Money for Nothing

If you're good at pushing a shopping cart - really good - and establish a lucrative route, you too can make minimum wage by heisting bottles, cans, and newspapers from the blue recycling bins. And incur the wrath of the cops in the process.

The balance of Bill's income goes to a companion he calls "his sister, who lives in a downtown SRO." The story is believable if only because Bill tells it the same way during five separate interviews.

Why doesn't he get another job and lead a more comfortable life?
"This is a step into something," he insists. "I would rather do this than be a short-order cook. I make more money, and I don't have to deal with anything."

Argue this point with him, and he spells it out in cold cash: $46 divided by 11 hours is $4.18 per hour -- slightly less than minimum wage but tax free.

There are tricks to this business, he says. The first is to have a good route. Sometimes friends offer Bill their routes for a night or two; sometimes he returns the favor. He dreams of finding a treasure trove of white ledger paper in some hard-to-reach place. Mostly, though, the tricks are more practical, like backloading the cart so it's easier to navigate. Or, when you are on a steep hill wheeling 800 pounds of booty, steer the cart to the curb where the bags will drag along the sidewalk and act like brakes.

Sometimes Bill hires others to watch his filled carts when he's loading more than two. He pays $10 or 15 percent of the take, but it's hard to find reliable guys who won't fall sleep or wander off.

"A lot of guys spend their money on alcohol and drugs," Bill says. "They're not real happy people."

He estimates that pinching from the blue bins boosts his income by a factor of four or five.

"It's stealing," he says. "It don't matter why. Everything is just a rationalization. Hell, even Jeffrey Dahmer could say he was hungry."

The two carts Bill pushes into West Coast Recycling today are filled with 401 pounds of glass, 364 pounds of newspaper, 7.6 pounds of cans, and 66 pieces of plastic. First he sorts the glass into bins by color, has it weighed, and asks an acquaintance to guard these carts while he fetches the one filled with newspaper. Bill's colleagues move at half-speed in the dusty light, as though they are under water.

Dropping his cans at a conveyor belt and taking a receipt, Bill finally visits the cashier, who pays him his $46 in cash. Still stowed in the carts are one small TV, two pairs of electric shears, some size 9 sneakers, and a stuffed pink dog. He plugs the TV and the clippers into a West Coast wall socket; all are dead, so he discards them. He tries to give the pink dog away.

"When I take stuff out of the blue bins, I don't feel good about it," he acknowledges, "but when I find a bunch I'm just happy as hell."

West Coast Recycling could say the same. In fact, the Norcal empire benefits financially whenever the renegade recyclers steal from the blue bins. Sunset is paid by ratepayers to collect and haul recyclables to West Coast; the refund and scrap value of those recyclables goes into a special impound account that subsidizes the cost of pickup and hauling. The fewer recyclables collected, the less that goes into the fund that is earmarked for enforcement or rebates to ratepayers.

Meanwhile, recyclables nicked by the likes of Bill and the Mosquito Fleet also go to West Coast, which "buys low and sells high" like any good capitalist company. But this time Norcal gets to keep the profit.

But West Coast General Manager Leno Bellomo bristles at the suggestion that his company is profiting from theft.

"The sad fact of the matter is that if we don't take it they're just going to go to another competitor who's going to take it regardless," Bellomo says. "It's not our fault the program is experiencing this theft. We have signs up [to discourage theft], we make casual statements, but again, they are very, very casual. You know, we have a business to protect here."

Applying the maxim that it is not what one makes but what he saves that makes him rich, [the Italian] manages to turn the very dirt of the streets into a hoard of gold.

-- Photographer Jacob Riis in his 1890 book How the Other Half Lives

At the turn of the century, Italians were the underprivileged ethnic minority in America that was locked out of wage jobs by limited English and rampant racial prejudice. According to Riis, prior to the wave of Italian immigrants, New York City paid scavengers to rake through its garbage and reduce the mass before it was dumped into the sea. But within years of the Italian arrivals ("He knows not only no word of English, but he does not know enough to learn," writes Riis), the new immigrants were so busy picking trash that the city made them pay a total of $80,000 for the right to scavenge.

In turn-of-the-century San Francisco, Italians ruled the trade, too. A man who owned a horse and cart -- and a gun to ward off claim jumpers -- could support his family on others' rubbish. They recycled everything, even selling the swill to hog farmers.

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