Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Me, My Bottles and I

People are becoming more self-reliant and industrious due to tough times. Are you? It is quite noticeable that some are even adopting customs from olden days to adjust to the current situation.


Give me a bottle of…Ahem! Water, I suppose? The summer of 2010 in New York City and its environs will probably go down in history as the summer with the most consecutive days of sweltering heat. Store shelves, as often as they are stocked, continue to be relieved of bottled water by thirst quenching enthusiasts as well as hoarders who aim for the lowest price. Long after summer has made its exit, bottled water will still be available. The empty bottles in the end will then be at the mercy of a lucrative recycling industry.

There is nothing new about the practice of recycling, particularly bottles. This procedure has been around for a long time. The elders of yester year, filled with their many sayings, would have said recycling has been around since the devil was a boy or when salt fish used to shingle house (when salt fish was more affordable and could be bought in abundance). The use of the word Recycle sounds highfalutin, fooling many about its humble beginning. Without any hesitation, I rise quickly to erase such deception and take you back in time. Recycle is actually synonymous to the following terms: seconds, second-hand, hand-me-down and, ole-bruk (used clothing/things). The latter is the most used term among my circle of friends. To become a recipient gives rise to ridicule. However, to be truthful most of us, proud though we maybe, have at some point in our lives indulged in “ole-bruk” in a subtle manner with items such as books, sweaters, shoes, jewelry or furniture.

In former times in my little village in Jamaica, West Indies, a pair of used pants was redesigned and sewn as a skirt. A shopkeeper upon request would give away his empty fabric flour bags to villagers who pulled them apart, bleached and washed them to get rid of the red ink writings “Wholesome White Flour” and then hang them to dry. The now spotless fabric which resembled calico would be used to make bed linens, drawstring bags for straining coffee, dish cloths, aprons, petticoats, and the prized garment “flour-bag underwear.” Believe it or not the recycle trend was vast. News paper was turned into art…soaked, crushed and molded into anything desired. It was also used as wall paper for wooden structures, liners for latrine seats, hair curlers and cleaning material for glass windows. My favorite of all the news paper art was making a hat shaped like a boat to shelter from rain. Interestingly I lost my hat after a few attacks from the raindrops. Empty cardboard boxes were ripped and used as door mats or carpet especially on a rainy day. Compared to now, as we advance in recycling, news papers and cardboard boxes could very well come back as post-it note pads, paper towels or toilet paper after going through the process.

Among the entire hullabaloo of old time recycling was the bottles, my main squeeze. They boast versatility and came in various shapes, sizes, colors and grades. An empty jam bottle was considered the crème of the crop. It held the most beautiful flowers and was also used to store homemade pickled pepper, sugar, salt, bizzy (cola nut), and ground coffee. An aerated water (soda) bottle was the medicine holder, used by most doctors for their patients. It was also a household container for coconut oil, a jigger of brandy to “clear throat” in the morning or evening and it gallantly served as a torch with its wick made from news paper or a piece of old merino, fueled by kerosene. An empty one quart rum or syrup bottle would be used to store homemade brews which were properly sealed and buried in the earth to retain and build potency. Thus far in the recycling world of yester year and today the most interesting thing that I have ever seen become of plastic bottles is the ingenious worth of one of my village friends and her siblings who together had melted these bottles and then molded them into innocent yet cruel balls for youthful play.

With such cleverness, I have come to the conclusion that some children are excellent unrewarded inventors or even entrepreneurs pushed by necessity. My father, a shopkeeper commented most days that he should have remained a school teacher because it was more difficult to keep up with my siblings and I as we competed against some of the community people with selling bottles. We would spend hours digging aged old beer and soda glass bottles from the earth, scoured and washed them to sparkling perfection and then sold them at his shop for a penny a piece. Or, depending on our needs at the time of the exchange we would take money, marble, balloon, firecracker, paradise plum (sweetie/candy), or baked goods…preferable bulla (a flat round cake).

