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Working Hard in America’s Twilight Economy

It’s dark not long after five o’clock these winter days and the temperature drops quickly. In downtown Oakland, I watch the office buildings disgorge their daily inhabitants and with their coats wrapped tightly around them, they scurry toward parking lots, bus stops and BART stations on their way home to residences in the city or out in the suburbs of Orinda and Danville.

Over in the west side of town, gleaners hustle toward the recycling center on Peralta which will pay them cash for their collected goods.  They push and pull their rusty supermarket carts filled with bottles, cans and odd goods toward the building before the steel rollup door rumbles down and ends that day’s possibility of cash transactions.

“Jeez, I thought it was Saturday,” Harry said to me on a Friday morning. “I have to move faster cause they close earlier on Saturday.”

Harry is a skinny man in his early 50’s who has lung problems. His SSI payments do not meet his needs, so he’s on the street daily collecting whatever can be redeemed at the recycling center. He wears one knit glove and one  leather glove because that’s all they had in the free clothes bin at a nearby church. By the late afternoon he will have covered quite a few miles on foot and then push his cart down to Peralta for the payoff:  a dollar fifty nine a pound for cans, ten and a half cents a pound for glass.

“A lot of folks in the neighborhood know me and leave their stuff out for me, but it’s still hard. Now it’s dark in the morning and the afternoon,” he laughed. One of his best “clients” is a bar that leaves empty beer bottles out in the back alley.

The Minh family used to work the Oakland hills but they’ve disappeared. During the night before garbage collection day, the middle-aged husband and wife team hiked up and down the steep streets, picking into the recycling bins on the sidewalks mainly for aluminum cans. By dawn they carried full garbage bags of cans suspended over their shoulders on bamboo poles down to Broadway.  Upon finding a level concrete area, they squashed the cans flat with their feet and walked the more manageable burden to a buyer five miles away.

Apparently the gentry in the hills became overheated about the threat of ID theft, so private patrols and idle cops ran the Minhs and others like them out of those neighborhoods.

Throughout the history of agriculture, gleaners were allowed to pick up the leftovers in a field that had already been harvested. In many cases, the gleaners were women, scrambling to keep their families fed in societies where the balance of power and land ownership was held by force by a small privileged few. One of the shortest books in what Christians refer to as the Old Testament of the Bible is the story of Ruth, a gleaner. Ruth was an impoverished widow who became a gleaner to survive, “so she gleaned in the field until even and beat out that she had gleaned . . . and she took it up and went into the city.”

In the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth and his followers also practiced gleaning in their travels. Mark the evangelist wrote that Jesus “went through the corn fields on Sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn.” When accused by the Pharisees of violating the law, Jesus replied, “have ye never read what David did when he was hungered, he, and they that were with him?”

Li-Hua is an ancient little woman who works the parking lots of the fast food outlets, restaurants and grocery stores around Lake Merritt.  Her oversize gloves almost reach to her elbows, and she pulls behind her one of those folding shopping carts that other people take to the market.  She wears a miner’s light on her beanie which provides her an advantage in discovering aluminum treasures before daylight and other gleaners arrive.

Robert is a Gulf War veteran who gets around on an old one-speed bike. Robert has a sense of style and design.  He built a trailer onto the bike to carry the goods he collects around the Kaiser Hospital neighborhood and gas stations within a one mile radius. Robert was able to score a few cans of spray paint so he could paint his rig black and gold. It looks good.

“I worry about that judge, man,” Gregory told me.  “You tell him I’m staying clean.”

I read somewhere that Jamie Dimond, the head man of JPMorganChase, made over $9,000 an hour during the time his company committed numerous financial crimes, including stealing people’s homes and wrecking the economy. However, today, the talking heads on network and cable television proclaim that the “economy is back,” and stronger than ever. The stock market continues to climb; business is booming.

On a good day, Robert the gleaner makes about eight dollars.

Don Santina can be reached at lindey89@aol.com.   His enovel, “A Prize for All Saints,” features a one-armed veteran suffering from PTSD.

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