By: Phil Temples
There! Mrs. Li spied the glint of the shiny aluminum can in the bright winter noonday light on the sidewalk. Like a diamond in the rough, the can was partially obscured under a pile of trash stacked haphazardly on a side street off Harvard Avenue, a busy boulevard in the Allston neighborhood of Boston.
The seventy-nine year old Chinese woman hurriedly pushed her banged up Target shopping cart toward her prize. In reality, there was very little reason to rush: no one was around to beat her to the can. And besides, Mrs. Li had this entire territory staked out as hers. Sure, there were other “hunters” about, but few of them ventured into this part of Allston. Her toughest competition came from Trần Thị Mai Loan, an elderly Vietnamese woman roughly Mrs. Li’s age. Mrs. Loan mainly prowled Brighton’s Lake Street area, and neighborhoods to the west frequented by Boston College kids. Mrs. Li was quite content with her territory. In fact, she regarded this neighborhood like her second home. In addition to a smattering of older folks, the area was thick with college kids from Harvard, Boston University, M.I.T., as well as Northeastern.
Kids! They’re all lazy, and spoiled rotten! She thought.
These kids were always discarding valuable items – especially furniture — that had little or nothing wrong, save a scratch here, or a broken hinge there, or a loose chair leg. Now, if they had grown up during the time she and beloved husband, Li Wei, and their generation scratched out a meager existence in the countryside in China, these kids would realize the value of a good, sturdy table, and a hard day’s work! They would throw out far less. Instead, these kids gave no thought to discarding soft drink and beer cans, even though these items had their cash redemption value labeled clearly on the can.
CAN THEY NOT READ? These young fools are literally throwing away money!
As she bent over to retrieve her prize, she was awarded an additional bonus: two feet away on the sidewalk lay a quarter and a dime. This was an exceptional find! She would add this to the two pennies she had found a few blocks away earlier this morning. Mrs. Li deposited the coke can into one of the plastic garbage bags attached to her cart and sealed it shut, and then she started her search anew.
As she walked, Mrs. Li found her thoughts drifting off to happier days. It was 1950, and the two newlyweds had arrived in Taiwan shortly after the fall of Chiang Kai-shek. They were penniless, but her husband, Li Wei, a gifted engineer, soon found work in one of the local factories troubleshooting electronic equipment. Mrs. Li took up work as a seamstress. It was hard, backbreaking work, but she didn’t mind. In fact, it was the happiest time of their lives. She and Mr. Li were madly in love. The first of five children arrived just eleven months later. And in just three years, the two had saved up enough money to immigrate to the United States. Both had eventually moved on to bigger and better careers, a house, possessions, and more children. Their children were all grown now, and scattered to the four winds, across three continents. She and Mr. Li had realized their ultimate goal: they had lived the American dream.
“Mrs. Li, how are you this morning, darlin’?”
Jessica Whitmore, a middle-aged African American woman, stopped rattling the change in her metal cup at the sight of the older Chinese woman and her cart. Jess was homeless; she lived on the streets along Commonwealth Avenue. She plied her trade as a panhandler. It was a difficult way to make a living, especially during Boston’s harsh winters. A part of Mrs. Li secretly thought Jessica to be lazy, but then she reminded herself that she was clueless as to Jess’s circumstances. It wasn’t fair of her to judge. But Mrs. Li did have a soft spot in her heart for the friendly, eccentric, black woman who was quick to smile, and even quicker to inquire about Mrs. Li’s well being.
“I good. Thank you for asking, Jessica. And how you? You good today, I hope?”
“Oh, I’m fine, Mrs. Li. I couldn’t be better!” The black woman beamed at her. Sunshine reflected off her dark, curly hair.
Instinctively, Mrs. Li reached for her coin purse and took out two shiny quarters. She placed them in Jessica’s cup, and continued the conversation.
“Yesterday, big find on Linden Street! Kids throw out old bedroom mirror. I take to second hand store over on Harvard Avenue. You know? Near Cambridge Street. Get twenty buck for it. Twenty buck! What wrong these kids, Jess?”
“Beats me, sugar. I guess mommy and daddy give’m everything their little hearts desire. When they get tired of it, it goes right in the trash. Thank the Lord there are folks like you out there recyclin’ and settin’ the world right.”
Jess secretly marveled at how the old woman found the energy and purpose to walk the streets every day with such determination.
“Darlin?’” Jess’ voice took on a serious tone. “Tell me the truth, now. Does you have a place to sleep at night? Or does you live on the streets like me? Cause if you does, I want you to take back this pocket change you been givin’ me. Cause you need it more’n me. Ya’ feel me?”
In response, Mrs. Li smiled. She shook her head “no.”
“Jessica, I have nice house. I have no money problem. You keep. Please. Okay?”
“I’m serious now, Mrs. Li. Cause if you makin’ this up, I’ll land on you!”
Mrs. Li didn’t know what ‘landing’ meant, but the way Jess said it sounded very funny. She started to laugh. Soon, both she and Jess were laughing so hard that a bystander walking by the two women started eyeing them oddly. When they met his gaze, the two laughed even harder.
Mrs. Li bid Jess good-bye, and continued on her way. Regardless of how hectic her day or how foul the weather, Li made it a habit of visiting several places regularly. There was the laundromat on the corner on Thorndike Street, for example. Inside, the owner kept several jars filled with coins for the March of Dimes, and to support the Jimmy Fund, and to help fight Multiple Sclerosis. Mrs. Li never missed an opportunity to place a few coins in the jars from change she received from the proceeds of her redeemed bottles and cans.
Mrs. Li’s next stop was the home of a shut-in – a Jewish woman who lived on Fuller Street. Although the woman was actually a year younger than Mrs. Li, the years had not been kind to her. Ethel Goldberg suffered terribly from arthritis, and most days she got out of bed just long enough to use the bathroom. Mrs. Li liked to chat with Ethel, and listen to her stories about her family and how they fled from hiding in Eastern Europe after the Nazis had been defeated. But she especially enjoyed hearing Jewish jokes. They reminded her very much of the jokes her elders used to tell in China. Today, Mrs. Li wanted to learn a few more Yiddish words from Ethel.
All too quickly, the afternoon passed, and it was time for Mrs. Li to gather her shopping cart from the building lobby and depart her favorite neighborhood. She consciously scanned the sidewalk for any further loose change before turning left onto Harvard. She headed for Coolidge Corner in Brookline. A quarter mile up the street, she stopped, and looked around to see if anyone was watching her. Sensing the coast was clear, Mrs. Li turned onto a side street and approached a parked car. It was a late model town car. Mrs. Li rapped on the truck lid with her knuckles. A moment later, a chauffer in a suit and tie hopped out of the car and addressed Mrs. Li.
“Did you have a pleasant day, ma’am? Here, let me help you with the cart.”
A few minutes later, Mrs. Li hopped into the back seat.
“To the redemption center, ma’am?”
Mrs. Li thought to herself for a moment. Perhaps she should do a second pass on Mrs. Loan’s territory on Lake Street. Last month, Mrs. Loan had left behind that wonderful old picture frame that had fetched almost $10. Besides, Mrs. Li knew that Mrs. Loan occasionally hit Allston, too, after Mrs. Li had made the rounds. Of course, professional courtesy dictated that one visit another’s territory only after the primary stakeholder had first completed their rounds.
“We go Lake Street, first.”
“Very good, ma’am.”