Canning way of life

An inside view of gathering recyclables to survive

The author, on a morning canning excursion in west Chico, checks bins for cans and bottles.

The author, on a morning canning excursion in west Chico, checks bins for cans and bottles.

PHOTOs by tom gascoyne

About the author:
Marilyn Fry is the pen name of a 68-year-old longtime Chico resident who collects recyclables to help supplement her monthly Social Security check.

I climb on the city bus, carrying my bags and possessions as part of the daily routine, which includes locating and collecting recyclables and cashing them in to help make ends meet.

After I sit down, the lady in the sideways seat starts giving me sidelong glares. She somehow resembles Garrison Keillor, except she has one of those walkers that have a seat and she’s hooked up to a portable oxygen tank. The man across the aisle in a wheelchair is giving me dirty looks, and a college-age student way in the back seems displeased, too.

The garbage bags I’ve tucked beneath my seat are crackling and tinkling embarrassingly, even though I have a leg pressed against one of them. An elderly Hispanic man doesn’t notice me at all. His head lolls on his shoulder while he gently snores.

The bus makes a sudden move and one of my bags topples. It’s the one carrying the aluminum cans, which rush out clanking and rolling in every direction.

A kid from the Work Training Center takes note: “You’ve lost your cans, ma’am!” he shouts, as if all the other passengers hadn’t already noticed.

“I know,” I mumble, mortified. “I’ll pick them up when I get off.”

“I’ll help you get ’em!” he cries.

I shudder as he lurches from his seat to dive for the cans. The driver barks, “Sit down!”

The kid acts as if he hasn’t heard the driver and is down on the floor, scrabbling around, grabbing my errant garbage and making more noise than I can emotionally tolerate. The cans have nestled in places where I could retrieve them only with my reach-extender, but the kid is rooting them out pretty efficiently, even while the driver yells at him.

I close my eyes and envision myself on a desert island, its sparkling white beach lapped by crystal turquoise waves and fringed with palm trees and lush foliage.

Welcome to the wonderful world of canning! This is not the kind of canning your dear old Aunt Prudence did when she harvested her one-acre garden and put that harvest into gleaming, sterile Mason jars that were then arranged neatly in her pantry.

This kind of canning is all about going out to look for things to recycle for money—specifically aluminum cans, plastic bottles and sometimes glass bottles, although the latter is difficult for most people to deal with.

Let me state this up front—I am not an addict. Three years ago this coming August, I realized that my budget no longer stretched to cover groceries. Thinking about alternate part-time employment, I ruled out prostitution and bank robbery, mostly because of ineptitude and illegality.

Joking aside, I’d been recycling my own empty cans and bottles for years and I was aware of scruffy guys swooping through our neighborhood (I live south of the Chico State campus), looking in people’s garbage cans. I’d never thought of doing it myself, but at a certain point it seemed a pretty good alternative to a life of crime.

The search for recyclables continues at various vacant lots.

photo by tom gascoyne

When I finally settled on this idea, I dreamed big. Maybe I’d pull myself out of poverty doing it! Maybe I’d make so much money I’d be able to buy new clothes! Maybe I could have more healthful meals! Maybe I could save up and buy a car!

Three years later, I’m still wearing the same clothes, more frayed than ever and stained as well. I occasionally can get healthful food if a chocolate doughnut or a can of Pringles doesn’t shout louder for my attention. I don’t think I’ll ever own a car. “Hand to mouth” has real meaning for me now. The most I’ve ever made at one time from canning is $40.

The reality of canning is that, if you want anything, even just a little money, you have to go out every day. The son of one of my neighbors used to go canning and, when he learned I was doing it, he gave me some helpful pointers such as: “You have to be consistent.”

That’s true, but when it’s pouring icy rain, or tar patches in the street are getting soft from the heat, or I’m just too hungry to think straight, I stay at home.

To accomplish the task of canning, you need what I think of as a “kit.” I prefer to be subtle, taking with me about a half-dozen reusable grocery bags that can be washed (until they shred completely), a backpack and the all-important reach-extender (sometimes called a Gopher). In fact, finally acquiring a reach-extender has nearly doubled my canning income.

Depending on your level of poverty, there are two types of reach-extender you can purchase. You can buy the cheaper variety at the Dollar Tree or the 99 Cent Only Store. These are small, lightweight, fragile and not good for much besides picking up cigarette butts and pecans that fall from the trees around my apartment house in autumn. They’re better than nothing, however.

Gophers are sturdier, but more expensive. I’ve gotten two: one at Target and one at Rite Aid, where they run around $12. There are other models at Collier Hardware, but they go for somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 or more.

My current one has a rifle-like trigger and pinchers with rubber suction cups that give it the ability to pick up a dime. It’s not suitable for heavy objects, though, such as a one-liter Smartwater bottle that’s three-quarters full. A Gopher’s best feature, as far as I’m concerned, is that it folds in half so I can conceal it in my backpack or hold it against my body. Without that discretion, it feels as though I might as well be shrieking, “Hey! Look! I’m canning! Diss me!”

Speaking of being dissed, I figured that would happen big-time as a canner. I thought mothers would shield their children as if poverty were as catching as the bubonic plague. I thought total strangers would glare at me with contempt. This has happened, but not quite in ways I expected.

