The dull sound of cheap plastic wheels rolling on pavement is just barely audible over the constant roar of the freeway. The little old woman pushes her baby stroller around the corner, stopping at each trash bin to find what is salvageable. Her small stroller is childless, but nonetheless heavy with a sizeable load of aluminum cans. At her side is a child who perhaps rode in the stroller not long ago, when she was too young to walk this far on her own. The little old woman keeps the child entertained by moving quickly, belying the deep wrinkles in her face and hobble to her step. She may find one can, or no cans, but she remains determined and presses on to the next bin. Clearly, this is how she will scratch out her meager earnings for the day.
Her approach is always less obtrusive than those pushing shopping carts over sidewalk cracks, down the curb and across the bumpy street. I can hear the carts from down the block. The old woman, though, suddenly appears, and just as quickly vanishes with hardly a peep. She’s different.
I didn’t know how to react when I first came across the old woman and child digging confidently through my trash. I didn’t want this at my front door; this raw human element staring me down as I went about my day. She didn’t belong here. The child especially didn’t belong here. A warm onshore ocean breeze ruffled the fringes of the old woman’s ankle-length skirt, as the fronds of the queen palm by the trash bin swayed to and fro. The two didn’t seem to notice me as I walked past with a sour face, my nonverbal show of disapproval.
So I took matters into my own hands. I placed my most unpleasant refuse closest to the top of the bin, thinking this would deter the old woman. I’d make it a point to stand watch at the screen door, certain she felt my presence. She never once looked my way, not even to acknowledge the guttural growls of my dog.
Now I was a nobody to her, just another white kid with a roof over his head and decent garbage to pick through. The tables had turned. What would it matter if I gave her attitude? She gets it all the time, I’m sure.
I see the old woman around town often, walking at a brisk pace, head bowed as if lost in prayer. She is like a ghost, barely noticeable unless you were looking for her. It’s hard telling which way she’s going or from which direction she came. But she’s always on the move, her business never finished.
Once, I went to throw garbage out when the old woman was making the rounds. I watched her with a new sense of curiosity and a hint of regret, for who was I to so quickly pass judgment? I wondered what her story was, why she resorted to collecting cans to survive. She shuffled to the next bin, only a few yards from me. At that moment, she finally met my glare and flashed a warm, nearly toothless smile. Her eyes were tired yet strangely energetic as she whispered a quiet “buenos dias.” We now regularly exchange warm smiles and polite nods.
There are a few unfavorable trash pickers in the neighborhood, the type who make me feel uncomfortable leaving the front door unlocked if I take a walk around the block. But there is something about this old woman — something different. Maybe it’s there in each of them and I’ve yet to open my heart to the humanity in us all.
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