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.

Dusk falls on Fourth Avenue in the Richmond District as Officer Lewis Bronfeld of the San Francisco Police Department's Burglary Detail cruises the area in an unmarked squad car. Bronfeld slows the vehicle as he and his partner, Officer John Cleary, squint at a double-parked 1981 Toyota pickup with a camper shell on the back.

"This one here, this could be it," Bronfeld says to Cleary. A shadowy figure with a ponytail runs toward the truck hefting a box on her shoulder.

"Bingo!" shouts Bronfeld, and for two seconds the scene turns NYPD Blue as Bronfeld does a U-turn and roars back toward the truck, his beams on high. The young woman, a Latina, freezes in the glare. Behind her in the truck cab sits a 40-ish Latino.

"Police!" says Cleary, stepping out of the car and waving his badge at the pair.

Bronfeld joins Cleary.
"Do you have any ID?" Bronfeld asks them. "Do you speak English?"
He opens the truck bed's rickety hatch to find another young Latina, eyes glassy with fright, sitting amid the booty.

"Buenas noches," Bronfeld says as he surveys the cache of 50-some shopping bags stuffed with discarded newspaper, piled neatly as bricks. A short older woman in long peasant clothes emerges from behind a car.

"Yeah, we'll be here awhile," Bronfeld says as he busts the newspaper thieves.

Yes, newspaper thieves.
The cans, bottles, newsprint, and cardboard stacked at city curbs were once considered just garbage. But no more. During the last 15 years, a free-lance industry on wheels has established itself to cash in on trash. First there was the "Mosquito Fleet," so dubbed by the refuse industry because they're so pesky, who piloted pickup trucks to gather recyclables. Later came marching armies of scavengers, wielding nothing more than shopping carts. The renegade recyclers come from all walks of life, but currently most of them are Cambodia immigrants, the homeless, or impoverished Latinos.

The rise of the renegade recyclers -- estimated at 300 pickups and hundreds of shopping carts -- parallels both the advent of mandated curbside recycling and eight months of escalating prices for scrap paper and aluminum (not to mention the homeless-hostile Matrix program). As recently as May 1994, some recycling programs were paying scrap dealers $5 per ton to take old newspapers off their hands. Today, scrap newspaper commands between $75 and $130 per ton. Scrap corrugated cardboard, which went for $20 to $75 per ton last May on the West Coast (where prices are higher), sold for $140 to $160 per ton in May 1995.

"Paper has seen a tremendous spike in the past year," says Amy Snell, editor of the trade journal Recycling Market. "It's a combination of new mills coming on-line that require recycled tonnage and consumer demand for recycled paper products."

Other recyclables have increased in value, too: The scrap value of HDPE, the plastic from which milk jugs are made, has risen from 5 cents per pound last year to 22 cents per pound. Aluminum cans have almost doubled in price and now fetch as much as 50 cents per pound.

All of which has made your blue recycling bin glitter like gold. Recycling theft has broken out across the continent -- from Los Angeles to New York, from Toronto to Houston -- and city recycling officials are scrambling to stop it. Recyclable aluminum cans and paper that have real cash value have historically subsidized the recycling of valueless tin cans, which means that the wholesale pilfering of the good stuff indicates that the city programs end up recycling little more than ... trash.

According to David Assmann of the city Recycling Office, San Franciscans are enthusiastic about S.F.'s recycling. A whopping 84 percent of the population recycles about 18.1 pounds of material per week (94 percent of college graduates recycle, but only 76 percent of high school grads). The potential value of all of San Francisco's recyclables is $19 million, of which the official haulers recover about $9 million. Assmann estimates that the scavengers collect $2.3 million worth of trash. (The remainder of the recyclable trash is mixed in with the garbage and cannot be recycled.)

The city's garbage guerrillas prowl the streets by night, pushing shopping carts and driving ramshackle trucks, filching the newspapers and cans set at the curb for the official recyclers. They dumpster-dive during the day for precious cardboard in SOMA, and beg small businesses for permission to take empty boxes. You turn away as they rummage waste receptacles in the Financial District hunting for a discarded soda can.

