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.

"If it would be me I would go to court and say this is not right," interjects Jane. "But all they want is to live peacefully and go pick up cardboard to get outside money."

"I found the cardboard to pay the $76 ticket," laughs Ra, who appears to be in his 30s. "Then I stopped for a week."

Ra and his wife collect cardboard in shifts: He drives the truck four or five hours a day and then watches the kids while she goes out with a shopping cart, often tying cardboard onto her head and to her back when the cart is full. They earn between $50 and $100 a week for this work, says Ra. Because their kids are on AFDC, the earned income is illegal, which means if they're caught they could lose their government benefits. Is it worth it?

"Of course," Ra says laughing. "You make outside money."
The sentiment is universal on Mediterranean Avenue, where most of the scrappers view cardboard as their main hope of rising out of welfare.

"My mom-in-law used to tell me that I should work, go pick up cardboard with her, and maybe someday we'd buy a house or own a store or something like that," says Jane. "Yeah right! I'm going to go pick up cardboard!"

On Fillmore Street, 28-year-old Sey, another Cambodian hauler, sits by the window of his apartment, keeping an eye on his 1986 white Nissan pickup and its load of cardboard.

"Nobody'll steal it," Sey says, "because they know it's mine." Nonetheless, he's watching.

Sey's one-bedroom Victorian is decorated Cambodia style: The floor is covered with woven mats, the windows with bright red-and-green lace curtains; a red shrine with offerings of fruit leans against one wall. Near the ceiling hang portraits of family members and Asian pop stars. Incense burns thick and heavy. Sey's elderly mother sits cross-legged on her bed in the room while Sey's wife and two children slip in and out.

Sey regards his truck as the bridge to an "American" lifestyle.
"I decided I needed to do something with my life," he says, so four months ago he quit his job at United Parcel and enrolled in an auto mechanics program. That was when he bought the truck, replaced the transmission himself, and started building a cardboard collection route. (He asks that his last name not be used because it would embarrass his vocational school.)

Unlike Ra, Sey earns enough from his labors to support his family: About $50 for a daily four-hour shift. (The price of cardboard has fallen in recent weeks and now his daily take is more like $35.)

"I know all those people [on Mediterranean]," he laughs. "Any time they need help, they come to me." Sey, who endured torture and starvation at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, fled Cambodia at the age of 13 and learned English with ease. Most of Mediterranean Avenue's Cambodian residents were older when they left the mother country, so their language skills suffer. Even so, Sey got a ticket for "transporting cardboard," which is not yet against the law. The court dismissed the ticket.

Sey has parleyed his English into dollars by asking businesses like the Police Credit Union to hold their cardboard for him.

The earnings of a picker "depends on where they get their cardboard from," Sey says. "Whether they get it from the street or from a big company which will stack it up for you."

There are other secrets to the trade: One is to lay a rope on the bottom of the truck before depositing any cardboard. At the depot, Sey can hitch the rope to a pole and pull the whole load out at once.

"It's hard work, but it's better than working for somebody else. With this, nobody bosses you around. You can kick back and take your time."

"Taking your time" is relative. "There's a lot of competition," Sey says. "If you see a couple of boxes of cardboard and you don't have enough people to carry them, somebody else will come along and get them."

"It is messy and embarrassing," he says. "Sometimes when you are collecting cardboard, people spit in front of you. Like the day before yesterday, I saw two big boxes of cardboard and when I pulled up to them this guy leaned out of his window and said something to my little daughter. Then he said to me, 'You wanna piece of me?' 'No,' I said, 'I don't wanna piece of you. I wanna piece of cardboard.' "

Cardboard is hard to spot in the dark. Driving her mid-'80s Honda Prelude slowly down Cole Street, 37-year-old Cambodia-born Saroueun peers into the gloom and finally spies a haphazardly stacked pile outside a fruit stand.

"Cardboard!" she shouts to her 12-year-old son, Sophath, who is snoozing in the back seat.

Saroueun enters the shop and wins permission to take the boxes. She and Sophath break the fruit boxes down, kicking the sides to rip out the staples. Saroueun slides them neatly into the trunk and cruises off to Clement, Taraval, and West Portal.

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