Part 1

The redeemable cans and bottles were piling up.

When our son lived with us, it was his job to take them to Stop & Shop. We let him keep the refund. When he got his own place, we decided not to demean him by asking him to continue with that duty. So, for a couple of years now, the cans and bottles have been my chore.

I don’t like the job. The redemption areas at Stop & Shop are cramped and always dirty. Invariably, some of the machines aren’t working. Some of the cans and bottles get rejected, so there’s always the question of what to do with the leftovers. Some are redeemable, just not at Stop & Shop; I usually leave them there to be recycled in some other way, but giving up on the nickel sets off in my head imagined cries of despair from my wife, my mother, and my grandfather. When I’m all done, all I’ve gotten in return are three or four bar-coded receipts worth a total of $4.55. I imagine my wife and my parents and my grandparents patting me on the head, but it hardly seems worth it.

Then the pandemic hit, social distancing, disinfecting and all that, and Stop & Shop closed their bottle redemption areas. We collected two trash bags full of cans and bottles, and then two more. By now, Stop & Shop had reopened some of their redemption areas, but every time I’d been to the store people seemed to be waiting in line to use the machines, and the space looked even messier than before. I decided I wasn’t going back.

What should I do with four bags of cans and bottles? Ask my wife to deal with them? Uh, no. Ask our son? He’d do it, but we already decided against that. Throw them up in the garage attic and take care of them another time? That would work until my wife went up into the attic for something. Actually, there’s a place where I could hide them in the attic, and she’d never see them. That would leave a can and bottle windfall for the next owner. After due consideration, that was a “no,” too.

And then the solution occurred to me. The problem is that the cans and bottles have value, just not enough to make me willing to redeem them. But the cans and bottles have much greater value, relatively, to some people, those poor people you see pushing their carts full of cans or riding their bikes with bags hanging from the bike. I will give the bottles and cans to a poor person who’s on their way to a redemption center; I will, in effect, give them a job disposing of my cans and bottles, a job for which they will be compensated in the exact amount of the redemption value.

The task: find a needy person who wants my cans and bottles.

I devised a plan. I would drive to the can and bottle redemption center on Tolland Street in East Hartford, and either along the way or at the redemption center I would identify a needy person and offer them my cans and bottles. (There are other redemption centers, but on the day I finally decided to face the problem, it was getting to be 2 pm, and the other redemption centers were closing; East Hartford was open until 4.)

I’d been past the redemption center before and wasn’t sure it was the right place; do Hartford’s homeless collect cans and bottles and walk across the bridge to East Hartford? Does East Hartford have its own homeless population? (Probably a stupid question.)

If I got to the redemption center and for some reason my plan didn’t work, Plan B was to drive to downtown Hartford and drive past Barnard Park at the foot of Main Street in the South Green neighborhood. Plenty of people hang out there regularly, and I thought I might find a can and bottle collector there.

If Plan B failed, I’d continue down Wethersfield Avenue, looking for a random poor person. If necessary, I’d make my way over to the Stop & Shop where Jordan Lane meets the Berlin Turnpike. I thought I recalled seeing poor people there, waiting to use the redemption center.

Throughout the planning stages of my can and bottle redemption trip, one question kept bothering me: What am I going to say to the person to whom I’m offering what is essentially my trash? I didn’t like thinking about that question, so I decided I’d just deal with it when the time came.

And so it was that on June 23, 2020, I took my informal, impromptu tour of poverty in greater Hartford.

Part 2

It was a hot, sunny, bright afternoon as I set off to give away three months of redeemable cans and bottles. I wore my new prescription sunglasses, the glasses that help correct for my color blindness. It was appropriate that I’d being wearing those glasses as I went looking for a colored person to receive my cans and bottles with gratitude.

— Okay, wait a minute. I know that some people will find “colored person” offensive. I had trouble typing it, because I’ve spent my entire life trying not to be offensive. I’m sorry if it troubles you. However, my purpose is to set forth the thoughts of a wealthy, white American man on an afternoon tour of poor, non-white neighborhoods, whatever those thoughts may have been. “Colored person” was part of my training as a young American in the 50s, and you should know that I know it’s still there in my head. It makes me uncomfortable to say it, but uncomfortable is part of the journey I’m on, the journey we’re all on.–

My neighborhood looked nice, as always, and I headed north on the Berlin Turnpike. I stopped at my regular Dunkin Donuts, the one I used to frequent on my trips into Hartford when I was still a practicing lawyer, the one I stop at as my trips to Buffalo begin.