The joy that I derived from selling bottles at age five was amazing until one day when my father decided to kill my joy. He believed that my siblings and I should save the money we were receiving from the sale of our bottles and insisted that it should be done in an official manner. He did not trust financial institutions such as the closet, bureau/chest of drawers, pillow-case, under-bed, under-the-mattress, or let-mother-keep-it. No easy access whatsoever. Our local Post Office was the chosen institution where we opened individual savings accounts and made deposits ranging from a penny to a guinea, (one pound one shilling). As time went by my father’s stern measure towards our future financial freedom didn’t last because we were able to maneuver our way out of it. We had our friends sell the empty bottles to him and then spend the money in secret. This looseness was also short lived as I witnessed one of my friends being called a bottle police and laughed at as he sold his bottles. The situation left me discouraged and got worse after I had overheard two gossipers in the village saying to one another that bottle selling was linked to people who were down and out on their luck or people with no ambition. Those statements eventually put a stop to my bottle selling at the age of seven.

Life does come in cycles and within one of those cycles it is more or less likely that a childhood behavior could repeat. In my case July 20, 2010 hinted at a childhood behavior as I saw one of my neighbors pushing her cart along the busy street in Brooklyn, New York. Am I seeing right? She must be hard up for money I said to myself, taking a long look at the empty water bottles in her cart. It is an honest living to sell bottles, or empties as they are affectionately called, if one can put aside pride and prejudice and endure the rat-race which is brought on by the improved recycling industry. In the still of the night, as I lay in my bed, I can hear many carts with loads of bottles rattling against each other, probably being pushed by someone with an entrepreneur spirit, someone who has to make ends meet or could do with a little bit more. What was my neighbor’s reason? I asked myself as she pushed her cart with glee. Finally, I approached her.
“Where are you going, Millie (not her correct name)?” I asked.
“Gurl, I am going over to the Stop and Shop Supermarket to sell my bottles,” she replied.
"I didn’t know that they take water bottles,” I said, looking surprised with my arms akimbo. She smiled, cunningly. “Gracey! Stop pretending! You didn’t pay deposit on your water when you buy it? You can stay there and waste your money. I gone to sell my bottles,” she said with a thick Trinidadian accent. She then pushed her cart forward and left me standing with the truth…sell the empty water bottles.

Thereafter, I began saving my empty bottles. Five-cents, ten-cents, I tallied daily and as I did so it dawned on me that in today’s society five cents per bottle seemed less in value compared to the penny I used to receive back-in-the-day. Nonetheless, I continued saving because every penny mattered. My assurance level remained high until August 9, 2010 when a friend visited me and observed the container of empty bottles, in my kitchen. “What on earth is going on in here?” he asked, looking at the pile of bottles.
“I am collecting them to sell,” I told him.
He threw back his head and laughed heartily. “Duh Grace no badah wid dat. Mi wi give yuh di money. It luk bad. Yuh mean seh is suh tings gaan bad wid yuh in America?” he asked, pelting our Jamaican dialect.
I laughed and then looked at him. “I have a right to sell those bottles. I paid a deposit on them when I purchased the water,” I told him.
He laughed again, taking a bottle of beer from the refrigerator. He opened it took a sip and then said, “Can you imagine if someone from your village in Jamaica see you selling bottles. They would laugh you to scorn an seh how yuh mash-up, yuh come to nothing in America.
“You can say that again,” I said, agreeing with him. “I am going to abandon the idea of selling these bottles.”
“Good for you,” he applauded but not long enough to dispel the urge of selling empties
“Honey,” I said, looking at his empty beer bottle in his hand. “Give that to me so that I can add them to my heap.”
“You must be joking!”
“No, I am not.” He looked at me and laughed so hard, I thought he would wet his pants. “Put the bottle in the garbage, Grace,” he insisted.
“No problem. I will but after you leave,” I told him knowing that that wouldn’t be the case. I was determined to sell my bottles and nothing was going to stop me. I said to myself, why should I put them in the garbage for someone else to get rich? Or, for any of those raunchy go-go dancers to get hold of them and use them to perform their tricky seductive dance moves. No way! I am holding on to my empty bottles. I am going to put the money from the sale of those bottles to good use...buy a phone card to call my relatives who are living outside of the United States of America.

