Scrounging for empties at 5 a.m.


Making end meet by collecting cans and bottles before the sun comes up.

Yesterday’s unexpectedly blue skies inspired me to greet 2017 with an upbeat mantra: “New day. New year. New attitude.”

Today’s encounter with a tall stranger challenged me to back my words with action.


I was wheeling our recycling bin to the curb early this morning when I came upon a tall guy, layered up and wearing a knit stocking cap, running his flashlight over the contents of what my neighbors had already put out the night before.

“You looking for cans and bottles?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he nodded.

“I’ve got some for you.”

I’d planned to redeem them myself this week, being someone who doesn’t mind spending time feeding them into the bins if it’ll help knock a few dollars off the grocery bill. But who needed the empties more? Me or him?

I hauled a couple of bags from the garage and set them next to his

“You doing any kind of work?” I asked.

“I deliver The Oregonian.” A slight pause. “And The New York Times.”

Well, how about that? I thought to myself. I know these folks don’t make a lot of money, whether paid a commission or an hourly wage. It made sense that he’d be on the streets at 5 a.m., trying to supplement his income.

I peered into his car, a weathered, four-door sedan, as he was placing more empties in the trunk and saw he had filled the entire back seat and front passenger area, from floor to ceiling, with as many bags and boxes as he could cram in.

I didn’t see any newspapers. But it dawned on me that The Oregonian is home-delivered just four days a week these days, and Monday is an off day. It made sense that he didn’t have any papers.

I grabbed a couple more 12-pack boxes and gave them to him.

“You got any work for me, mister?”

“No, I’m afraid I don’t,” I answered. “Where we live now, we don’t have to worry about yard work.”

“Well, thanks anyway.”

“You bet. Good luck to you and have a good year.”


With the dawn of a new year and new administration, several friends and family members have vowed to do what they can to preserve the progressive policies of the Obama years. As I think about my own values and personal responsibilities, I know I will have to find ways to contribute that feel comfortable to me.

As a lifelong journalist, I am accustomed to refraining from overt political involvement. Though no longer an employee of The Oregonian, I’m still likely to tread cautiously into area of direct action. Somehow, it feels more authentic to me to act on my values one person at a time.

And there’s plenty of opportunity.


Time to be less selfish, more giving, in redeeming empty bottles and cans.

The consequences of income inequality are easy to see, in my neighborhood and in other parts of Portland. Virtually anywhere you go in this city, you’ll see tents and tarps housing the homeless, and people hustling outside coffee shops, grocery stores and Goodwill.

Undoubtedly, every person has a story. I don’t know what circumstances put this particular stranger on my street this morning. What I do know is that it felt much better to engage with him than to just set the empties out at the curb for anyone’s taking. What I also know is that I’m more inclined to help those who help themselves.

In lieu of a short list of resolutions, and with today’s encounter in mind, I will seek to hold myself accountable to this new mantra.

“New day. New year. New attitude.”


Bonus video from one of my favorite bands:


10 thoughts on “Scrounging for empties at 5 a.m.

  1. “One person at a time” is a beautiful and truly helpful way to live, Grrr. If we all did more in our spheres of influence, as a way of life like this, larger problems inspiring some political activism would be smaller.
    There are no buttons or groups for small acts; Deep insights and needed connections are made, however.
    Cheers. I love this post. Had my own moment with a neighborhood gatherer years ago, granting me similar insights. I haven’t seen him and his overloaded bicycle for years. Maybe I haven’t been looking close enough outside.

    • Thanks for getting the conversation rolling, Elizabeth. Gotta say, you captured the “one person at a time” point of the piece better than I did. I think you’re on to something, too, in suggesting that doing more in our spheres of influence might reduce the scale of larger problems.

      Glad to know you had your own moment too. There’s a woman in the neighborhood who used to come around regularly for cans and bottles, but I suspect the weather has driven her indoors of late. Or maybe she’s had a recent injury or illness that’s kept her off the streets — which I hope is not the case.

  2. George, I agree with you. And one person at a time is a great way to go. When my cleaning man comes, we talk about the country’s policies and after several years of talking, he is now schooling his children more directly, getting them involved in giving back, and he now reads the New York Times on-line every day because he sees that I read it. He just told me on Saturday the impact that our conversations have had on his life. He works hard, has 3 children and he helps take care of his in-laws. You never know how you will impact people in your day-to-day life, but you have certainly made a difference in this man’s life and he in yours. Happy New Year to my favorite Blogger!

    • “You never know how you will impact people in your day-to-day life…” So true.
      So glad to know there’s been a positive outcome from your conversations with your cleaning man. What would you say you’ve taken from those talks yourself?

  3. Compa – great way to start the year. I spent my working career looking at systems and policies that undermined the aspirations and opportunities of individuals and families. At the end of the day, we have to look those folks in the eye and see them as neighbors, not intruders.

    • Thanks. I admire you and others who wade into the public policy waters and are able to keep their focus on the recipients rather than all the other financial, political aspects that go along with systems and policies. Happy New Year to you, Compa.

  4. Thank you for your attentiveness and compassion for the gentleman, the stranger in your/our midst, George. One person at a time, one person who feels affirmed, recognized. He may not have expected your encounter nor engagement at that early hour, and it may just have changed his attitude and approach to what he needs/must do as well. This chispa (spark) of encuentro between two people is sometimes enough to warm or illuminate us out of despair, and even brighten our day. Mil gracias for doing so.

    • Andrea,
      You know you are a model for such compassion and behavior. I appreciate your encouragement and my “new attitude” envisions a greater awareness of my neighbors’ needs and greater resolve to do something, even if it’s little, to alleviate a person’s situation.
      This chispa indeed brightened my day. I hope it did the same for Flashlight Man.

  5. One person at a time, perfect. I don’t think I’ll ever meet our can/bottle person at 5 a.m. since I don’t sleep until 1:30 or 2, but I’ll start putting the cans/bottles out more regularly all the same. And try to make personal connection with others during the hours I’m awake!

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