In the drive-thru lane, someone had crashed into the large structure that displays the illuminated menu and that contains the speaker and microphone for placing orders. The whole display was tilted about 25 degrees, and the plexiglass covering was either missing or popped free from the display. It was a mess. An 8 ½ x 11 piece of paper was taped to the sign, informing me that the microphone still worked. Trying to read the menu was disorienting. I didn’t realize it yet, but it was appropriate that my stop for coffee had a third-world feel to it. I ordered my usual iced coffee and got back on the road.

On I went, through the construction at the Route 15/-I-91 interchange, over the bridge to Route 2, onto Governor Street and north on Main Street in East Hartford. Greater Hartford is my city, and the route was familiar to me. Familiar, but still foreign, because I was going to the poor part of town.

East Hartford has been trying to put a good face on Main Street for a long time, hoping that renewal and beautification will somehow make Main Street something more than it always appears to be – a downtown for poor people.

— I have to stop here. I know that some people will find that last sentence offensive. I had trouble typing it, because I’ve spent my entire life trying not to be offensive. I’m sorry if it troubles you. However, my purpose is to set forth the thoughts of a wealthy, white American man on an afternoon tour of poor, non-white neighborhoods, whatever those thoughts may have been.

— And, yes, I know I just said the same thing three paragraphs earlier. I thought it was worth saying again. —

Up Burnside Avenue and then Tolland Street. The farther from Main Street, the less the city has dressed up the street. Poor people live and work here. Good people living paycheck-to-paycheck lives, living day-to-day lives, or worse.

I know this neighborhood a bit. I’ve made more than a few trips to Better Stones, I’ve taken the boys to the baseball academy on Burnside. I attended meetings up the street in connection with the organization of the East Hartford-Glastonbury Magnet School.

The parking lot at the bottle redemption center was pretty full and where I should go wasn’t exactly clear. I was an outsider to the redemption center subculture, and I didn’t want to appear out of place, so I didn’t pull in. Instead, I drove past it slowly, turned around up the street and came back, hoping a second pass would make the operation clearer to me.

It seemed like most or all of the customers had come in cars, although it was difficult to tell. They were emptying their bottles and cans on a long counter or conveyer belt outside the building, and somehow the product was moving along to be processed. The customers were racially diverse. Did I want a homeless person? Were any of them homeless? Do homeless people drive cars? Did it matter?

With so many unanswered questions, I didn’t want to pull into the parking lot in my Lexus, get out, and ask anyone how this worked. I certainly didn’t want to ask if they were poor or homeless. I drove on, back down Tolland, down Burnside to Main Street, right on Governor and over the bridge. Downtown Hartford looked like home to me. CityPlace, the Travelers Tower, Constitution Plaza. Rich, white Hartford. But I wasn’t going there.

Left on Columbus, right on Arch Street, left on Main Street, past Park Street and there I was: My Plan B neighborhood, where I hoped to find a person who collects cans and bottles.

I know this neighborhood a bit, too. I’ve attended meetings in lawyers’ offices around here. I’ve volunteered at the South Park Inn, something that is simultaneously a stereotypical suburban feel-good activity and an opportunity to get in touch with my own humanity.

It was 3 pm, and Barnard Park had twenty or thirty people hanging out. It was a familiar scene. Familiar in that I’d seen it often, but what did I actually know about these people? Some no doubt had no place to go and time to kill before they went home or went to a shelter or found a sidewalk or a church doorstep to sleep. But were they all? Were some on their way home from work, enjoying a brief respite or a smoke? How embarrassing would it be to stop and ask a person on their way to work if they wanted four garbage bags full of empty bottles and cans? What kind of person does that?

I couldn’t stop there.

Better to keep going down Wethersfield Avenue. What would my wife say if I came home with these cans and bottles? That hidden spot in the garage attic was beginning to look like an option.

Part 3

I drove down Wethersfield Avenue, looking for a needy person to take four garbage bags full of redeemable cans and bottles.

I stopped at a red light at Morris Street. An attractive, nicely dressed young black woman was standing at the corner, waiting to cross. No, I will not ask this woman if she wants my cans and bottles.

I wondered, what would go through this woman’s mind if a white man got out of his car and approached her – what would go through her mind before he asked her if she wanted cans and bottles? I didn’t know, but I realized that some level of anxiety, perhaps fear, probably would be involved. Why would she be fearful? She could certainly outrun a 73-year-old man, and she probably could outfight him, too. Why would she be fearful? Simply, I realized, because she is black and I am white.