When I was new to canning, I glanced into a trash can at Fifth and Broadway late one summer afternoon as a white pick-up truck approached the stop light. Observing my activity, the driver, a middle-aged man, leaned out his window and screamed an insult so foul that bystanders blanched and cast pitying glances in my direction.

The mother of all disses occurred in October 2010, while I was walking down a residential street just off The Esplanade. I’d just been to a doctor’s office and was very nicely dressed for the occasion in clean, stylish clothing that showed very little wear.

What I started out to do was to see fall colors in a residential area, but I wound up looking in people’s garbage cans instead. Stopping at one place where students obviously lived, I started bagging dozens and dozens of cans when a voice came from behind: “Hey! Get away from those cans! Get out of there!”

I turned to face a little old man wearing shorts that exposed his thin, bowed legs that were heavily embossed with varicose veins. “Are these your cans?” I inquired as politely as I could.

“No!” he growled. “Just get out of there! Go away! We don’t want your kind around here! Go back to where you came from!” Then, like a dog that’s only aggressive because it’s terrified, he turned and scooted up his front walkway to the safety of his porch.

What “kind” didn’t he and his neighbors want? The kind who has a master’s degree in English and American literature from Chico State? The kind who worked at more or less genteel clerical jobs until she was too disabled and then too old to be considered for any sort of employment? Where should I go? I was born in Fresno, but I lived there only the first two years of my life. I scarcely remember the place.

Fry got a cold reception from an employee at Chico Petroleum who accused her of making a mess while pulling cans and bottles out of the business’ Dumpster.


I’ve lived in Chico since 1956.

Before I started canning, I didn’t think I’d face the kind of prejudice and stereotyping I have. I assumed that, if I dressed neatly and took frequent showers and was polite and quiet, and didn’t draw attention to myself, I’d escape notice.

But many people presume I’m either an addict or mentally ill or both. In reality, the only addiction I have is to eating—preferably on a regular basis—and maybe to cats, since I have five currently. I rent an apartment, but people consistently assume I’m homeless.

I’ve even gotten flak while turning in my cans. Every recycling center has its informal rules; it depends on who’s running the place. One irascible gentleman will yell and stomp and throw things if you bring him stuff that’s “wet.” Bring him glass—even a small amount—and he’ll loudly announce, “Now you’ve really made my fuckin’ day!”

I walked a mile to his place one cold winter morning and he rolled in 15 minutes late. He looked the group of canners over with a snarky smirk on his hairy face and graciously remarked, “Same bunch of goddamn, fuckin’ losers!”

I had a raging headache and a sinus infection, but I managed to croak, “Feel the love.” Everybody laughed, including our detractor.

There are aspects of canning that are somewhat pleasant if the weather is clement. I arise in the morning, often looking forward to going out. What will I find? Where will I find it? Will there be a lot (yay!) or a little (boo!)? It’s like a grown-up Easter egg hunt year-round. What is that glittering in the sunlight in the weeds over there in the empty lot? Could it be? Yes, yes, it is! It’s a partially empty Budweiser can! My heart will almost skip a beat at my find.

For all the times I’ve been insulted, for all the times I’ve breathed the noxious fumes of mold, mildew and used tobacco and gotten sick, for all the times I’ve cut myself on broken glass, tripped and fallen into recycling cans when I’ve tipped them to reach for things at the bottom, developed ringworm and slopped tobacco juice all over myself, there have been rewards, sometimes great rewards.

This may shock you (it kind of surprises me), but I’ve made friends. Among others, there’s a gentleman around the corner from where I live who runs a car wash. He always greets me fondly and we chat whenever I pass by, although we argue about religion quite a bit.

One thing that shouldn’t have surprised me is the kindness and generosity of my fellow Chicoans. People give me money. I don’t beg. Sometimes I borrow, but I never beg.

The first time someone offered me money, I was downtown rooting around in a trash can in front of a boutique. I sensed a presence and looked up to see three George Washingtons staring back at me. Then I glanced at the person holding the bills. He was dressed country-western style with a white cowboy hat and a fancy belt buckle.

“Oh, I can’t take your money,” I told him. “You should give it to someone who needs it more than I do.” He looked sort of deflated when I said that. So I took the money and ever since I’ve accepted it when offered, hesitating just long enough to be polite and not seem greedy.

Some people give me money because they think I’m helping save the environment. I hate to tell them that I’m not that altruistic. I am embarrassed when I’m offered money. I try to avoid situations where people might be tempted to “gift” me. I do think there are others needier, who can’t work at all.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think my life is altogether grim and cheerless. I have friends, I have family and I have my kitties to cuddle with. I love my neighborhood and the people around me.

For entertainment, I see Chico Performances for free since I volunteer hanging posters, and I have the Internet and my radio and NPR for information and more entertainment. I have a nice apartment that’s fairly spacious and well-appointed; we even have a laundry room.

My life, by American standards, is hard, but it’s not like living in a refugee camp to escape from an earth-scorching war. I will reluctantly accept your money, but I’d rather have your friendship. I don’t want your pity or contempt, because I don’t think I deserve either.