Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Treasure hunt

It's trash day. I am awakened at 4:00a.m. by the piercing screech of metal grinding on metal. I don't need to look out the window. I know that the sound emanates from the rickety metal cart used by the wizened old man who roams the cul-de-sacs of my neighborhood every Monday night, gleaning treasure from the trash of others. Black trash bags, stuffed to capacity, hang off the sides of his cart like tumors on a skinny dog.

I rise, let my own well-fed dog out into the backyard, feed the cats, then wander out front to turn on the sprinkler. By now the little man, who does not quite reach five feet in stature, has made it around the cul-de-sac, and I wave to him as he crab walks past, dragging the heavy cart behind him. I never put my trash cans out at the curb until he is gone. It's not that I begrudge him my recyclables. I have witnessed him on many occasions tear open the kitchen trash bags in my neighbors' garbage cans, sifting through god-knows-what in search of an aluminum can, a plastic bottle, any small thing with re-sale value. I am not willing to share that level of intimacy with him.

And anyway, I save my plastic one-liter Evian bottles separately. (Yes, I spend the money for Evian. No, it doesn't taste the same as filtered tap water and no, water is not water. Ask a hydro-geologist. Don't get me started.) When I moved in a year and a half ago, Grumpy Bob next door asked me to save my plastic bottles for him after I caught him rifling through my trash cans. I told him I certainly would. And I have.

But this morning, I give them away. There is another scavenger who comes through the neighborhood on trash day. This one is a woman, as small and wrinkled as the old man. I want to say that she is old but when I see her up close, I realize we are probably about the same age. I am a vibrant, athletic sixty-year-old who will later walk her pampered dog around these cul-de-sacs at a brisk pace. Although the physical maladies are starting to pile up, I am confident that I will live another twenty or thirty years quite comfortably, thanks to the good health care provided by my good job which I obtained with my good education.

I wonder at the longevity of this woman, though, as I see her, like the little old man, tear open trash bags with her bare hands, scrounging through toxic waste to eke out a living. Some would find her labor disgusting. I find it humbling.

As I note the full apron she wears which covers the front of her shirt and her pants down to the knees, its floral pattern edged with old fashioned rick-rack, I am reminded of my grandmother whose first job upon coming to Los Angeles was as a dishwasher in a bar. Holding my Trader Joe's stamped paper bag filled with empty plastic bottles, I shuffle quickly across the street in the gray dawn light. I tell her good morning, offering the bag and asking, "Are you looking for bottles?" though I well know the answer.

"Sì," she says in Spanish, taking the bag. "Thank you!" in English, and her entire face glows with the brightness of her straight, white teeth. Her voice is warm with gratitude, and it resonates with me as I walk back across the street to enjoy another cup of tea before heading out to walk the dog.

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