It is a cool night and you are standing in something that might be called a line outside the can and bottle return station at your local Fred Meyer, picking up your feet and realizing they’re sticking to the pavement with its dried film of beer scum and soda residue. You’re beginning to wonder if it was a smart idea to spend your Saturday night doing this, or if you’re even going to be able to return your three and a quarter bags of seltzer cans tonight.
You often have impulsive ideas but sometimes they are too impulsive and you have to follow through anyway so you don’t feel like a fool but would anyone really notice if you just put the bags back into your trunk and went grocery shopping and then home instead? The only other people feeding cans into the machines are the people who are always here feeding cans into the machines, men who probably don’t have a home to go to, men who are pushing shopping carts filled not just with cans and bottles but with everything they own, men wearing their only clothes.
It is okay for you to be here, you tell yourself, wishing you weren’t, wishing you had the courage to maybe just give away your bagged cans and bottles. Two men approach the shelter and one of them tosses something into the trash and then hands the nearest, most obviously homeless man a $10 or $20 bill and says, hey man, I told myself I was going to be nice tonight, take care. The man takes the bill, but seems unable to know what to do next, looking at the bill and then at the man and then at the return machine. He growls something unintelligible and then returns to his task.
You feel a little nervous, not sure if you’re safe but also aware that you’re not that generous, either, and you know deep down that we are all connected but sometimes it’s easier to click “Donate” on a website than it is to hand a paper bill to another human and you know all of the questions when it comes to reducing homelessness and poverty but you haven’t taken the time to think about the answers.
It’s your turn at the machine now, the kind where you have to feed each can or bottle individually, and the machine only wants to accept every fifth or sixth can, but someone approaches you, saying, let me help, you have to wipe the bar code sometimes.
You’re not sure if you ought to let him help you but he has kind eyes and you’re really committed now and can feel frustration mounting and so you smile helplessly and he pulls a paper towel out of his back pocket, shows you how to clean the can, runs his finger around the inside of your plastic water bottles to remove the dents, points to the camera inside the machine and explains how it’s best if you put cans in tab first. He knows the system, he tells you, he knows that certain bottles were produced in California and so can only be returned in California but if you tell an employee, they’ll write you a slip for reimbursement.
He asks you to watch his bike and bag of cans while he runs in to the customer service counter to ask an employee to fix the machine’s printer, or if you’d rather he can watch your bags while you go inside. You let him go in while you send protective thoughts out over his belongings, reflecting in wonder at the quiet connection you’re making under the cloudy night sky.
He comes back and not long after, an employee named Cookie comes out to shake the bins of crushed cans, reset the printer, count bottles for another customer. Your friend puts your can into the repaired machine and it’s accepted, and at the same time he offers you the other machine that works now, the one that will eat up cans by the armful, and so you take the second one, and he begins to use the machine next to you. He offers you a nickel for the can that he tested, but you smile and brush it off.
You’re accumulating a small collection of unaccepted bottles and cans in the bottom of your cart and you’re wondering how to give them to your new friend, if you should give him your slips or cash instead of pocketing it, but there has to be a right way to do this and you just don’t know what it is. You’ve returned all you can now, so you ask your friend if he’d like the extras, but he just smiles, not meeting your eyes, and shows you where to put the glass bottles that can’t be recycled for a deposit. He gently gathers your damaged cans and plastic bags into the trash and then stands with you for a few moments longer, only occasionally making eye contact, telling you how he came to be here, about his past as a contractor and the times he helped family members move to the Northwest.
You ask for his name, and he says, it’s a Spanish name, Arturo, but I’m also called Arthur. Good night, Arturo, you say, thanks for your help. It was really nice to meet you.