Casting fear, doubt and pride aside I chose the afternoon of August 11, 2010 as the day that I would redeem my empty bottles for cash. I awoke that day, had my morning devotion, got dressed and went to work. I waited for my lunch break to tell a few co-workers that I would be going home, after work, to sell some empty bottles. “I will be leaving on the dot (my regular scheduled time) to go sell my bottles,” I told them. “Good for you,” one worker commented. “My son’s grandmother sells her bottles and puts the money she receives in a piggy bank for him.”
“Fabulous! Empty bottles were made to be put to good use,” I said, returning to my work.
The work-day ended quicker than I had imagined. It was time to go home. I arrived in Brooklyn from Manhattan on the subway in record time, less than an hour, in comparison to the usual one hour and fifteen minutes ride. The train operators no doubt had had their telepathy stint in play. Their eyes were with me on my soon to be financial gains. I rushed from the train station to my apartment and quickly washed my hands from all the grimes of the subway. I looked at the clock in the kitchen which read 5:30p.m. I refused to change from my work clothes because I wanted to look fabulous when I sold my bottles. I replenished my red lipstick, patted my virgin hair to make sure every strand was in place, admired the jewelry I was wearing from one of my many creations and then draped my pocketbook (handbag) across my shoulder. For the finishing touch, I stylishly placed my shaded glasses on my head, took my cart and left the apartment. I was on my way to Stop and Shop Supermarket to redeem my water bottles for cash.

The streets were bustling with activities. I waited for the lights to change at a major intersection and as I did so I felt nervous, worried that someone I knew would spot me and have a good laugh. I pulled down the shaded glasses from my head to hide my stare. I felt secure, powerful, wonderful, and beautiful. The lights changed and I ventured across the street to the supermarket. The guard was standing by the door. “Hello, sir,” I said, bringing my cart to a halt as if it were a Rolls Royce. “Where do I sell these bottles?”
“Around the corner over there,” he said, pointing to an area in the supermarket.
“Thank you very much, sir,” I said, moving along. As I approached the area I was met with the stench of beer, a telltale sign of the most popular empties. A store attendant was busy preparing the machines for customers. I shifted my cart with much noise. He looked at me.
“Hello”, I said in a kind voice. “This is my first time selling bottles, could you help me?”
“Of course, I can,” he replied. He pointed to the machines. “This one is for glass bottles, this one is for cans and this one is for plastic. See, the names are noted on each machine. Glass! Plastic! Cans!”
“Great! You are a good teacher,” I commended him. He grinned. “Let me have one of your bottles not the glass ones because the machines are full they cannot take anymore. Give me the plastic.” He reached for a plastic bottle from my hand. “You insert it in this slot when the green light comes on. See like this,” he demonstrated. When you are finished putting in all your bottles, you press this green button and it will give you a ticket with your total amount of money to be collected.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. “Let me try.” He stood and watched me feed the machine a couple bottles and then left.
“How is it going?” he asked, returning a few minutes later.
“Wonderful,” I replied. “I am now pushing the button for my ticket. Not bad,” I said looking at the total cash. “Now what should I do with the glass bottles? The machine for them is not in use.”
“I will take them,” said a man, arriving with many bags filled to their brims with bottles and cans.
“Thank you madam,” he said graciously as I handed the bottles to him.
“No problem, sir, I whispered with a smile. I looked at the attendant. He was staring at me with a pleased look. “Goodbye! Thank you for your help and I hope to see you again,” I said.
“Me too,” he said, smiling.
I turned, pushed my cart and then hurried to the customer service counter where I tendered my ticket for cash. A whopping $2.05 received with pride.

Tah-tah! Willful waste leads to woeful want.

Grace Dunkley-Asphall Copyright © 2010


  1. I'm crying from laughing...Girl you are not easy... I am finding out more and more how Haitians and Jamaicans' way of living entertwine. For us, recycling has always been there and the waste I have been witnessing in this country has always bothered me...thank God for all the green projects of now!
    "flour-bag underwear" I am :LOL

  2. Das right sell u bottle with style, do anything u doing with class. I not fraid to walk into supermarket n pick up one item an cash it. I hold my head high. I watch no face

  3. $2.05? How many bottles that you had to use a cart?

    I thought you had a full cart.

    The time I received this e-mail was 2:05….ironic.

  4. Congrats! As usual, I enjoyed your entry. Your post made me think of someone in my family: My great-grandmother. She used to collect and sell cans to earn s little cash on the side. Every week she would sell over 100 cans! You know, I used to be ‘afraid’ of her when I was little although, she was always very sweet. Kids stuff- I suppose. I must confess that with time I learned to appreciate and love her and discovered that I actually admired and respected her for having the courage to take care of her self. She was different! And yet, so am I all of us.

  5. More on newspaper...Rubbed up newspaper would rival Andrex tissue any day! Just remember only the fortunate ones had news paper - others had bush leaves intermingled with some scratch bush. Ouch! Good times!

  6. Thanks for your comments via email. As requested your comments have been posted. I am sorry for the difficulty you have been experiencing in posting.