Their numbers have grown to the point, says Ed Dunn of the nonprofit S.F. Community Recycling, that "effectively the city has two recycling systems."

One is legal and the other very much against the law. And the competition for curbside trash is so intense that San Francisco recycling officials are now aiming their big guns at the tiny mosquitoes.

Bronfeld and Cleary issue two $76 public health citations for scavenging from recycling bins. One goes to the 40-ish man, who is culpable as the driver. He, it turns out, is the father of this family of Guatemalan refugees. One of his daughters gets a citation for hefting the blue bin. The other daughter, inside the truck, receives only admonishments because she didn't touch the blue bins. The mother draws a bye.

The father is driving with a suspended license, so he is written a traffic citation and his truck is ordered towed. Bronfeld estimates that the fines will total about $1,000 by the time the family retrieves their car and leaves court.

To document the crime scene, Bronfeld poses the father in back of the battered Toyota, its hatch up to show the goods, and snaps a Polaroid. Cleary pokes at the roughly 700 pounds of newspapers, worth about $30 at the recycling depot.

"See, he's got quite an operation here," says Cleary. "Is it easy? He just drives along and picks it up!"

"In a way I feel bad for him," confides Bronfeld as he fills out paperwork on the hood of the police car. "He's unemployed, and I don't know where he's gonna get the money. It's not gonna be pretty."

Bronfeld is right. The family speaks no English and is poor among the poor.
A patrol car arrives carrying a Spanish-speaking officer who explains the citations to the family, and then gives them a ride home to the Mission. Bronfeld and Cleary head back to the station to complete the evening's paperwork. Meanwhile, the Mosquito Fleet buzzes through the mean streets.

Payroll for the SFPD's burglary detail's once-a-week, four-hour overtime shift is covered with a $125,000 grant from the proceeds from the city's recycling program. (Beat cops have also been writing tickets.) Three months into the enforcement program, the special details have issued 122 $76 public health citations and towed nine vehicles. In the course of their garbage dragnet, they've also arrested eight people for other offenses. The police keep a mug file of those Polaroids -- most of the subjects are Asian and Latino, posing stiffly beside their trucks. Although recycling authorities say the program is supposed to target fast-moving truckers who rob from the blue bins, one photo shows an African-American man beside a shopping cart, another an elderly Asian man with a plastic bag.

San Francisco's recycling program is mandated by a 1989 state law that requires California cities to divert 50 percent of all solid waste from landfills by the year 2000. Unlike New York, where citizens are required to recycle by separating paper and bottles, the program is voluntary in San Francisco.

The program is funded by the monthly garbage bills paid by property owners and, to a lesser extent, the sale of the recyclables. Sunset Scavenger, a subsidiary of the Norcal trash conglomerate, is enjoying the fifth year of a seven-year, no-bid contract to collect and haul recyclables to West Coast Recycling. West Coast is another Norcal subsidiary, and it processes the recycled materials.

Because Norcal already holds a monopoly on residential -- and most commercial and municipal -- trash collection in the city, veteran recycling activists like Ed Dunn interpret the police crackdown as another example of Norcal's efforts to maintain an absolute monopoly over San Francisco trash. The police, viewing the conflict through the lens of the legal code, treat the Mosquito Fleet as simple thieves.

Bob Besso got into recycling back in 1973, when he left the Air Force, first working at nonprofit recycling centers. Today he is program manager for Sunset Scavenger's recycling division.

"Part of my whole life was to bring recycling to the point where it was part of the mainstream of our society and part of everyday life," he says, driving a company station wagon around the Richmond.

Besso is famous within the company for his midnight drives in search of scavengers. For years he's gone out alone on his scavenger hunt, with a video camera and a cellular phone, to hunt for the culprits who steal from his blue boxes. He keeps a whole scrapbook of perpetrators in his office.

"I have fought and kicked to get into a position where now I feel like I'm getting something accomplished, and I'm having this program essentially dismembered by thieves," he says.

It's a lonely life, though, all this driving around and hiding behind walls with his lights off.

"My girlfriend's given up on me. A lot of people at work actually have, too," he says. Sometimes, when he confronts a thief with one of his Xeroxed copies of a police memo stating that taking from blue bins is illegal, he fears for his life. Is recycling worth dying for?

