Everybody loves bulky trash day, the one day of the year you can set your busted water heater or hideous shag carpet out on the curb and the city magically makes it go away. For those with raccoonlike garbage-sifting tendencies, the night before is a free-for-all treasure hunt. Artists look for materials. Neighbors seek freebies. Street-level recyclers scavenge cardboard, metal, or glass to trade for cash. Semipro "rooters" dig for stuff to resell. Students, the homeless, and other low-income folks search for life's little necessities. They all love bulky trash day. You might even say it's being loved to death.
And that's a real problem for people like John Ryan. During the months when it's not raining, he can be found tooling around Contra Costa County in his white Isuzu truck, cheerfully chucking bags in the back. But unlike most junk pickers, Ryan is on an official mission: He works for Pacific Rim Recycling, which collaborates with the Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority and the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse in a charitable donations program that gives new life to old junk. Residents are asked to set out reusable items such as clothing, books, and furniture on the curb a day before the trash trucks come for the big stuff, and Pacific Rim takes what it thinks can be reused. The next day, the garbage guys haul away the dregs.
Ryan is wiry, quick, and tan from working outdoors. "I love doing this," he beams, popping in and out of the rear of his truck with armfuls of donations. "I get paid to go to the gym. Let's put it this way: I fill up one of these trucks, it's right about five thousand pounds. I lift it twice -- putting it in and taking it out. That's ten thousand pounds I lifted up in an eight-hour day."
The truckloads add up: Last year Pacific Rim collected 446 tons of stuff that, instead of being shipped to a landfill, helped sustain the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse and a half-dozen other charitable causes.
Ryan's job is like the most complicated game of Tetris ever, which compels him to meticulously wedge unwieldy, bizarrely shaped objects into the limited space of his truck. Hefty bags of clothes? No prob. Overstuffed armchair? A challenge, perhaps. Giant hole-riddled kiddie pool in the shape of a green turtle? He slaps that one with a yellow sticker, condemning it to the landfill.
The weirdest thing Ryan ever found on his rounds was an unexploded mortar. Other contenders: silicone breast implants, dialysis machines, and sex toys. Here in CoCo County, he snaps up the castoffs of the affluent: DVD players, golf clubs, set after set of skis. Today, as he makes his Orinda rounds, he picks up an espresso machine, a stained-glass lamp, a leather briefcase, and too many hard drives and mountain bikes to count. It's silent testimony to both the generosity of the town's residents and their consumerism, since most of this stuff was likely tossed to make space for something new.
Ryan views his job with an anthropological eye. "You can tell anything you want to know about a person by looking through their garbage," he says. He knows what residents along his route read (in Orinda, wine and travel magazines, and endless copies of National Geographic). He knows when they give up a hobby (witness the four sets of golf clubs neatly stacked along the curb). He knows when someone dies, or when someone moves. He can guess how many kids a family has, and whether they've recently gone off to college. He eyes one donation -- a bag of relatively new-looking games and stuffed animals. "To me it looks like a little girl did not clean her room, so mommy and daddy did it for her," he says wryly.
He knows how hard it is for some people to part with battered belongings, and how their family members often resort to force or subterfuge. "I've had a couple little kids crying on the side of the road because mommy's getting rid of their bike," Ryan says. "I've got a lot of wives going, 'I'm glad you're here, my husband's not home from work yet and I'm getting rid of his favorite chair.'" A few houses later, Ryan notices a woman watching him from the driveway, a cell phone clamped to her ear. She has a rug she's dying to throw out, but her son has begged her to save it for his dorm room. She's calling to give him one last chance to pick it up, but he isn't answering.
"You know what?" she says mischievously. "Just take it."
Ryan shrugs good-naturedly: "That's what he gets for not answering his phone."
People have a tendency to confess to the recycling guy. They want to tell Ryan how they got the items, or why they're getting rid of them. Mostly they just want to explain -- guiltily -- how they ended up with so much stuff. Twice already today, people have zoomed out of their houses to justify particularly massive piles by saying that they're moving. They often thank him apologetically. Ryan understands. "Do you ever sit down and spill all your problems to a bartender?" he asks. "Why? It's a stranger. You won't be judged on what you say because this person doesn't know you. That's the way I look at it."
Ryan is upbeat even on days when the sun is hot and the trash piles are mountainous and full of pointy or odd-sized stuff. Even when his truck begins spewing a wicked black smoke on uphill climbs and he has to stop and baby it with several quarts of transmission fluid, he remains cheerful.
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