Why, I wondered, would I even think it would be appropriate for me to get out of the car and approach this woman? Because, I realized, I am white and she is black. It’s my prerogative.

I drove on.

A few blocks later a middle-aged black woman came out of a building, hefty, with an attractive shape, wearing what I will simply call a suggestive dress. I have to admit, I liked it. Black women often seem to show more of themselves than white women. I wondered what she would think if I left my car and approached her.

— Okay, I have to stop again. I know that some people will find that paragraph offensive. I had trouble typing it, because I’ve spent my entire life trying not to be offensive. I’m sorry if it troubles you. However, my purpose is to set forth the thoughts of a wealthy, white American man on an afternoon tour of poor, non-white neighborhoods, whatever those thoughts may have been. Hot, sexy black women were part of my training as a young American in the 50s, and it’s still there in my head. It’s no accident Tina Turner is black.

— And, yes, I know I said the same thing earlier. Except the Tina Turner part.–

Down Wethersfield Avenue I went, wondering where these thoughts come from, wondering how many more are buried somewhere deep in my brain.

I cut over to Franklin, then right on Jordan Lane to the Stop & Shop at the Berlin Turnpike. That’s where I finally found what Tom Cruise would call a target-rich environment. There they were, poor people standing in line to redeem their bottles. I’d driven all the way to East Hartford, through downtown Hartford and the South End, and here were all the poor people I needed, less than five miles from my home and just a mile from my Dunkin Donuts, the Dunkin Donuts with the damaged signage I’d expect in East Hartford, not Wethersfield.

I pulled into the parking lot and saw that my prospective donees were lined up along the side of the building, waiting their turns to redeem their bottles. Now I had the problem I’d feared: how do I approach these people? Do they all want my cans and bottles? How do I decide whom to approach?

I parked near the side of the building. As I parked, I studied them. They had the look of being poor; one or two might have been regular shoppers, but most looked like they were here on a money-making mission. They were in the process of turning discarded containers into a meal to be eaten, soon. Some had carts overflowing with cans and bottles. What color were these people? I wanted to look more closely to get a better handle on who these people were, but I couldn’t just sit and stare – they were looking at me, too. Hastily, I picked out an elderly man who looked a little lost and had a meagre collection of cans and bottles. He would be my guy.

I got out of the car and put the four bags of cans and bottles into a shopping cart.

I picked the shortest route to my intended target, which was a mistake. Everyone in line was watching me, and the shortest route gave me the look of trying to cut the line. Probably more than one person thought I was some rich guy in his Lexus who thought he didn’t have to go to the back of the line.

My route also required that I push my cart over a small curb. I thought it would just roll over the curb, but it didn’t. It got stuck. Probably more than one person thought this was some rich old guy who couldn’t manage his cans and bottles.

My elderly target was straight ahead. He saw that I was stuck and stepped forward to help me. We got the cart up on the sidewalk. People were looking at me, wondering why I was going to the middle of the line. I looked at the man and asked him if he wanted my cans and bottles, gesturing toward them. He said yes. I turned and left.

I didn’t just turn and leave. I fled.

Why didn’t I make eye contact? Why didn’t I talk to these people? Why didn’t I give $5 to each of them? Why did they make me so uncomfortable?

I drove home. I felt ashamed. My neighborhood looked opulent. I’d never seen it that way before.

Next time I will treat people better.

3 Replies to “THE CANS”

  1. Mark – I don’t think that many of us take the time and effort to honestly face our personal history and prejudices. Thanks for sharing yours. I’ll try to treat people better.

  2. Mark,
    I’m proud of you to try to send your recycling bottles and cans to someone who could use the extra cash.
    FYI, I had 6 bags from my son’s garage that I took to the recycling center here in Windsor on Pierson Lane. They accumulated around $14.00, but my son said to send it to church for the youth group collection, which we did. Just a thought!
    But I’m so glad you went to the trouble to not only help people, but also to help our recycling!

    Jane Cimbak

  3. Very interesting story Mark. I’m glad you wrote it. Interesting that you felt the need to directly engage with poor people. As I read your article, I was reminded of how “afraid” I can be around homeless people. I don’t want to make eye contact for fear of them approaching me asking for something. I sneak a look at them when they aren’t watching. After all these years with street people around me, I have made no real effort to face my own avoidance.

    Harriet and I are going to a city golf course this morning. It’s mid city, lovely wooded course. At the dense 8th hole, I can look over the fence in the woods and see a homeless encampment. Maybe I will look at it a little closer today….

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