Bottles and Cans

I went back to work, breaking down more boxes. I also found some more bottles and cans in the basement that I'd forgotten about, so I put those out in the bin that the veteran had emptied. Then, when I came up a few minutes later with another load of boxes, there was another guy at the bin, going through the bottles and cans I'd just put there.

After my experience with the first dude, I didn't have the same immediate reaction to yell at this guy as I'd had earlier. This guy seemed a little more clean cut; shirt tucked in, greying hair, glasses. He fished through the bin quickly, and hauled out everything I'd put in it. I just kind of stood there, waiting for him to say something. But although he could hardly have missed me standing ten feet away, he pointedly ignored me, intently going through the bottles and cans to make sure he wanted them all.

After he determined it was all good, he grabbed everything up and rushed off like he was some rabbit late for an appointment with the Queen. I stood there and wondered at the difference between these two men, one scruffy looking but polite and thankful, the other clean cut but all business and no chit-chat. I leaned against the fence as I cogitated, and the second guy came rushing by again in the other direction, having emptied his bags somewhere and searching for more loot to fill them with. What, did he have a car?!

All of a sudden, I was really pissed off at this second guy. What kind of nerve did he have, running around stealing people's cans and bottles from their recycling bins? I put those out for the recycling drivers, not for this rabbity little guy!

Then I had an abrupt thought, and sat down on the porch steps to work it out. Why was I so mad at this second guy, but all warm and fuzzy about the first?

Well, that was fairly easy to answer: the first guy was polite, he acknowledged that he was gaining something from me, and he was genuinely thankful for it. The second guy, on the other hand, seemed to not even acknowledge my existence.

In pondering the differences between these two, I began to wonder whether I had a right to be mad at either of them. After all, I had put the bottles and cans out on the curb where they were publicly accessible. Around here, the curb is where stuff goes when you want people to haul it off; you can drive around any neighborhood and find old sofas or appliances sitting out just begging to be hauled off by someone with low standards and high need. The curb is a traditional spot to look for 'free stuff.'

I decided that there was a difference here, however. I hadn't put a sign up saying 'free' in front of the bottles and cans, and they were in a recycling bin so they were obviously there for that purpose, not for some random guys to come along and take advantage of.

But what would I have gained if I had yelled at these guys and run them off? I might have gotten a reputation in the neighborhood as sort of a prick, but other than that I wouldn't have benefitted at all. And when I thought about it, could I really say that I had been harmed?

I'd gotten my use out of those bottles and cans long before I'd put them out on the curb. I put them out for a specific purpose, but that particular purpose wasn't realized because a couple of enterprising individuals came along who had different ideas about how those bottles and cans could be used for their own benefit.

I could really only say I'd been harmed in that what I had intended to have happen hadn't happened. I still got to drink that beer and soda, and my recycling will still be picked up. It should be my choice of what happens with my empties, but really, how great can those guys' lives be if they have to collect bottles and cans as a part of their income? This isn't income to me, it's not even money in the bank. It's just trash. I got my use out of it.

I saw quite a bit of brouhaha in the ARG community recently. Somebody acted a little too much like the second guy who came by my house last night, and the majority's reaction was the equivalent of if I'd run out and shot that second guy in the face with a scatter gun for taking my bottles without asking or showing any appreciation, which is to say it was a reaction just ever so slightly out of proportion to the crime.

If those two guys had come into my house and taken some beers out of my refrigerator, hell yeah I would have called the cops. But to begrudge them the chance to profit from my leftovers, which no longer hold any real value for me but may hold great value to them, just because it wasn't what I'd intended to happen, strikes me as quite uncharitable.

But the difference between those two – the one who was thankful and the one who just took – that's what gave me real pause. If I see that veteran around again, I'll chat with him and encourage him to take my bottles and cans. If I see the second guy, I'll probably tell him to make like Michael Jackson and beat it.

And if anybody comes and takes my beer before I get to drink it…well, I'll just have to lock them in the basement. And there's no cardboard left down there anymore.

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