root around in municipally-owned trash receptacles in a vast collective effort to find and retrieve valuable items which might easily get “lost” in the waste stream without this often surreptitious intervention.

This direct action cuts out the middleman, which includes a hopeless mire of public agencies between those who collect and sell refuse and those who collect and distribute public funds. Undoubtedly, that beer can more efficiently reenters the local economy if it’s collected and sold within a mile or so of where it originates. I’m no economist but it almost seems like governments, meaning voters, would rather create problems than solve them.

With no public agency involved at all, a man with no more training than learning to look for the little three chasing arrows symbol on an item, whether it has been tossed from a vehicle or stowed in a blue can, can go out and earn a few dollars any time of day or night. Since the city of Sacramento, like many other cities, makes such scavenging illegal, those who do it are not only working for a penurious return — in the face of relentless competition fueled by all the appetites likely to afflict people who suffer either limited or permanent interruptions in their income—they are also technically criminals, although enforcement of the particular law or laws aimed at keeping the indigent out of the comfortable’s trash is not a high priority unless the complaints become especially bitter or vocal or, one suspects, the right people complain.

The concept of private property is among America’s best-known and most cherished institutions, and the local police dedicate themselves with admirable dedication to defending it. But even if a thousand strung out, unwashed, desperate lowlifes are discouraged by police harassment, or arrested, another thousand even more desperate ones will be along soon. This is not because trash is inherently attractive, but because our system has allowed a permanent underclass to develop, whether they fell through the cracks or jumped through them. As long as hungry or otherwise needy people are out there, and the trash is out there, these particular forms of trespassing and theft are probably going to continue. It would be as silly to expect a bear not to investigate your compost heap if you lived among bears.

Perspective is everything as far as trash is concerned. The average professional who lives in a nice home in a nice area just doesn’t have time to sort through his or her trash, even if it means making a few dollars a month or week. There are people with so much money that they can literally throw it away along with old newspapers and banana peels, and they are happy to remind the outlaws creeping down their street with sacks of cans over their shoulder, or in their cart, or on their bike trailer, just what time it is as far as trespassing and scavenging ordinances are concerned. If a few insults and a passage or two from the Riot Act aren’t enough, they speed-dial the local constabulary and let the nice receptionist know they are being ravaged, yet again. If the cops aren’t prying methheads apart, they cruise over to the tree-lined part of town and start handing out stern warnings.

The residents of the nice neighborhoods take such crimes very seriously, as any query on the topic in social media quickly discloses. Whereas they are only too willing to donate via curbside collection drives of various type throughout the year, and they gladly decorate their homes during holidays even though it draws large crowds, actual poor people tramping across their nice lawns with sacks of garbage is simply out of the question. I don’t think it would matter if the scavengers were scrupulous closers of gates they’d opened and meticulous returners to the bin of worthless objects they have sorted through, they just look out of place on broad stretches of well cared-for private property.

Logically, of course, there is an obvious threat inherent in people with little or nothing to lose passing stealthily—or with a great clatter and disturbance—through an area where people can afford expensive yard art and frequently have at least something of value in tempting view. What’s the use in having your dwarf lemon growing in a copper planter if you can’t leave it out front to improve or consolidate your social status?

This gets right down to the core of the American Dream. People work hard, save money, buy houses, and want to make sure everything stays nice. If those scavengers wanted to make something of their lives, they could have done what the homeowners did: gone to college, worked hard, the whole bit. At least that is the argument first resorted to when the question of income disparity comes up. Most encounters between the two classes are brief and mutually antagonistic. The homeowners are indignant, and the scavengers are grouchy. The cops are probably most likely to be polite and considerate to their fellow human beings, since they are in the position of being objective, but they try not to get involved unless someone forces them to.

Nearly every street in the nicer parts of town is lined with blue cans tantalizingly full of a commodity which can be readily converted to cash. The proceeds are slim, and the work itself is nasty and tedious, with the constant possibility of coming under attack from a frightened or disgusted homeowner, no laughing matter in these violent times. Amassing ten or twenty dollars’ worth of cans and bottles means lugging around any number of leaky, stinking sacks for who knows how long, until it’s finally worthwhile to cash in.

It’s not uncommon to come across a scavenger loaded so awkwardly that nothing but black plastic sacking is visible above the feet and legs, which may be walking, or piloting a bicycle, under the teetering load. It’s not always the desperately poor who scavenge, of course, but the most offensive ones are those who care least about appearance or decorum, and drag their great burdens about in the open, at all times of day or night. They are invisible even though they are right there in plain sight, right up until they cross someone’s white picket fence. At that point, they are likely to have pictures taken and posted on social media, along with outraged descriptions of their behavior, in general limited to crossing invisible boundaries and snooping around in trash cans.

They are hard-working entrepreneurs in Oak Park, but as soon as they slip under highway 50 into Elmhurst they are criminals. Something must be done. My advice is to put the items they want in a bag right next to the closed trash can. Like bears, the humans who sort through your outcast items are rarely aggressive unless threatened, and they can be trained to respond positively to contact with the better classes of people.

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