Taproot Fiction Feature: Trash to Treasure

By: 

Alice K.

I am 68 years old, and a resident of Victoria. I imagine most people in Victoria would know me as one of the many old ladies who recycle. My days are always busy.

I wake up at 4 a.m. and prepare myself to go out. Soon I am on the road with my shopping cart, eyeing both sides to find cans and bottles. I wear long cleaning gloves over a pair of regular knit gloves. Arthritis set in my hands and knees shortly after I turned 60.

This is my favourite time of the day. It is pitch black, the air is crisp, the pavement is slick and clean. I feel like I have the whole city to myself. I push my cart in the middle of the road, stopping here and there to pick up a can or bottle.

When I first began bottling, I was so ashamed to be pushing a cart, of being seen by someone I knew from my “former life”. After the fifth or sixth time, it became freeing: this was my liberation from a lifetime of seeking family approval, of “doing the proper thing” as a girl, wife, and mother.

Christmas is a difficult time of year. I cannot help but remember my family's Christmases when my boys were little, the house decorated, the smell of turkey wafting through the house. With all our cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, we were all of us together. Those were the happiest times of my life. Christmas has now become just another day.

A soft violet-pink hue coats the streets, the trees and grass. I glance over my shoulder at the sunrise.  Lights in apartment windows, people are waking up. I stop at a few houses where people know me, and know my schedule. They kindly leave bags of bottles and cans for me, which I load into my cart. By now it is difficult to see over the top. Luckily, the Bottle Depot is down a slope to Douglas Street.

After I bring the bottles to the Depot, I walk home, this time uphill, and take a very long hot shower, to get rid of all the stickiness. After that, I walk downtown, find a spot with lots of foot traffic, place my hat before me on the sidewalk, and I ask passersby for change.

In my 40's and 50's, I used to clean two houses a day. I cannot clean houses every day anymore, due to my breathing problems and arthritis.

There are other older women like me who bottle. We nod to each other as we pass on the street. Sometimes we strike up a conversation. A few years back, one of them told me about the special turkey dinners at an inner-city drop-in centre. I didn't want to go there. I was too old and weak, and I was worried about the people who gathered there. When I went there, I did not know what to expect. There were lineups, loud people—some intoxicated. I didn't want to be there. I left without eating. I did not have much food at home. I cooked spicy noodles.

On the first day after I get my cheque, I can buy meat and vegetables, and a few containers of plain Balkan yogurt. Sometimes, I sneak into the “families only” dinners held once a week at my local community centre. My invisibility and age work to my advantage. I met a nice older couple there who were doing the same thing. As it was a family atmosphere, the volunteers kindly fed us even though we didn't have young children with us.

I started going to a daily lunch at a local women's shelter. The young ladies volunteering there are so respectful and kind to me, and the food is quite good, always home-made. The shelter has been a godsend to me when I have no coins for my laundry: I just bring my laundry there and have lunch with the ladies. There is one woman there who is even older than I am. I've grown quite fond of her. One day, this lady informed me there was a new knitting circle at the downtown drop-in place which had so frightened me long ago. She asked if I would join her. I decided to go, if only to socialize with my friend. I told myself, if I didn't like it, I would simply leave.

My friend introduced me to the ladies there. They looked up from their knitting and smiled at me, and introduced themselves. I was welcomed into a circle of multi-culturalism, wisdom, and acceptance. We were all over the age of 65, and all on the same socio-economic level. All over the table were purses, crochet and knitting needles, patterns, and knitting bags containing every imaginable colour of wool.

With time, these women have become my dear friends. I have come to look forward to our Sunday afternoon knit-ins. We take over two entire back tables. A band plays behind us, in the corner of the room. I feel accepted for who I am. I feel happy. Never in a million years could you have told me that I would find love and acceptance in this place. I would never have believed it. This is my family now.

Still, after the centre closes, we each go home to our individual lives, whether it is to a tent in a park, or if you're lucky like I am, an apartment. Mine is essentially a solitary life, but I have arranged it so that I don't have to be alone all the time. And I am immensely grateful every night that I have a warm safe place to sleep.

Every year at Christmas, I cannot help but remember having family and loved ones around me. Please, if you know someone like me, someone who is lonely, perhaps a family member you haven't spoken to in a while, invite them into your home at Christmas, make them some food, make their Christmas special.