Souma is perched on the edge of a giant blue Dumpster, smashing away at a huge mound of clear glass bottles. He uses a silver-headed hammer with a thin handle--it's at least five feet long--and each time he brings it down there is a sound of glass shattering, of endless numbers of bottles shifting and rolling, temporarily settling into a new pattern before he swings the hammer again. He wears Plexiglas goggles that shield his eyes from the spray of glass that jumps through the air each time the hammer comes down. Souma is manager of the Uptown Recycling Station, on North Sheridan.
The recycling center is in a concrete lot, squeezed between two short brick buildings. Besides a pair of open-topped Dumpsters-- one of which Souma is sitting on--there are three other enclosed, boxlike steel receptacles containing newspapers, cans, and other recyclable materials. Scattered throughout the lot are squat yellow barrels, overflowing with bottles and cans.
Souma has been here five and a half years, since the center opened. "I come here from Laos, to escape the communists," he says. "When I first come in 1980, Uptown real bad neighborhood--paper everywhere, and broken glass." He scratches his leg through his navy blue jumpsuit, adjusts his brown corduroy cap. "Now Uptown much cleaner." The skin around his eyes crinkles as he smiles warmly through his goggles.
A steady procession of people flows in and out of the center, many of them bearing bags and shopping carts filled with aluminum cans. The air is permeated with the sound of Asian languages.
The north edge of the center houses an aluminum-can depository. This is the center's busiest spot. Inside one of the giant elongated iron boxes is a movable particleboard partition, about half the height of the bin, that holds back the wave of multicolored cans. At the open end of the bin one of Souma's employees uses an ancient-looking, corroded scale to weigh the cans people bring him, paying 35 cents a pound for loads under 15 pounds, 38 cents a pound for loads over 15 pounds, and 40 cents a pound for loads over 50 pounds.
After he has weighed the cans, the man tosses them into the growing pile behind the partition. He then wields an enormous tool--an eight-foot pole with a huge wide blade on the end--and rakes through the pile of crunching, tinkling cans, making room for the next batch. A bright-faced young fellow stands in line with a bulging bag of cans. "I come up here from Rogers Park," he says. "I'm just sociologically, environmentally concerned."
A pair of giggling little girls appears, carrying a box of used plastic bottles. "We no buy, no buy," the man says. He sends them to another station in the center.
Near the back of the center, where barbed wire twirls atop a seven-foot cyclone fence, there is a device used for bundling cardboard boxes. It's a bulky, strange-looking contraption, with a wide, flat press in its center. Two thick wheels, the diameter of bicycle tires, sit on either side; threaded around them are two fat, linked steel chains. The entire mechanism is bathed in rust. A stocky Asian man, cocooned in a brown jumpsuit, attends to the operation. The press comes down, squashing a stack of flattened boxes into a neat, compact unit. Then he adds the finished product to a growing collection at his side.
Around the corner from the little garden of boxes, along the wall near the can bin, is a series of old backseats from cars, joined together by a long silver chain. The battered auto couches form a waiting area for the station's customers. Two men from the neighborhood have dragged in an old stainless-steel sink, probably once part of a restaurant kitchen. Somehow intending to prove its authenticity and worth, they kneel down and pound on it with a mallet, grinning widely. One of Souma's crew agrees to purchase the piece of scrap metal.
A flurry of white ash blows through the air from a fire in a rusty oil drum near the row of car seats. Sitting cross-legged on a folding chair by the fire is a man in a blue jacket, wearing a cap that says in huge letters "LAID OFF," surrounded in the corners by smaller words, "NO WORK, NO PHONE, NO MONEY, NO ADDRESS." His face is framed by bristly white whiskers. "To make money collecting cans you have to get up early, before the garbageman comes," he says. "I make my way through these alleys," he gestures toward the west, "and usually manage to collect a few bucks' worth every time. What the hell--it's good pocket change."
Souma is still pulverizing bottles, now with a fierce downward motion of the hammer, like plunging a drain. "Mostly poor, homeless people collect cans," he says. "The first time I come here and see people eat from garbage, I say, 'How can I survive?' That's before I start work here. But now, when people collect cans, they can make five or six dollars a day. They don't need to look in the garbage for food now. They can go to the store and buy it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.