"Yes," he says.
Although Basso admits that the recycling program isn't imperiled by theft, he worries that scavengers will drive off some citizen recyclers. To make his point, he offers this letter from a customer:

"Gentlemen: Just a little note, it is indeed very frustrating having to place recyclable items in the box for you to pick up and have some bum pick them up before you do." Besso says his office gets as many as 40 complaints a day, although the city's 1993 recycling survey failed to find a single individual who had quit recycling because of scavengers.

And so he continues his mournful rounds, every once in a while jerking the car to a halt and staring into a blue bin, only to find a bit of a purple egg carton and a steel can that once contained chicken broth.

"I just take it personally," he comments.
He says there is only one way to stop the scavengers.
"I don't want to sound like a monger or something, but if a citation is issued I would like to see that the citation is turned over to the IRS and the INS. I think that would really put the breaks on it."

West Coast Recycling, the city's largest buyback center, is located at 17th and Rhode Island at the foot of Potrero Hill. The corrugated-steel depot sits like a wart among the chichi warehouses in a basin that stretches west through the Mission to the Castro, north through SOMA to the Embarcadero, and via Third Street out to Bayview.

As the center prepares to open at 7 a.m., streams of shopping carts, bicycles, and battered trucks -- all laden with recyclables -- approach the depot like iron filings tugged toward a magnet.

The first arrival is an African-American man toting a large plastic janitor's bin. Next is an Asian guy carrying a pole yoked over his shoulders, two bags of crushed cans dangling from each end. A white guy speeds in on an old bicycle ferrying milk crates filled with cans, while a group of Latinos approaches slowly pushing shopping carts wobbling under their loads. An elderly Asian woman pulls a small cart filled with cans behind her. All disappear into the gloom of the building.

One by one, the trucks of the Mosquito Fleet enter the weighing station. Some trash-pickers have neatly refitted their truck beds with wooden sides, complete with ladders and elaborate rope riggings. Others have merely slapped two sheets of plywood to the sides of the truck to corral the piles of contraband cardboard. A few Sunset Scavenger recycling trucks, even a Volvo station wagon, wait in a line that stretches around the corner. A church group serves coffee on the corner until 7:30.

As the morning progresses, a shiny white truck labeled Protector Shopping Cart Services arrives to retrieve the stolen Safeway carts. As the Protector employee struggles to anchor all nine of the carts in the back of the pickup, a raffish white fellow dressed in a black stocking cap, red shirt, and khaki pants secured with rope exits the depot. Dragging a convoy of three Safeway carts behind him, he waves at the cart collector, then gives a radiant smile.

He's "Bill Doe," a 44-year-old junk-picker.
Watching the latecoming Mosquito Fleeters from curbside -- "The wretched cart people," Bill calls them -- he offers his commentary on the unfolding scene.

Irksome to Bill are three white guys in Road Warrior costume pushing two shopping carts filled to the rims with cans and bottles.

"Shopping carts with no bags," Bill says. "That's just so illogical."
The cargo of a shopping cart topped off with cans and bottles is worth about $5 at West Coast Recycling, Bill says. The way to make real money is the way he does: tie 25 heavy-duty plastic bags to a cart. Bill boasts that he is one of the few recyclers who can make $50 in a night's work -- and he offers the receipt to prove it.

The state sets rates for the buyback of cans that centers must either meet or exceed. Glass is redeemed at 5 cents per pound; the current state rate for aluminum cans is 2.5 cents per can or 68.25 cents per pound. Some centers, like West Coast, add a percentage of the scrap value to the redemption value of aluminum cans, bringing the total to 85 cents per pound.

A tattooed urban primitive with an obvious drug problem staggers toward the door clutching a small bag of cans.

"Pathetic," says Bill, who doesn't drink. "Most of these guys are unfocused and have no goals."

Talking about his work outside West Coast on another day, Bill offers the self-assessment that he is lazy. Aside him are two wired-together shopping carts, festooned with no less than 27 sacks of sorted recyclables. It took Bill 11 hours to gather this load from the hilly curbs of Bernal Heights three miles away, but he's still full of self-reproach, even though it's worth $46.

