Saturday, March 17, 2012

It's the Little Things; Or, On the Kindness of Strangers

So, I collect redeemable cans.  And bottles.  And scrap metal (steel, tin, brass, copper, wire, aluminum, iron/cast iron).  I try not to mention it too much; not because I'm ashamed, but I don't want folks thinking I'm playing up our financial situation: "Oh, woe's me, we're so poor, I have to pick cans to get by...."

Truth is, I've been collecting cans and bottles for deposit and scrapping since I was a kid. On the can and bottle front - we lived next to a motorcross track.  They had huge races every Saturday.  I once asked Dad for an allowance, and his answer was: 

"Every Sunday morning there's probably $20 worth of cans and bottles lying around that track.  There's your allowance. It's all yours." 

In the late 80's, early 90's, Dad got caught in a crunch caused by shifting paradigms in the workplace: suddenly, his almost fifteen years experience as a mechanical engineer and night school degree were no longer good enough to keep him employed.  So he went through several patches of unemployment, one lasting almost my entire senior year of high school.  At one point, the bank threatened to foreclose.

During that period, I saw him collect scrap with a dogged determination, as well as take any kind of odd job he could - carpentry, house painting, electricians' work - and that made a huge impact on me.  Probably one of the first enduring lessons I learned about what it meant to be a MAN: you do whatever it takes to survive.  Pride is an internal thing.  Pride is self-generated.

Pride comes from survival.  Not from the means of achieving said survival, but from the survival itself.

So we do the whole can-collecting, scrap collecting thing. Got a nice system, actually.  We wash and bag and collect all the cans and bottles we consume ourselves and store them in my "garage" out back.  We save them, because it's like putting money in the bank.  

Then, beginning in March/April, two-three times a week I walk along the highway and back roads, looking for cans and bottles.   Sometimes I do it on the way home from work.  I have specific routes and interstates that are well-traveled, and always produce lots of cans and bottles.  

A side-bonus: the walking is great exercise, too.

But we also collect scrap metal.  You'd be surprised how much I find on my walks, hub caps, BIG pieces of the good stuff, too - aluminum and copper - and I collect all that, too.  At home, we clean out all our tin cans and collect them, as well as empty hair spray  bottles (some of those are aluminum), non-stick spray, deodorant, anything.  Because in the end, it's all about weight, and the scrap metal processing center pays by the weight.

At the end of the summer, (or middle, depending on Abby's vacation), I take the cans and bottles to the redemption center, (they often run specials like 6.5 cents a can), and the scrap to our local scrap processing center.  I usually walk away with something near $300 - $4oo all told, which provides for a stress-free, out-of-pocket vacation to the Adirondacks, and then a trip to Horrorfind (this year, we're aiming at the vacation, then AnthoCon).

So tonight, I was out walking, had done decently already, when a couple in their fifties pulled up behind me on - yep - their golf cart.  Asked me what I was up to. I told them; about how I teach at a Catholic School, don't get paid over the summer, so I collect cans and scrap to help with vacation.  These kind folks waved me back to their house, took my bags inside....and filled them, to the brim, overflowing, with cans and bottles.

Now, they probably only added 2-3 bucks to my haul.  But the emotional impact is so much greater.  It's small little, simple things like this that always gets me.  They didn't presume anything about me, why this young guy is out alongside the road picking cans.  They just gave me a ton of theirs, made nice conversation, then wished me a good evening.

And here's the kicker - this isn't the first time this has happened to me.  It's at least the third.

Again.  I'll repeat myself: it's the little things.  That remind us we're not alone, here.  That there's Someone Up There, always tossing little reminders our way that we're not alone, or - if you're not of the "Someone Up There" persuasion, it reminds us that people - real people - still care for their fellow man.

And that's something worth more than all the scrap metal and redeemable cans in the world.