Another Man's Treasure
Scrounging the streets with can scavengers
By Sarah Morrison | Photos by Alyssa Greenberg
Judy Williams lowers her bags and wipes a hand across her forehead. It's a bitter 30-degree morning in Syracuse, but sweat beads form from the morning's labor. She's been up since 3:30 a.m., rooting through trashcans and dumpsters for discarded cans to return for five cents each. Williams puts the cans into large white trash bags with sewn-on, sturdy cloth handles, throws the bags over her shoulder, and lugs them down the street. At 7 a.m., she'll make the 30-minute trip to Price Chopper's redemption center on foot.
Williams, 48, wears an orange hat, a coat, and some winter gloves. She's thin with strong, wiry arms. She chalks her fitness up to her life as a "walker." Her route starts on Westcott Street near the home she shares with her 83-year-old mother. Williams walks down Westcott to Euclid and Lancaster Avenues, where she sometimes finds the remnants of the previous night's carefree parties littering the ground.Then she hits "frat row," where she typically finds her biggest hauls.
After losing her job as a CITGO gas station attendant six years ago, Williams started collecting cans full-time to support herself and her mother. She estimates that she gathers $30 to $40 worth of cans on Monday and Tuesday evenings (trash nights for student neighborhoods off campus) but can make up to $150 on weekends; she's befriended frat brothers who save bags of beer cans for her. "That's where all the money is," she says of the fraternities lining Walnut Park. "The college kids drink, and they just throw cans out—they don't care about five cents. I care about five cents."
Syracuse University plays an inadvertent and sometimes reluctant role in supporting the legions of residents out to sustain themselves by returning cans, a system set up in 1982 with the passage of the NewYork State Returnable Containers Act, nicknamed the "Bottle Bill." Students living off campus or in fraternities or sororities throw out large numbers of beer and soda cans, as well as water and sports drink bottles, providing ripe grounds for gathering.
The availability of cans and bottles in areas surrounding the university coupled with the scarcity of jobs makes collecting an attractive money-making option for some Syracuse residents, both those with jobs and homes, and those without. According to a 2011 report by the New York State Community Action Association, nearly one in three people in Syracuse lives below the poverty line—more than double New York State's and the nation’s averages of a little less than one in seven. The city’s unemployment rate in December 2011 was eight percent. But even among the employed, almost one in three still fall below the poverty line, which experts like Gretchen Purser, a sociology professor at SU who teaches a class on urban poverty, say doesn’t actually indicate how widespread poverty remains. “Wages have actually declined over the last 40 years, in real income terms, and at the same time inflation has risen dramatically,” says Purser. “This is a symptom of those underlying economic trends. I think can collecting is one of the clearest visible symbols that we have of economic despair.”
Donald Finner is part of that symbolism. A 61-year-old with a frizzy grey beard, kind smile, and several missing teeth, he sits in a booth close to the door of Acropolis Pizza on Marshall Street around 6 p.m., reading a book and peering through the window to ensure his shopping cart full of the day’s wee-work remains undisturbed. He doesn’t eat but slowly sips a cup of Dr. Pepper. He’s returned cans for extra money since he “was wee,” when his father taught him the trade. In 1972, Finner moved to Syracuse from his native NewYork City and worked as a chef at the downtown Holiday Inn. He worked there for six years before transferring to a Holiday Inn in East Syracuse where he worked for eight years. Then, in 1991, Finner suffered a stroke. “It could’ve been worse,” he says. “Just some heart flutterations, you know.” But it made him unable to work. Now, state disability checks, cans, and bottles provide his only means of survival. On a good day, he makes $60. He calls his sacks of recyclables “body bags.”
Not even good health and employment can guarantee economic security. Roger Smith, a tall 47-year-old man in a grubby green pullover, bends over to lift bulging trash bags into his GMC Envoy. Smith works full-time in housing code enforcement for the city, but is only paid bi-weekly. On his off weeks, he drives around neighborhoods surrounding the campus and frat row, picking up cans and bottles to pay for everyday expenses like gas. “Sometimes a job isn’t good enough,” he shrugs. “I’d rather grab cans and be out here doing this than be begging for money or asking people for stuff all the time.”
Aspirations of self-sufficiency motivate other can-gatherers as well. “A lot of people look down on me, but fuck that. I’m not getting any money anyhow else,” says Ivan Kelly, a 31-year-old man who works during the summer months on SU asbestos removal jobs. Unable to find anything but seasonal employment, Kelly collects cans and unemployment checks during what he calls his "depressions," which make up about six months of the year. Kelly's social security check is about $110 each month, but over $50 of that goes to paying child support. Kelly has a cousin who attends SU, who lets him know about big parties; "It helps me out a little bit—inside connection." Kelly makes around $30 on a good morning. "People say to me, 'You don't have to be doing that. Why don't you sell drugs and make some money?' and things like that, but fuck that," Kelly says. "This is legal."
Although no laws prohibit collecting, risks exist. The search for cans and bottles often leads collectors alongside or behind houses, where the police could arrest them for trespassing. Gatherers have different ways of avoiding these dangers. Kelly avoids campus, where the Department of Public Safety has jurisdiction, preferring instead to collect in the off-campus neighborhoods. After an unpleasant run-in with DPS in which he felt unfairly judged, Smith started collecting with his city employee badge around his neck, "so they know I'm not trying to cause any trouble."
DPS follows a one-warning policy when dealing with can gatherers within their jurisdiction, which includes all dumpsters and trashcans on university-owned property. The first time DPS catches people collecting, they ask them to return the bottles and cans to the dumpster, says John Sardino, a captain in the department. Then they must give their names and sign a form that officially warns that they will be arrested for trespassing if caught near the dumpsters again. Sometimes, says Sardino, DPS asks for students' help in getting "uncooperative" collectors to leave fraternity and sorority areas; if students complain, they can help ensure that gatherers "don't come back out."
The Syracuse Police Department is responsible for any student neighborhoods, and unlike DPS, has full jurisdiction to arrest collectors for trespassing near the fraternities and sororities. When Williams hears about break-ins from her frat friends or DPS officers, some of whom know her from years of gathering, she stays away for a while. Williams was arrested for trespassing a few years ago while out collecting. She stayed in jail for two weeks because she couldn't afford to post bail. She ultimately paid $1,500 in fines. She now has two warnings and believes the cops will issue her a citation the next time they catch her. "As long as I'm not breaking in and I'm not hurting anyone, I don't think I'm doing something wrong. I am breaking the law, but they should go chase someone who's ripping someone off, hurting someone," she says. "I'm taking a chance here to make some money, why not let me?"
Gretchen Purser recognizes the threat of incarceration for can collectors as part of "a broader pattern of the criminalization of the poor," she says, "They are trying to choose a moral choice in the informal economy, and they're still criminalized. It's quite telling about the way in which our society treats the poor."
Despite the fines, Williams doesn't plan to stop gathering anytime soon. She only has her G.E.D., so limited formal job opportunities exist. She also has her mother to think about. "But God is watching over me—I'm gonna be okay," she says with a sigh and a smile.