"I just don't go at it like I should."
Bill says he grew up in Ohio, spent part of his adolescence in a mental ward, and entered the Marine Corps in the late '60s. After he received an honorable discharge in 1972, he bounced around doing jobs from telephone operator to short-order cook. In 1989, he moved to San Francisco for the literary life.

"I wrote science fiction," he explains, "just to bring clarity to situations."

He ended up homeless shortly after he got here -- "I just couldn't get it together" -- and has been scavenging for the past three years. "It's almost oxymoronic," he says, "picking through garbage cans for a living. How do you call it a life?"

Now he sleeps each night under an awning near West Coast, stashing a color TV and a flight bag in the weeds.

"When you live outside, every single place you sit down you have to pay," he says. "There's no sense of privacy except in the bathroom."

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.

By the beginning of World War I, the streets of San Francisco were so crowded with independent haulers (the city still had no formal garbage collection) that no one was making any money. To deter new entries into the trade, the free-lance garbage men formed refuse associations that made each man an owner in the garbage collection company. "This corporation must protect itself against competition and from degenerating into drones of useless shareholders," read the bylaws of Sunset Scavenger.

Sunset Scavenger, one of the early refuse associations, incorporated in 1920. SPA, later renamed Golden Gate, incorporated shortly after. In 1932, after much strife over garbage routes, the city was home to 36 garbage companies that competed to provide service to 97 collection districts.

The trash haulers amassed immense political power along with the trash, and two of them, SPA and Sunset, flexed their power in 1932 -- and secured a lock on residential garbage pickup -- when the city charter was rewritten. The charter bestowed upon the 36 established haulers monopoly rights to 97 collection districts to haul residential trash.

"By 1935 only SPA and Sunset remained in the formal competition and Sunset bought the last operating company, Mission Scavenger in 1939. From then on Sunset and SPA divided up the city into two more or less unified areas. The cooperatives had taken over," writes Stewart E. Perry in his 1978 book San Francisco Scavengers. (The consolidation of the business was completed in 1987, when Golden Gate and Sunset were merged into Norcal.)

Scandal plagued the operation in the '30s, as witnessed by these Chronicle headlines between 1932 and 1935 -- "Collection Racketeering," "Garbage Collection 'War' " -- and this one from 1937: "Collection Monopoly of Sunset Scavenger Protested." And the rancor over the monopoly continues: A 1993 suit against the city by independent hauler WRT failed to break Norcal's grip, and in the last elections, voters defeated Proposition K, which would have opened up the city to other haulers.

"This is the oldest battle in San Francisco, and it's not over yet," says Deputy City Attorney John Cooper.

While the law is excruciatingly specific about who can haul trash and the illegality of pinching recyclables from blue bins, it is vague about another Mosquito Fleet commodity: cardboard.

Cardboard occupies "a gray area in the law," as Assistant DA Candace Heisler puts it, as long as the cardboard isn't torn to regulation size and deposited in a blue bin. The 1990 anti-scavenging section of the public health code states that "the city and its duly authorized collectors have the exclusive right to collect recyclable materials placed for collection in public sidewalk and street areas."

But whether cardboard on the sidewalk has been abandoned or has been deposited for the city's authorized recyclers is a matter of interpretation. If the intent of the person who unloads his cardboard is to recycle, then taking it from the curbside on recycling day appears to be illegal. But if the gatherer has secured permission for the 'board, then it is a simple transfer of a property right.

Norcal has several trucks that pick up cardboard from businesses for free. Norcal considers this a "service": Bob Besso estimates that between wages and machinery it costs Norcal $150 per ton just to pick it up. Compare that to the Mosquito Fleet, who pick up the cardboard and bring it to the depot, selling it for only $100 to $120 per ton.

Even so, the ambiguity of the law and its enforcement has resulted in a number of $76 citations from the Police Department to cardboard gatherers -- some of them denizens of "Mediterranean" Avenue.

Mediterranean Avenue (its name changed here to protect its residents) is a narrow one-way street of decrepit three-story houses. It's the kind of low-rent place where every door is grilled and spiked with metal but half of the door locks are broken. A dozen kids speaking three languages -- Spanish, Cambodian, and English -- play in the street. "Fuck you," shouts a 3-year-old girl wearing a secondhand prairie dress.

