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.

"You know, around here I'm so scared," she says as she drives down Haight and Sophath rides lookout. "When I see the people, I don't want to get out."

Last month, police wrote Saroueun a court summons for two counts of theft when she removed cardboard from the doorstep of a restaurant. She says the police made her unload the cardboard from her car and threatened her with arrest when she refused to sign the ticket.

"The police give me ticket, but I know I right," Saroueun says determinedly, and adds that she wanted to go to jail to prove her point that she was doing nothing wrong. What stopped her from volunteering for the handcuffs was that a friend was riding along, and Saroueun didn't want to inconvenience her.

Saroueun, who came to the states in 1984, has six children (ages 5 to 14) and a husband. The children survive on AFDC; the husband receives SSI because his was hit by a land mine back in Cambodia. It destroyed one of his lungs and embedded shrapnel in his brain.

She has scavenged cardboard for five years -- never touching the blue bins, she says -- and it has provided her family with its only outside earned income since her arrival. A week's work of cardboard free-lancing yields only $20 toward the grocery bill.

A few stores agree to set their cardboard aside for Saroueun, and she asks for permission to take cardboard at most places. But tonight on darkened Clement Street, she furtively yanks boxes from the curb and stuffs them into the trunk, checking over her shoulder for police.

After an hour's work, the trunk is full and she stops at a convenience store to ask if she can comb the dumpster. "Sure," says the manager, and he offers her boxes that haven't been discarded yet.

Sophath, who wears baggy gangsta jeans, all but disappears when he jumps into the dumpster emblazoned with a Sunset Scavenger logo. He happily hurls a trove of cardboard out onto the ground: flat pizza boxes, Snickers boxes, Frito-Lay boxes, two kinds of salami boxes, fresh tomato boxes, Charmin boxes, and a box that once contained cookies called International Delights. The heap is almost as tall as the car. The two quickly stuff the load in the back seat, leaving only enough room for Sophath to lie atop it in the fetal position. The night's work will yield $7, minus the $1.50 spent on 7UPs.

Back at Saroueun's apartment in a Hunters Point housing project, which is furnished with a collection of castoff furniture, the family debates whether Americans are fatter than Cambodians because of nature or nurture.

"Over there they had to hunt their food," observes Sarath, Saroueun's 14-year-old daughter, whose heart-shaped face seems much older than her years. "So they probably look a bit bony."

Sarath's younger brother sits on the floor wolfing a slice of microwave pizza.

At the end of July, Saroueun sold her Honda for $300 in hopes of buying a pickup to haul cardboard. But if she doesn't get that truck, she hopes for a job washing dishes or cleaning bathrooms. Never formally employed in the U.S., she has worked all of her life. In Cambodia, her father was a charcoal maker and she helped him cut, haul, and process logs as early as she can remember. When she reached the age of 9, her father indentured her to a Cambodian Chinese family that made her sew for seven years.

Daughter Sarath's dream is "to get a really good job and be able to support the people I live with without being on welfare." Sometimes she tells her family that she will be a lawyer and ride in a limousine. But she really wants to be a pediatrician or a nurse.

"The money thing is really hard," she says pensively.
Saroueun's husband can't gather cardboard because of his health, but he often begs his wife not to go.

"It's dangerous," he says. "You go too many hours and get not too much money, just [enough] to pay for gas." He pauses. "Picking up cardboard is more exercise and not too much money!"

At Saroueun's court date on the morning of July 28, she arrives at the Hall of Justice with an English-fluent Cambodian neighbor named Borin, who is accompanied by his wife and toddler. Borin helps feed his growing family by pier fishing in the bay.

Saroueun bites her lip in the elevator but says she is not nervous. No one is sure how much the fines for theft and petty theft will set her back. A court clerk estimates the petty theft fine at $50, but won't guess the fine for the other charge. The clerk directs Saroueun to the Bureau of Criminal Information, where she finds a bureaucratic maze of windows.

"Do we take a number or what?" says Borin.
Finally a police officer shows the Cambodians a list of names typed on adding machine paper and taped to a window. These are the cases that the DA's office decided not to pursue; Saroueun's name is on the list.

It takes a moment to register, and when it does, Saroueun is furious that she won't have her day in court to prove that she has done nothing wrong.

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