I stopped for gas this afternoon, cold and complaining to myself, huddled deep into my coat as I waited for the tank to fill. A flash of neon green caught my eye; one of our town’s more infamous characters was pulling a sled with a hot pink skipping rope handle. The sled carried a couple of black garbage bags, open to receive the day’s bounty of discarded cans and bottles retrieved from sidewalks, dumpsters and trash bins. As I watched, she approached the black plastic garbage can at the pump island where I stood.
My instinctive reaction was distaste. For some reason the sight of her and her sled made me feel something unpleasant for a moment. The idea of going through other peoples’ trash makes me so uncomfortable. It’s dirty, it’s dangerous and it just makes me shudder. I am (I think) more generous of spirit than that, usually. In that moment though, I was small. I’m not proud of that.
I watched her, as I pumped my gas. I could only see her bare hands from where she stood on the other side of the pump station. Such a cold day today, -25 and colder, and she dug into that garbage can with bare hands. I watched as she bent over, head going deep into the bin, digging deeply for whatever she could salvage. She retrieved a few water and pop bottles, an empty vodka mickey and a McDonald’s bag worthy of further investigation. While I watched, I started to worry. I met a street fellow in Vancouver a couple of years ago with a raging infection in his hand; he’d cut it on something while rummaging for recyclables this same way. I worried for how cold her hands must be, doing this work in the frigid weather.
As she finished up, she did something I won’t forget. She straightened the garbage bag out, making sure the sides were properly stretched down over the top before she carefully replaced the lid. She pulled out a few paper towels from the dispenser and wiped her hands clean. Most memorable to me? A small square of paper towel tore off and fell beside the garbage can. Her red, cold fingers tried four or five times until she was able to get hold of it to toss it in the bin. She moved on to the next can and started over, tidy in her work.
The cautious, careful way everything was set to rights when she was done affected me very much. The small piece of paper, so difficult to pick up with frozen fingers was not left as litter on the ground. I felt, still feel, shame for my initial reflexive distaste. While I hope I don’t have to do that in my lifetime, there is a quiet honour in what she was doing. From an environmental standpoint, she was doing us all a service. Through the salvage efforts of people like her, many discarded cans and bottles make it to recycling centres instead of the landfill. From a self sufficiency point of view she is doing something honourable too; working to earn some money despite the challenges. That effort makes liars of people who point fingers at “lazy” recipients of social assistance. From where I sit there is nothing lazy about crossing the city day after day on foot, pulling your harvest behind you in the depths of winter to make a few bucks.
I don’t ever want to have to dig through garbage to make money, but I need to feel and show respect for the people who do. All work has honour, all work has value. All people have honour and value. I need to work on empathy. It’s easy to look away, to feel different, separate, more, better, to look for something that provides safe distance between me and “them”. She did her work today with dignity and I respect that. I hope I don’t mean that I wouldn’t respect her if she’d left the lid off, left the trash where it fell. I hope I’d respect her no matter what, but the grace shown in the small act of leaving the space tidy moved me in a powerful way. I hope never to be judged the way she is likely judged, every day of her life.