40: Recycling Chivalry

40: Recycling Chivalry

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Random Acts of Kindness

Recycling Chivalry

Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.

~Muhammad Ali

I am a devoted recycler. Every month I bring several bags of carefully cleaned bottles to the recycling center, pour them into blue barrels for weighing, and walk away with a few dollars per bag.

The last time I went, there was a bit of a line. A distinguished white-haired man was growing impatient with the recycling agent, who explained that the scale was not working and would have to be reset. The elderly man rolled his eyes as the clerk apologized for the delay and assured him that it would just take another minute.

The next person in line was a bearded man whose hair was so disheveled that it looked like he had been through a windstorm. His clothing was mismatched and stained and hung loosely as if he’d lost a lot of weight. He glanced up at me from behind a blue barrel filled with assorted glass bottles.

I looked behind him to see where the empty barrels were and was surprised when he grabbed one for me. “Here, you don’t want to get your hands dirty,” he offered with a shy smile that exposed crooked teeth and a gap from at least two missing molars on his left side. He was right about one thing. Those barrels are filthy, with enough spilled soda and beer to attract numerous bees and flies. I always come equipped with wipes and have occasionally worn latex gloves when I recycle.

Normally, when a man offers to help me carry something, I say, “I can do it” or “Thanks but I don’t need any help.” There was, however, a certain earnestness about this fellow that made me want to validate his contribution. I thanked him for the barrel and began to open my first bag. “I can help you with that,” he offered.

Again I was tempted to tell him that I could do it myself. But then I noticed the white-haired man turning around to observe our conversation. By now, his air of disdain for the delay was obvious as he tapped one foot and folded his arms across his chest. It was the slight sneer he directed toward my chivalrous new buddy that made me accept the help that had been offered to me.

It was abundantly clear that the bearded fellow, in his ill-fitting clothes, really knew his way around the recycling center. He efficiently placed the dirty, sticky blue barrel in front of me and began to pour in my carefully cleaned bottles.

My first bag filled an entire barrel so the man rushed to get me more barrels. I was impressed by his work ethic despite the fact that he was clearly unemployed. As he started to fill the second barrel, he said, “You can go ahead of me. You must be busy and I’ve got all day.”

I was torn. On the one hand, I was happy to wait my turn and receive a bit of spending money, and there was a certain satisfaction in seeing my carefully recycled bottles go on their way. On the other hand, this nice fellow needed the dollars I would receive a lot more than I did. And he would derive more satisfaction from the whole process than I would.

I decided to reward him for his kindness by offering him mine. The only problem was how to do it without insulting him. Finally, I hit on a plan I hoped would not seem condescending.

“You’re right,” I said. “I do have a dozen errands today. You could help me out by turning in my bottles for me.”

He looked confused. “How will you get your money?”

“I don’t really need it. I just want to get rid of the bottles. You’d be doing me a favor if you could take care of them for me.”

His shy smile broadened to a wide grin and I noticed another gap on the right side of his mouth. Somehow this made him more endearing and I knew I’d done the right thing. “Okay, but I owe you one,” he said.

I started to walk back to my car but turned back to assure him, “No, we’re even!”

A feeling of lightness, which had nothing to do with leaving my load of bottles behind, enveloped me. I felt good. The day somehow seemed brighter than it did when I’d stepped out of my front door with my “to do” list.

Driving to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, I thought about how little the man had, though I’d sensed no self-pity in him.

The bottles he’d brought might have been worth two or three dollars. I wondered what he could get with that: maybe a burger without the fries or Coke. On this day, at least, his options had expanded to the point that he could enjoy a good meal. On top of that, I hoped he would bask in the feeling of accomplishment that a job well done brings.

As for me, playing a small part in his momentary good fortune made my day as well. Let the dignified white-haired man spread his scowls around. I was happy to recycle the kindness offered to me by a man whose smile… while scoring low on traditional glamour scales… had become surprisingly beautiful to me.

~Marsha Porter

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