Saturday, November 15, 2008

Technology is depriving kids of ... horrible smells?

When I was younger, we didn't get an allowance. There were 5 kids, and if we needed money for something, we'd ask and take our chances on the answer. The money I had was mostly presents - Christmas or my birthday, a dollar from a visiting great uncle or whatever Nana passed out at report card time, that kind of thing - and I tended to be a saver, so it mostly all went - clink and cram - into a piggy bank: first a Funshine Bear, and later on a purple Opus. But there was one way that my brother and I could actually earn money, and that was by taking the cans and bottles back to the recycling center.

Back in the late 80's early 90's, recycling was a pretty new idea. At the very least, it was new to me, and newly popular in our area. It hadn't yet blown up to the degree that it has now though: I had never seen a recycling bin, and probably wouldn't for another 5 years or so, and there was only one bottle and can redemption center in our town. Luckily it was pretty close to our house, down one big hill on a street parallel to ours, about 3 blocks over. (Everything in our city is either up or down at least one big hill. Our city was once called the "Rome of Massachusetts" because it was founded on 7 hills. Inane trivia, meet the internets. Internets; inane trivia.)

At the time, we were mostly 2-liter bottle drinkers (soda in cans was beyond our price range then), so we'd lug humongous garbage bags filled with empty plastic bottles and smaller bags with whatever beer or wine cooler leftovers my parents had from our house down to the center. I don't know who did the job in the winter time - probably my mom, while we were at school - but all spring, summer and fall, every couple of weeks my brother and I would trudge down the hill with at least 5 of these gigantic bags, praying that one wouldn't bust open and lose its cargo or (as the years went on) that none of our friends would be outside to see us.

You couldn't do the job yourself: why we never thought to make more frequent trips so there'd be less to exchange, I don't know, but by the time we got around to it, it was always a two man job. The bags were light, but unwieldy: You couldn't just drag it along behind you (ahem, some of us know this from experience), because it would snag on rocks and cracks in the sidewalk and eventually spill open and cause a commotion... the 15 extra minutes it added to your trip as you chased after every last rolling bottle was never worth it. Especially with your big brother standing there impatiently, or, even worse, sitting on the curbside laughing as you "play in traffic:" I might have been thankful that the walk was downhill with all the bottles safely ensconced inside a bag, but once they were let loose, I could only curse our path. I would spend most of the walk trying to negotiate with the bags, the sign poles, other pedestrians and my feet - the only time I was graceful as a child was when I was dancing.(It's the reason they started me in dancing in the first place, but unfortunately, that ease of movement just didn't carry over into other aspects of my life.)

I know we did it for months every year, so I'm sure it must have been cooler some times more than others, but I always remember it as being hot. And humid. So that, by the time we'd finally get to the center, my face would be that nice red it adopted whenever I was outside &/or exerting myself, and people passing by most likely thought that I was lugging bricks instead of empty plastic bottles. The thing I remember most of all though, from all of those trips, is the smell.

The smell of old beer, and tonic gone past sweet to cloying.
Of heaps of plastic sitting, baking.
The redemption center was just a large warehouse, and it smelled like every basement I've ever been in, only ten times worse.
Just moldy and yeasty and dank.

It was always dark, even in the middle of the day with the cargo door wide open. The walls were made of tin, so that when one of the soda bottles would roll off of its pile, it would 'ping!' before hitting the ground. And you could hear all the bottles clanking together as workers shifted them off the tables and into bins.

When we went in they'd have cafeteria tables set up for you to put your stuff on: it was up to you to take each bottle out, line them up in rows and wait for the guy to come around and count them. This was my major contribution, since Only/Older Brother usually carried about 3 times as many bags as I did.

I'd take each tacky bottle out of the bag, and line them up in rows of 5, usually getting about 50 on a table. It wasn't required that these rows be need, but I mostly couldn't help it - even though I wanted to get out as quickly as possible, if I was putting them in a line, they needed to be in a straight one. My brother would roll his eyes if he saw me fixing the ones that were already on the table, so I had to try (discreetly) and get it right the first time, which made it seem an onerous task.

By the time I was finished, my hands would be sweaty and sticky, and I almost always wound up pulling at least one bottle with that last little drop in it out of the bag upside down and getting watered-down soda on some part of my body. My shoes would be gummed to the cement floor, and I'd wait for the money man, trying to edge closer to the open door to grab some fresh air.

The guy who ran the place would eventually heft himself out of his folding lawn chair and make his way over to our table, lit cigar in his mouth. Or there'd be a kid - maybe 16, 17 - who'd wander over from the piles and count our load out loud. Either way, we were never short changed, and the money would go from his sticky hand to my sticky hand - insane totals like $4.35 or $11.80 - and I would carefully split the take in two and give my brother his half (extra nickel going to the person who'd guessed closest to our actual take). Then I could escape outside again, into the bright sunlight and away from that smell. My brother would head off for who knows where and I'd go back home to shower the stickiness and stink away.

Which is all to say that today I waited in the car while my parents ran into the liquor store. We were parked close to the door, and when it opened, that same smell came out and I thought "Who'd drink anything that smells as bad before you drink it as it does rotting away afterwards?" And also? I saw these machines that just eat up your old bottles and count them up for you, which I knew they had, because Mum does them every couple of weeks now, but still. Whatever, technology.

(please pardon the glare, since I was in the car.)

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