A group of kids romps in the bed of a Mosquito Fleet truck, one of five on the street, stomping aluminum cans vigorously. Four of the avenue's truck owners are Cambodian: Ra, a boyish-looking man who is married with seven young children on AFDC; a 60-year-old man who mails money back to his children in Cambodia;, a middle-aged couple; and a fourth man who makes himself inconspicuous. The fifth scavenger is a grizzled Latino who approaches his work philosophically.

"You got no job, what you gonna do?" he says. "You gonna have to steal? You'd better pick up cardboard on the street."

The Cambodian recyclers employ their countrymen who live on the block. Few speak English, so translation is provided by Jane, a 22-year-old doughnut shop employee who is related to the middle-aged couple. She confides that many of the women receive SSI benefits for mental problems.

Ra, one of the more experienced of the cardboard haulers, recounts the story about getting a $76 ticket from a plainclothes officer while heisting cardboard from the curb on Geary Street. An English-speaking Cambodian who accompanied Ra to court wanted to fight the ticket, but Ra declined.

"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.

"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.

The salad days may be drawing to a close for the Mosquito Fleet, even though the market for recyclables remains robust. Jerry Powell, editor of Resource Recycling, predicts prices for recyclables will stay high through the next decade, driven by lack of tree fiber, consumer demand for recycled products, and a radical shift in the role of recycling.

"It used to be people in Volvos [who recycled]," says Powell. "Now Charlie Six-Pack in his pickup is recycling, too. Recycling is now a legitimate industrial supply mechanism rather than a political strategy."

But the market for recyclables is extremely cyclical. The prices for newsprint are now falling from their all-time highs, as are cardboard prices. Previously, cardboard soared 400 percent to nearly $200 a ton, but prices are now slipping below $100 a ton. The drop is so precipitous that many scavengers no longer go out every night.

Meanwhile, the city is stepping up its enforcement program. Both the San Francisco Police Department and the city's Recycling Program are talking with the DA's office about increasing the penalty for taking recyclables from a public health code violation to a criminal theft charge. Meanwhile the Recycling Program has commenced a campaign aimed at getting citizens to call the police on scavengers.

At the state level, the Department of Conservation has announced a grant program for cities taking anti-scavenging measures. And there are some plans afoot to prevent buyback centers from accepting recyclables from people using stolen shopping carts. Also, an April letter from Oakland's acting recycling supervisor asks the Department of Conservation to rethink AB2020, the "Bottle Bill," and "dramatically" reduce the redemption rates for cans and bottles.

The crackdown isn't a grass-roots thing: A 1993 poll for the San Francisco Recycling Program showed that only 3 percent of San Franciscans support ticketing to scavengers. Some of the charges aren't even sticking. The Municipal Court dismissed not only the charges against Saroueun, but Sey as well.

That's not much to show for a program whose $125,000 price tag makes it one of the most expensive enforcement programs in the nation, according to Jerry Powell. In L.A., according to wire service reports, city officials budgeted just $15,000 for police overtime. And they got results: Every month $8,000 worth of newspapers are not stolen from their program.

Bill Doe has already sensed the shift in the winds: He's just checked into a Matrix hotel room.

He made the decision on the spur of the moment when the Matrix van with its pair of social workers appeared at the corner of 15th and Carolina, not far from the West Coast Recycling depot.

"They got me a little program," he says wearily. "I don't like being manipulated, but after all, we're just street people and we're lucky to get any damn thing."

He fears the worst is yet to come.
"If Jordan is re-elected, they're really gonna come down on us," he muses. "Overnight they'll take the carts away."

He's standing outside West Coast Recycling with his two carts, waiting for the door to open. At his feet he has gathered a 5-pound jar of peanut butter, a pair of women's shoes, two telephones, and a frying pan.

Three weeks ago, he told of his decision to get off General Assistance (GA) and pick through the recycling.

"I didn't want to be a slug or a vegetable or a GA person," he said then.
Now he looks at his carts with an air of defeat.
"I have these grandiose plans that never work out.

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