A gentleman of cans and bottles - contact vs civic inattention

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sat, 22 May 1999 22:43:38 -0700 (PDT)

When homeless, have you ever moved or looked away from people who pass you
on the street, so as not to frighten them?

When I relocated to Boston over two decades ago, I was shocked and saddened
that people would not look me in the eyes when I passed strangers on the
street.  I later learned the sociological term for this, "civic
inattention".  It occurs when a communmity becomes so unurbane that
residents fear that contact with their neighbors might lead to assualt,
robbery or rape.

In a community that felt like a War Zone, it seemed that the kindest thing
I might do for a passing stranger was to look away.  But without the free
flow of interaction between people on the streets, how can a community
possibly be livable?  Greater Boston at times has seemed to me to be in a
state of spiritual deadness, devoid of neighborliness, which can help make
a city great.

These feelings came back to me as I read the article below.  The described
(and I'm sure rare) exchange took place in a city that seems far less
open-hearted these days than it was in the 1967 Summer fo Love.

FWD  San Francisco Examiner  May 20, 1999  Page A 27 [Op-Ed]


Stephanie Salter - Eximiner Columnist

ALMOST 10:30, and here I was shoving a frozen pizza into
the toaster oven for a late-late dinner. Messages blinked
from the answering machine; unopened mail lay in a
formidable stack, and - damn - I still had to haul the
garbage can and recycling bin to the curb for the next
morning's pickup.

What a way to live.

>Out on the sidewalk I heard him long before I saw him
coming up the street in the cold, wind-swept darkness; the
empty bottles he'd collected clinked against the sides of
his supermarket shopping cart.

My blue plastic recycling bin would barely hit the
concrete before this man swept by and pulled out the
aluminum cans, glass bottles and clear plastic
containers. After him, one or two others would roll
through in the wee hours, salvaging the super-late

By dawn, well before official recyclers drove by, nothing
would be left in the bins for blocks but bundled
newspapers and cardboard - recyclables not worth the
weight and precious cart space for an independent

Clinking and rattling up the steep street, the man finally
came into view a few houses away. He had two shopping carts
tethered together and managed to steer the unwieldy pair
with one hand. Each time he stopped to sort through a bin,
he miraculously got the carts to pause - and stay - on the
precarious slope.

He was taller than most canners I see and
uncharacteristically erect. So many of them seem bent and
shrunken - as much, I suspect, from the cold, wind and rain
as from the wearing nature of their work.

Part of me (I blame it on a late-night mugging many years
ago) was afraid of him. He wore a dark, hooded sweatshirt
and dark pants. His face, beard and eyes were as dark as
the moonless night.

"But he's pushing a load of empty bottles and cans up a
steep grade at 10:30,"  I reminded myself.

The fear dissolved.

As he came closer, he hesitated. Instinct told me he was
waiting for me to go back inside my house. He is probably
accustomed to his mere existence scaring people.

I walked up my front steps through a bright pool of porch
light. As I opened the door I turned back around.

He was headed toward my recycling bin. Seeing me, he
paused again, then continued. Then his voice - so sweet
and with such melody, I thought for a moment he was a
6-foot-tall child - said,  "Thank you."

My heart just broke.

Thank you, lady, for letting me take your empty wine and
mineral water bottles. Thank you for the handful of empty
aluminum cans. Thank you for not yelling at me because I'm
shuffling along your street with a couple of stolen
shopping carts the night before the recycling truck comes
so I can drag all this crap to some guy who'll pay me 2-1/4
cents for some of the small bottles and cans and 5 cents
for containers larger than 2 liters.

With a forced lightness I said,  "Don't work too hard,"
and shut the door.

It was one of the dumbest, most inappropriate things I've
ever uttered. Dumb, dumb, dumb. So I opened the door and
stepped back out on my porch. The canner was on his way
back to his carts.

"Hey,"  I said.  "That was a really stupid thing I just
said. What I meant was, hang in there, and good luck."

>From the street came the sound of the carts moving again up
the steep hill. The tall man's voice called through the

"God bless."


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