I use the term “scavengers,” since “ragpickers” seems inappropriate; they’re after cans and other recyclables much more than rags. These are the guys – usually men, occasionally women – whom you see prowling the sidewalks and streets and gutters, poking into trash cans and other refuse in search of cans that can be returned for a nickel, and other stuff that somewhere can be returned for a small sum. Who are they, and where do they go to turn in their spoils? Busy New Yorkers pay little attention, while hoping that these self-appointed collectors help keep the city somewhat clean.
Having researched nineteenth-century New York, I have a better idea of the scavengers of that era than I do of the ones today. Back then they were above all women, usually German, Irish, and Italian immigrants who trudged the streets in all kinds of weather, dodging the rushing carts and stages not yet impeded by the installation of stop signs and red lights. Often they had a district where they claimed priority, fighting off any intruders who dared to invade their territory; nasty hair-pulling and face-scratching fights resulted, with other women cheering on one or both participants.
These ragpickers scavenged all kinds of clothing and rags, bits of metal, discarded clocks, busted parasols, cracked chamber pots, lumps of coal, buckles, hatpins, and bones, and sometimes even crouched at the mouths of sewers and reached past unmentionable wastes, or even the remains of an aborted embryo, for anything that glinted, hoping for rings but often as not getting spoons. Having sorted out their spoils and washed their rags in their tenement quarters, they then sold them to the rag man, the bone man, or the junk man, earning a few pennies that might get them two days’ rent in their room crammed in with other women, and some boiled beans and a penny of rum.
And today? The supermarkets grudgingly receive recyclable cans and bottles, but restrict the hours and the amounts they will receive; one often sees the scavengers with their bulging plastic bags of recyclables gathering near the entrance at the appointed time. But there are redemption centers as well, and scavengers flock to them with their spoils, even though raiding trash cans for recyclables is against the law, since it undermines the city’s own recycling efforts. And not all the scavengers are trudging on foot with pushcarts; some arrive in automobiles laden with cans, bottles, appliances, bits of metal, whatever.
Last week I encountered a true mystery: a huge heap of plastic bags jammed with recyclables, a heap some ten feet high and possibly piled on top of a cart that was hidden beneath it, at the curb next to the little park across the street from my building. Next to the heap, in a steady rain, a man in a brown jacket with a hood was sorting items. In addition to the big heap, he had at least four small carts or bundles that he was looking after. I had never seen him there before.
The next morning, when I went out on an errand on the second day of rain, his stuff was still there, and on one of the park benches there was another heap under a big white blanket: presumably, the scavenger trying to get some sleep in the rain. So he was probably homeless. But how one man by himself could manage all those bundles baffled me.
On the third day, when it was still drizzling, I went out to get a paper and saw an older man, an African American, sitting in a shop doorway out of the rain, with a few small bundles beside him, staring sullenly out from under his brown hood: surely, I thought, the scavenger who had accumulated all those other piles of bulging plastic bags. Coming back with the paper, on an impulse I flashed the friendliest of smiles his way and asked, cheerily, with a gesture toward the heap across the street, “Is all that stuff yours?” -- a query that he answered with a dismissive gesture and a shout, “Get away from me!” So savage was his look that I did exactly that, surmising that many rejections and orders from the police to “Move on!” had probably rendered him aggressively defensive and leery of any stranger who approached him. Obviously, his was not a happy life, least of all in the rain.
The next day I saw him sleeping again under the big white blanket on a bench, though the rain had finally stopped. Why he lingered there with all his accumulated booty I still couldn’t figure out. Then, the next day, he and all his stuff had vanished, whether by his own choice, somehow transporting all those bundles to another location, or because the police had ordered him away, I will never know.
I thought the story had ended, but I was wrong. Three days later he and his mountain of spoils reappeared in the park in exactly the same spot as before, sticking out into the street. And there he was in his hooded brown coat, sorting things out, or slumbering under the white blanket on a nearby bench. Why can’t he get rid of his stuff and maybe even realize a modest profit? Why does he linger here day after day, married – or maybe chained – to his gleanings? The mystery deepens yet again. After that I saw him once again, with all his stuff, on West 11th Street, not far from my building, but after that he vanished once again, though I dare not say forever, since he has a way of popping up when least expected.
My Tale of a Tub: Two weeks ago I had a novel adventure. It was 4 a.m. and I went to the bathroom to relieve the bladder imperative, and having done so, I suddenly lost my balance and fell into the bathtub, where I sat, momentarily stunned, with both legs dangling over the side of the tub. It took me a moment to grasp what had happened and the situation I now found myself in, so ludicrous that, once I realized I wasn’t the slightest bit injured, I started to laugh. How had it happened? Two possibilities. Maybe I experienced a momentary dizziness that caused me to lose my balance and fall, pushing away the little black bathroom rug as I did so. Or maybe the rug slipped out from under one foot, causing me to fall. Having experienced no dizziness since then, I incline toward the second explanation.
Whatever the cause of it, there I was, sitting crosswise in the tub with my feet dangling over the side. How was I to get out of this ridiculous position? The tub was dry, so I had no soggy bottom to deal with, but the solution to the problem was not immediately apparent. Intuition was no help; I had to rely on that glory of homo sapiens sapiens, the ability to reason. First of all, I had to pull my legs into the tub so I could lie there lengthwise, as God and the maker of bathtubs intended. I did so, but then found myself seated with the faucets poking into my back, likewise not the position that bathtubs are meant to accommodate. So I dangled my legs over the side once again and maneuvered, within the narrow confines of the tub, so as to reverse my position, which in that cramped space wasn’t easy. So far, so good: I was now seated facing the faucets, resting my back on the sloping surface meant for just that purpose. But I was still a prisoner of the tub, since my hands couldn’t gain the leverage needed to lift me out. What to do?
Reason once again redeemed me: I must turn myself over, renounce the sitting position and get on all fours, as if ready to crawl. Achieving this meant more strenuous maneuvering in a space not meant for such efforts, but achieve it I finally did. Now, on all fours, I was able to place my hands on the tub’s sides, gain leverage, and lift myself majestically – or maybe not so majestically – up to a standing position, and then with no difficulty step out of the tub.
Viewers are probably by now as tired of this narrative as I was of being stuck in the tub, but I see my Tale of a Tub (to borrow a title from Swift) as demonstrating the superior status of homo sapiens sapiens who, when trapped in an unforeseen predicament, uses his native smarts to rescue himself and resume the noble stature of the species.
The book: No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received two awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction, and first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards. (For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.) As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: The Forbidden Island. Why is it forbidden? Who is allowed to go there? What scandals have erupted concerning it?
© 2016 Clifford Browder