It was around 3:30 on a Tuesday, and as I drove in, I saw there was a mini crowd. I parked, hefted my bags and box and got in the end of the line. Clearly all present knew way more about recycling than I did. So I watched as one woman anywhere from 40 to 60 patiently fed plastic bottles into one machine, one after the other, from one of a half-dozen large bags that surrounded her. She was there when I arrived and there when I left; I estimate she would have been there an hour at the deliberate, slow, meticulous rate she was going and the foothill of full bags she had. I noticed she also fed small V-8 juice size cans into the hole. Occasionally an item would come back, rejected by the machine. She would retry several times before tossing it aside. I was trying to figure out if I should be at a machine rather than in line, but I didn’t want to give up my spot.
A woman in her 40s took over a second machine on the other side of the recycling facility from a young man who looked like he could be homeless from his layers of clothes and wraps and body language. She looked poor, but not homeless. She wore a scarf to hold back her dark hair, a sweater against the cold, clean jeans and sturdy shoes. She began feeding plastic bottles top first into the rubber bordered hole with practiced ease. She had two full garbage cans. She, too, was intent on her task, all business, impervious to her surroundings. I admired the precision with which she placed each bottle, mostly the giant soda types with the occasional water size, in the center of the chute to facilitate its travel. Clearly, this wasn’t her first rodeo.
An older man with a bushy beard and wild hair came up as she was finishing her second load and set two giant plastic bags filled with plastic bottles right behind her, saving his place. By listening to their chatter, I heard her mutter something, then him say he’d lost his place in the line so he would take her machine when she was finished. I wondered if I had stolen his space, it was hard to tell without ropes, but he seemed OK with things as they were.
I was a duck out of water, a goose at a swan convention, crashing their party. I tried to find out how to fit in, but there weren’t any posted rules.
I was fifth in a line that moved slowly. There were a half dozen garbage cans ahead of me with people standing next to them. I wasn’t sure what the garbage cans were for. I’d been to the facility only once. There hadn’t been anyone else there then. The attendant had given me a funny look, then took my bags, sorted my stuff, weighed it and gave me a credit receipt redeemable at Ralph’s.
Now I was lost as I stood in line surrounded by a dozen experts waiting more or less impatiently. I saw mostly backs, few faces, and no eyes looking my way. Finally an Hispanic gentleman behind me asked me if I wanted to use an empty barrel the attendant had pushed toward me. When I asked, “What for?” he said to put my stuff in. I pointed to my plastic bags and cardboard box and asked if I could leave my stuff in them. He shrugged, took the barrel and used it for his stuff. He grabbed another before a middle aged black male explained I needed to put my glass bottles in one barrel, plastic bottles in another. My informant grabbed a barrel for me and watched carefully as I put my bottles in. I scooped a second barrel and he said to put the cans in it. I dumped everything I had left in that one. He looked in the barrel, started to say something then stayed silent.
When it was finally my turn, the attendant weighed the bottle barrel and dumped it out. As he tossed giant full bags in the back and put empty ones in their place, my helper and I sorted metal cans from plastic bottles in separate barrels. The milk jug was a separate category, so I held onto it.
Only then did the attendant come back to weigh both barrels, and the single milk jug, tally it all up and give me my credit receipt, which I had to sign.
All this time, there was very little chatter among the recyclers. They watched the newbie make all the mistakes silently. One took advantage, but so what, they didn’t need to be held up by an incompetent, they had places to be. Only my helper helped. He was a nice looking man in well-worn clothes who had a small bag of plastics he wanted to turn in for cigarettes from Ralph’s, he told me. He was polite and followed through my whole process to make sure I understood everything. The only benefit this gave him was to get to his smokes quicker, but I never felt an impatient moment from him.
Now I know why that first attendant looked at me strangely. They don’t normally help folks. Recyclers are pros who know the routine and prepare their stuff without coaching. There were no signs that I could see that directed recyclers to separate their stuff into separate barrels of glass bottles, metal cans, plastic drink bottles, milk bottles. The barrels are weighed, which saves recyclers the hassle of putting them through those machines one by one.
I took my receipt to my informant, who was waiting in line. I folded it and gave it to him, thanked him, and went to my car. I was in reverse when he appeared at my window and asked me about the mansion I was going to. I smiled and said I didn’t live in a mansion. He said there must be many rooms in my mansion and he could paint one, he was a good painter. He could give me his card.
I explained that I rent. I work. And I didn’t live in a mansion. I was just very grateful to him for his kindness in helping me with my recycling. He had done me a service and I wanted to thank him. He accepted that and stepped back. I waved goodbye. Thinking back on it, I wish I’d taken his card.
I learned about sorting my recyclables, about who waits in line and why. I never did learn how much money I’d earned for my trade-ins, but the value of human kindness – that, my friends, can be priceless.