The sun rose lazily over the Paper Rush Co. recycling center on the industrial outskirts of the Mission on a Tuesday morning in November.
Before its rays reached the pavement, a procession of men and women with shopping carts piled high with soda cans, beer bottles and newspapers pushed their cargo down Cesar Chavez. They moved surprisingly fast over the crumbling sidewalks that snake above and under James Lick Freeway and Bayshore Blvd to their destination on Jerrold Avenue. At Paper Rush they would help deliver some of the thousand or so tons of recyclables processed each day in San Francisco.
I spent the day at the recycling center (one of about half a dozen in the city that buy back metal, paper and glass) following the first clients to the center at dawn to explore the place where the scavengers I see everyday in the Mission’s streets end up.
The first person I found when I arrived at 6 a.m. on Tuesday was Maria.
“Buenos dias, papi,” says Maria, her small brown eyes shining behind thick black-rimmed spectacles in the early morning moonlight as her first clients, arrive. “How did you awake this morning?”
Maria knows her clients at Paper Rush are the type most other businesses turn away. Many are covered with grime; black lines creasing their hands, faces and jeans—some smile with rotten teeth, others reek of beer.
But she welcomes them, weighs their cargo on a dingy four by four foot scale at the center’s entrance and then hands each a carefully written ticket that each will give later to the window attendant.
She doesn’t ask if their bottles and cans were pilfered from litter bins or blue recycling containers throughout the city; or what they’ll buy with the cash they earn. She just helps them get through the center’s system and get paid.
“For the people that come here, it’s a blessing,” said Maria speaking in Spanish. “They recycle instead of doing things like selling drugs—it’s honest work.”
Maria has stood at her post at Paper Rush for the last 17 years. Her area is small and crowded with huge containers that hold cans and others to crush them into rectangular beds. But in one corner of the space there is a small table where she manages her paperwork, and atop it is her own little piece of real estate. An altar-like arrangement of pink and red plastic flowers, potted plants and cheap figurines rest on the table. The objects are gifts from clients, she explained, “to help me decorate.”
“They are polite, decent people,” said Maria, smiling at her plants.
At the center of Maria’s display is an ancient brown stereo with a fabric-covered speaker that plays Mexican ballads all day. No matter that the crunching of cans drowns out the mournful lyrics for most of the day. During her short breaks, Maria listens.
“It’s so I don’t think all the time about the family,” said Maria as she leaned on her small table. “They are far away.”
Her three sons and only daughter, all grown and with families of their own, are in Veracruz, Mexico. She brought her sons up years ago, said Maria, but this country didn’t suit them, so they went back. She says she understands their decision. “I’ve seen some terrible things happen to people here.”
Cesar was one of Maria’s first clients on Tuesday morning. He brought his bottles and cans, tied neatly in dozens of plastic bags as he’s done for the last three months. Cesar had steady employment at an auto shop until this summer. Now, the only income he earns comes from foraging the Mission’s streets.
“There isn’t work,” said Cesar flatly in Spanish. “I do this out of necessity.”
The $40 he earns each night goes towards rent—$400 a month—food, and little else.
“If we didn’t have this, there would be nothing,” he said. In the last few weeks he’s seen more and more people out scavenging with him. There’s more competition he said, so it takes longer to fill an overloaded cart. And, while aluminum cans are still relatively profitable at around $1.50 a pound, the price of cardboard has dropped precipitously in the last year. Unsorted plastics are all but worthless.
“People have made this into a real job,” says Cesar incredulously.
The longer you stay at Paper Rush though, you realize that for many, it’s been a real job for quite some time.
While there are some like Cesar—who bring in one load a day and for whom recycling full-time is temporary—many manage two or three runs in one day, working upwards of 15 hours collecting. They can earn around $100 in a day—as an overloaded cart is usually worth about $35.
And they’ve learned their business well. They know the most profitable routes and when to hit them, and their carts are organized meticulously, with bottles stacked like puzzle pieces under neatly flattened plastic and cardboard.
“These people are the salt of the earth,” says one of them, Donovan, who often sleeps under the James Lick Freeway. He points at one woman, sturdy and focused, who expertly unloads her cart in front of Maria’s weigh station.
“She’s hardcore,” says Donovan. Her load was stacked and tied perfectly—all the bottles facing the same direction.
“She looks at my load and I get embarrassed,” he says. “I feel like I have to get my work ethic together.”
And there are the big timers. Pick up trucks pull into Paper Rush loaded with cargo. These are the people with connections, who get their bottles directly from contacts at bars and liquor stores.
Or from junkies too strung out to wait until 6 a.m. to get their cash and get their fix. That’s where bootleggers, as they call themselves, like Charlie come in.
“This place is closed from 5 in the afternoon until 6 in the morning,” explains Charlie. If people need cash in between, they can come to him.
He pays them half the value of their recyclables and then piles the load onto his green pick up, which is rigged with a kind of makeshift wooden scaffolding to contain his loot.
He understands the addicts, says Charlie; he was one. For 16 years he was homeless, and for 13 he was addicted to crack cocaine. He’s been clean for seven years and housed for four. Back when he was using, he too went to a bootlegger.
“I’m convenient,” for addicts, said Charlie, shrugging and going back to his truck.
Though it’s a place of industry, friendships are forged easily at Paper Rush. The old timers help the new.
Dave, a lanky black man with an unkempt white beard shows me the best way to sort and dispose of glass bottles—turning away from the containers as you threw them in to avoid getting hit by the bits of glass that spray out as bottles smash against one another.
Patrice, a French man with a thick accent and blue-green eyes talks to me about the busing business he’d once owned in Paris and the decision he made to come to this country and be homeless.
He shows me the pocket calendar where he’d marked how much he’d made from recycling every day for the last four months. Two weeks ago there were solid profits, he points out. Right now he’s saving up for a truck, keeping his cash in a small storage space he rents nearby.
One man, tall and strong with sharp eyes and long dreadlocks looks at me after my conversation with Patrice. Mute, he pulls a scrap of paper out of his cart and starts writing.
“He has a very good life story,” he writes, gesturing towards Patrice. I nod.
“He seems to enjoy talking,” he writes. I agree. He looks at me a moment and starts writing again. “What school?”
Berkeley, I say, impressed and somewhat embarrassed that he can tell so quickly my status.
“Why here?” he jots. I try to explain.
“You’re not too smart,” he concludes, pointing at my thin sweater and shivering hands. (Standing in the looming shadows of hundreds of feet of bundled paper for hours turned out to be much colder than I’d anticipated.) Then he offers me the red down coat he is wearing and goes back to work.
As I walk around the cardboard boxes that contain the recyclables he’d collected I see bits of his scribbled conversations with others.
“Temper is going Everyone’s under $ pressure,” reads one on the side of a box. “Me, I don’t sweat the cash too much,” reads another.
I return to ask for the paper on which we’d just had our conversation. He looks at me skeptically.
“You’re a bad journalist,” he writes. “No tape recorder.”
Then he hands over the paper and smiles.
I asked for his name, but he holds his forefinger to his sealed lips, then turns and goes back to work.