Almost seven o’clock in the morning on a Monday, watching the snow wrap its way down the street in dried-ice dustdevils for the first time this year, I was glad to be standing inside a window looking out.
Living outdoors in Newfoundland — or even living without the means to properly get by — doesn’t look all that attractive once November rolls around.
Now, we don’t have a lot of people who make the downtown outdoors their home. But we do have plenty of people living on the fringes of what looks like a normal life.
Some of them have found their way to a new calling — at least, relatively new.
In recent years, since the province put a levy on beverage containers, there have been a certain number of people who work the city’s wastebins, and occasionally work door to door, collecting cans and bottles that other people are too well off to bother returning for the deposits.
You sometimes come across them with a teetering shopping cart blocking part of a lane on city streets, the cart piled high with bags of beverage containers, heading for the depots.
It’s not a lucrative business, for sure. The deposits are just too small, and the products too bulky, for each trip to be much more than a meagre payday.
Almost a business
When I lived on Warbury Street, a man would come every few weeks and ask if I had recyclables — often I did, and one of the things that fascinated me about the man doing the collecting was how prepared he was for the weather, for the circumstances, and how regularly he managed to work out a routine that meant he would be at my door when I had enough for a load, but that wouldn’t be so much that I would have gotten frustrated and hauled it away myself.
He knew my truck, so he knew if I was home or not, and he was unfailingly polite. He had gloves that he’d modified himself so that his hands stayed warm and dry, and he was so tanned by the end of a summer that his skin looked like a brown leather glove.
I’d bring the bottles downstairs, and we’d talk for a moment or two — he had strong opinions and an Eastern European accent, and he told me he had a single room rented nearby and a hotplate for cooking, but that he couldn’t really complain because his life was of his own making.
I won’t tell you what that life of his own making was, because that’s not the point.
The point is that, five years ago, long before the City of St. John’s was in the recycling business, he was in it, and was doing reasonably well.
Now, I understand that, with the launch of the city’s own program, there is some grumbling about the fact that enterprising gatherers may be harvesting the best — and most valuable — containers from blue bags around the city, and leaving the ones with no deposits behind.
I can understand why the city wants all of my recycling — every bit of it — because making a recycling program pay for itself is not an easy prospect, and I’m certain that the advance planning took into account that most people would find the easiest way possible to dispose of their non-glass recyclable beverage containers, and that some income would be made from that.
But at the same time, there have been recycling professionals working the streets of St. John’s for more than five years now; it’s not easy work, or pleasant, and it’s not warm work, either.
So, I’m torn.
To be blunt, I don’t think the city has a right to what I put out at the curb until they actually pick it up: if they owned it the minute I put it out there, well, then they’d be responsible for it if it got spread all over the neighbourhood by dogs. And they’re clearly not responsible for it then.
I’m not sure I mind if the early bird — an early and hard-working one — truly does get the worm.
Or the Pepsi can.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.