Leftovers: 19 minutes is closer than you think

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Located off Portland’s peninsula, my Tiny Condo is in an orderly neighborhood with basketball hoops, flags depicting a reason to celebrate, and most recently, bright chalk hopscotch squares.

People wave to each other in passing SUVs and most keep their sidewalks cleared of snow and ice in winter weather. When the traffic lights are all green, I can go from the Tiny Condo to Commercial Street in 11 minutes, or 19 minutes when they aren’t. The daily rhythm is predictable. 

That same degree of predictability is why I was surprised to see a strange guy digging through people’s recycling bins this past garbage day. When I stopped my walk to watch the man from across the street, he looked up and waved. He had a mask on, so I decided to cross over and say hello. 

He said his name was Mike, and after two tours of duty in the Army he’s now a disabled war veteran. Proud of America and proud not to be homeless, Mike lives in a group home with four other vets, a man he referred to as a helper, and a dog. With two of the others, Mike spends a few days a week looking for cans and bottles. When his bags are full, he walks to the closest grocery store or redemption center and cashes them in. Then, it’s back to searching until it’s time to meet the others and head home. 

Quite the one-way conversationalist, Mike showed me a small plastic bag with coins and told me he didn’t buy alcohol or “anything like that” with the street money. “We buy things for our house, like paper towels and dish soap,” he said. “We know when it’s garbage day in different places and ride the bus. Sometimes people leave cans and bottles in a bag for us. It’s very nice of them.” 

I was tempted to interrupt and ask questions about a job and where his group home was located, but Mike rambled on about new sneakers. Half listening, I admitted to myself that I was full of assumptions and negative bias. I didn’t like seeing this person in my neighborhood digging through people’s trash. It made me feel guilty, uneasy, and suspicious. What else was he doing there? One expects to see this downtown, but this was too close to home. 

Shame on me. 

As far as I could tell, Mike was just a person doing the best he could with what life had dealt him. I had no reason to think otherwise and while it’s always prudent to be cautious, I walked to the next house with him.

“Look,” he said excitedly. “These people left me lots of cans.”

And sure enough, on the ground was a white kitchen trash bag stuffed with cans. I couldn’t tell if the bag was really for him, but it didn’t appear to belong to anyone else. Mike was tickled. 

In thinking about it later, that particular house is one of my favorites. They were the last ones on their street to take Christmas decorations down and have several cool bird feeders. They have a van covered in bumper stickers and a burnt orange Prius. On Halloween last year, they marked their walkway with pieces of fluorescent tape spaced 6 feet apart. I’ve never actually seen or met the people, but I knew I liked them. 

It was the same way I knew I didn’t like Mike when I first saw him. Appearances, bias, and assumptions. These things can keep us ignorant, and just when I thought I’d come so far this last tumultuous year. 

With his score from the bird-feeder house, Mike’s own bags were almost full and he said he needed to redeem them. I told him I’d run home to pick up some bottles, and would meet him at Shaw’s on my way to work. I waited outside the bottle room door for almost 20 minutes when he finally made it to the crosswalk. Walking toward me slowly, it was apparent he was no longer tickled. 

“A man came outside and said he was going to call the police on me,” Mike muttered. “He was mad and said not to come back.” I handed Mike my bottle slip and told him to stay safe, and he headed off in a conversation all his own.

Mike didn’t say which house the man who threatened him lived in, and I’m seriously hoping it wasn’t the bird-feeder house. I want to believe the stuffed white bag of cans was intended just for him, and really, for all the Mikes.

Not just the ones who frequent the peninsula, but those who find themselves 19 minutes away, too.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].

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