How I learned to drop the shame of picking up cans

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I didn’t grow up wealthy. I was raised by blue collar parents in a rural village outside of a small, working-class city in upstate New York. Regardless, kids would still pick on each other about social class. There was an especially mean line, which went something like this:

“I saw your mom kicking a can down the road last night. She said it was for dinner.”

I was 8 or 9 the first time I heard this. 20 years later, I haven’t forgotten about how this made me feel — even when it wasn’t specifically directed at me. I felt shamed because I would remember days when my father and I would drive around on a Saturday to collect cans. We’d use the money toward trivial things like sodas, candy or maybe a movie ticket or a Hot Wheels toy. It was always for something good, something we shared. Still, there was this image of other kids pointing, laughing, and judging.

The past few weeks have reminded me of these times from my childhood. It’s Tuesday night, which means the garbage goes out to the street. Today, my cans and bottles go to the side of the road. And from evening to dawn, people visit the streets, rummaging through recycle bins and waste baskets to collect what deposits they can find.

On one particularly cold morning, a man stood next to my car with a plastic bag in hand, his breath visible in the frigid, crisp air.

When confronted with this situation on previous occasions I might have avoided contact, maybe glanced downwards or simply tried to slip unnoticed into my car. This time, however, I said “good morning.” The man replied with a grin, “Yes it is. Spring is right around the corner.” It was the middle of March (little did we know that several bitter weeks still lay ahead).

I don’t know why he was collecting cans. Perhaps it was for dinner like that terrible kid’s joke goes. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t really matter. It’s none of my business.

For me, this moment sheds light on the shadows from childhood memories of picking up empty cans. It teaches me to refrain from judgment — even of myself. It demonstrates how I never really know someone’s entire circumstances or experiences. Most of all, it reminds me of all the good that came from days when my dad and I would drive around getting cans off the side of the road. Come to think of it, these days were always sunny. No one ever stopped to say “good afternoon.” In hindsight, if someone had, I would have replied, “Yes it is.” And just like this year’s long awaited spring following the harsh winter, good things for me were right around the corner.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Loved reading this, David. That last bit at the end is beautifully written.

    1. Thank you Kaleigh. I appreciate the kind words.

    1. Ryan — thank you for reading. Stay well.

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