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My Interview with an SF Can Collector, Kinda.

February 12, 2013

Here is one of my favorite things about San Francisco: the symbiotic relationship between public drunkards and the can and bottle collectors. The combination is seamless and effective, it truly represents our city’s commitment to green beautification, recreation, and recycling. At the same time, it serves as a powerful reminder of the diverse cultures that make up these 7×7 miles.

These recycling stalwarts are truly some of the hardest working people in showbiz and the stuff of local legends, folk heroes if you will. Hardcore Dolores park dwellers may know the cast of characters by name and will even go as far as to save their bottles and cans for one in particular, swatting away other can poachers out of true loyalty.

I have spent a lot of time over the past years observing and pondering these scavengers, watching as they carefully bob and weave through crowds of  bare-chested, corn-holing, forever-frat-boys, fallen bike carcasses, flung carelessly next to their bearded owners, burning man fire hoopers and street kids on acid. The Chinese ladies are easy to spot, always wearing Giligan’s Island style bucket hats secured under their chins with an elastic strap and the same 1970’s style sweater vests, shuffling in oversized tennis shoes, hands covered in gardening gloves, clutching a dilapidated 10-gallon rice bag. Do they all work together? Depositing their collections off at some “home office” deep in the heart of Chinatown and taking a cut of the total haul at the end of the month? Or are they all out for themselves, brutally defending their grounds in all-out turf wars? Whenever I see a lone one, picking through a trash can on South Van Ness, I can’t help but wonder, is this what she has to resort to? Are all the good spots are already taken?

My personal bias lies with team “Latino Can Collector”, for starters, my rudimentary grasp of the Spanish language allows me to communicate with them on a basic level, and secondly, they often bring their children along on collecting missions, a well-played move that tugs at the heart strings. However, my loyalty was truly won a few weeks ago as I attempted to take out the recycling at my friend’s parents house, which I had been housesitting throughout the holidays.

The house, a classic San Francisco Victorian, lies on one of the steeper grades of Castro Street. It was a Tuesday afternoon as I began to drag the bins out to the curb, the recycling bin was filled to the brim with the detritus of five-weeks worth of housesitting; pizza boxes, wine bottles, dozens of beer cans, and an unhealthy amount of cheap champagne. The bin began to wobble unevenly under the pressure, and as hard as I tried to keep it steady it crashed onto its side with an embarrassingly loud rattle, sending the glass contents careening down the slope, and me, screaming obscenities chasing down after the loose junk like a crazy person. I imagine the full busload of people passing by on the 24-Divisadero that witnessed the whole incident felt quite sorry for me.

As I was making my second pathetic trip up the hill, arms full of broken glass, hands bleeding, I heard, what could have been the call of an angel running up behind me, “SENIORITA! SENIORITA!” he bellowed, panting from charging up the hill. I turned to find my savior, a tiny man in a Tasmanian Devil T-shirt and flannel jacket with a MEXICO baseball hat on his head. He proceeded to explain in Spanglish that he had been working painting a house around the corner when he heard the crash and came running. He wanted to get there before anyone else did, because “it sounded like a lot!”

Together we loaded his satchel with the recycling, he took every last piece, even the broken ones. “It’s still money, girl! If it was my party though, there would have been a lot more tequila!” We ended up talking, me in horrible broken Spanish, him in horrible broken English. He grew up in the Mission, he collects cans and bottles for his Mother, and today he had “hit the jackpot! At least 1o dollars!”

It took a couple of minutes to fill his bag and then he walked lop-sidedly down the block, weighted down by about 15 pounds worth of recyclables over his shoulder. I was left with a huge smile on my face. My knight in aluminum armor!

A true San Francisco moment. One girl’s empty bottles are another man’s treasure…


my friend Biggs supporting the local can-collection economy in Golden Gate Park.

my friend Biggs supporting the local can-collection economy in Golden Gate Park.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. josey permalink
    February 13, 2013 6:43 am

    YAY! youre back.

  2. February 13, 2013 6:58 am

    btw you are def instagram famous as the peeps on the bus fosho grammed you!

  3. February 26, 2013 1:25 pm

    Best story. Pure classic.

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