The Soda Can Economy

When I was in college, redeeming deposit bottles from a two day beer blast was a necessity.  Most of us couldn’t afford paying a 5 cent deposit without at least knowing that the future held the promise of a 5 cent refund. By the time I had my first job, the process of returning empty cans and bottles was so unpleasant, it wasn’t worth the effort. Back then, the fundamentals of the economy were strong, or as John McCain liked to say, the American worker was strong. Recently it became evident that if my unemployment ran out, this American worker may be working one of those “green jobs” we were all promised. I will be returning soda cans at the Soda Can Redemption Center.

The Soda Can Redemption Center may become the new American work place. Could this be the “Green Economy” promised us by our new president?  A small unventilated rooms with automated machines set up to redeem deposit cans, aluminum into the can machine, plastic in to the plastic machine and glass into the glass machine.

The lower end supermarket chains often have machines so sensitive that they rejected nearly half your cans. Bad “Green” job! Other machines required the cans and bottles to be placed a certain way into the sticky portal before it crunches your can and registers your five cents. Worse “Green” job! The higher end chains have better machines, faster machines, and more machines per customer ratio, good ”Green” job! All the Redemption Centers shared one thing. They all possessed an overwhelming smell of urine-beer cocktail and rare is the sight of a helpful employee assigned to the redemption center to make your shopping experience a pleasant one.

When my kids were old enough, I told them that if they returned all the cans and bottles, they could keep half the money and the other half was put away in a tin box for charity. They saw this as free money and eagerly agreed to return the cans. Whenever the bins we kept the empty cans in started to spill over the top, we would bag the sticky smelly cans and head for the store. The kids embarked upon each can redemption experience like a senior bus trip to Atlantic City. With every can or bottle, they would recheck the tally and call out to each other the latest total of their winnings.

“45 cents” calls out my son excitedly.

“90 cents” his brother calls back.

“Hurry up” I yell. “The smell in here is making me sick.”

Gone was “my son the doctor”. In this new promised land of the Green Economy, the Green Collar job is “my son, the soda can redeemer”.

Sometime after my divorce, I noticed my ex had started to stock pile her empty soda cans in the breezeway. When picking up the kids, often, the cans were spilling out of bags or left in the upright position in the driveway, as if the drinker had intended to leave it there in the middle of the driveway. On several occasions, the breezeway took on the appearance of a kind of home version Redemption Center, complete with the urine/beer cocktail smell.

Inside the house, empty soda cans lined the counters, tables, floors, even the fire place mantel. The entire floor of the master bedroom, night stands and dresser also acted as a kind of haphazard storage center for empty cans. In later months, the cans some half empty some even unopened spilled out into the hallway, bathrooms and laundry room. I would try to sound matter of fact as I tripped over the half-filled can of Dr. Thunder and mentioned that the kids could easily clean up all these cans but she always quickly sniped back “I know” as if she agreed and yet there was a part of me that kept hearing “What Cans?”

Later, I noticed some conspicuous attempt at bagging up the cans. There would be 10-12 bags piled up in the breezeway but when I climbed the stairs I heard the unmistakable clank of an empty can rolling past my feet. In frustration and out of fear for mine and the kid’s safety, I insisted that all the cans be gathered up and removed from the house before someone tripped over a can and broke their ankle.

“Get rid of them?” she exclaimed in exasperation. Do you know what these are worth?”

“Even at a nickel a piece, it would be worth it to just get rid of them.” I responded.

“Get rid of them?” She repeated at least three times in succession. “I have to pay my car insurance.”

I wanted to say “How about getting a job like everyone else.” But being still fired and unemployed myself, instead I said sympathetically,

“There must be an easier way.”

To this she began to rattle off a list of present and future plans for the unredeemed soda cans. This list included everything from car payments to a vacation at a waterpark.

Occasionally, the kids would return home from a weekend visit with expensive video games or DVDs and when I asked them where all the new stuff came from. They would smile triumphantly and say “We cashed in some of the cans.”

When my mom came to visit, she asked the kids what they had been doing.  All four chimed in at once. Over the din of the four excited voices, my oldest son asked,

“Did you see The Dark Knight?”

“Dark Knight, what’s a Dark Knight?” My mother asked. 

“It’s the new Batman Movie.” said my oldest son

“Who took all of you to a movie?” She asked bitterly.

“Mama” They all replied in unison.

Then barely audible, one of the kids said,” Yeah that was a lot of cans”

As the economy deteriorated, cans become currency.  When my ex’s van was making a funny sound, I offered to give her a ride to pick up the van at the mechanic. She emerged from the garage just moments after she went in, angrily claiming that her credit card wouldn’t go through and they won’t release the car.

“I need two hundred dollars.”  She said bitterly.  Before I had a chance to claim I was broke, wish I could help, short on cash and any other excuse, she was already counting cans. The idea of waiting for her to redeem two hundred dollars’ worth of soda cans was more than I had bargained for. I drove home and told her to take my car and do whatever it was she had to do to get her car out of soda can hock.  Five hours later she arrived at my house triumphant with money in hand. She bore the unmistakable smell of the perfume of the soda can redeemer.

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