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street life

The Cans of New York: Gathering Recyclables With the Star of an Oscar-Nominated Documentary

The temperature on President’s Day is around fifteen degrees with the wind chill, and the 60-year-old star of the Oscar-nominated documentary short "Redemption" has already been outside collecting cans on W. 10th Street for two hours. Lilly — who won’t give her last name and speaks almost no English — typically devotes eight hours a day to "canning," sifting through other people’s recycling to fill her shopping cart with enough plastic bottles and aluminum cans (redeemable for anywhere from three to five cents each) to get by.

Anyone who lives in New York City has come across members of the five boroughs’ growing population of unemployed and often homeless canners. Who are they? How did they get this point? Directors Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill, who work at the Downtown Community Television Center and made the film at the behest of HBO, spent two and a half years wandering the streets of New York trying to find out.
 
Lilly is part of the sizeable Chinese grandma canner population; she has a taxi driver son and a granddaughter back in Cantonese-speaking southwestern China. Growing up, Lilly’s family was too poor to send her to school past the elementary level (“No money, no honey!” Lilly shouts out, over our translator, Jung Chao), so she raised pigs and chickens back home before moving to America at age 46. Learning English proved difficult, and her job skills weren’t necessarily transferable to the city, so she became a restaurant dishwasher. When her restaurant went out of business last fall, she decided to try collecting cans, like the people she’d seen outside her restaurant every night. The money is better than washing dishes, but she no longer gets free meals from the restaurant, so it’s hard to quantify whether she’s now better off. At least she’s able to supplement her canning income with unemployment checks, which allows her to share a one-bedroom on the Lower East Side with six roommates.
 
Cheery and charming, she has forged friendships with her fellow canners. The film chronicles her sweet interactions with a homeless Japanese man, Mr. John, who sleeps in the parking garage by the Chinatown redemption center and watches Lilly’s carts overnight. In exchange, she cuts his hair and shaves his beard. Other characters in the film include Walter, a Vietnam vet scarred by severe PTSD, who’s happy to collect just enough cans to get a cup of coffee, and Susan, who was IBM’s top salesperson in 1990 and has a college degree, but began collecting cans years ago when she lost her job.
 
Much has changed for the film's stars since shooting wrapped, and usually not for the better. Hurricane Sandy destroyed the Lower East Side Pathmark, a major redemption center, forcing canners to deal with private trucks, which constantly change their prices and (illegally) give them as little as three cents a can. Walter died this August, hit by a train in the Amtrak tunnel under Riverside Park, where he’d been living for eighteen years. And everyone’s worried about Mr. John. No one, including Lilly, has seen him for two weeks. The only bright light is Susan, who has moved into senior housing in Atlantic City.
 
Lilly has a relationship with many of the people on her route, like the superintendent of a tony West Village apartment building whom Lilly often helps take out the trash. “If you have a nice canner like Lilly that is neat with all of your bottles and cans and keeps things organized and doesn’t tear the bags, as a super, you’re happy,” explains O’Neill. “She always ties up the bags, she always helps bring the bags out … so she’s the one who gets the bottles and cans.” But only if she gets there first; sometimes another canner will beat Lilly to the haul. That’s why she quickly greets us on the chilly President's Day morning and then asks if she can work while we talk. She neatly unties the blue plastic bags on the curb and begins rifling through. Lilly bypasses the wine bottles; they take up too much space in her cart and are too heavy in bulk to push all the way back to Chinatown.
 
We were supposed to meet Lilly at what she calls “the place where the black man attacked me.” She’d been hoping to dig into a particularly fertile dumpster that a certain homeless man considers his territory; during filming, he’d physically charged at Lilly, and O’Neill had to step in to protect her. As we approached the meeting spot, we saw that he was already standing guard outside the building. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Is that the bad guy?” Alpert asked. O’Neill explains that he’s a hoarder who collects cans but doesn’t redeem, and had at one point filled half a city block with his stash.
 
The dynamic that led to Lilly getting attacked is actually part of a larger war for control of the city’s trash. “The black homeless men and the Chinese grandmas really don’t get along,” says O’Neill. Twenty years ago, the canning population was mostly homeless people collecting just enough to get high or buy a small bottle of vodka, but now “they’re getting out-hustled by the Chinese grandmas, because Chinese grandmas work really hard.”  
 
Lilly has had her cart stolen several times, since she can’t fit it in her apartment and has to leave it on the street. She says the culprits typically take the stolen carts to New Jersey, where they sell the contents and discard the carts on the beach. Then Lilly and her friends go across the Hudson to retrieve the broken carts and fix them up. “It’s a vicious cycle,” she says through Chao. O’Neill says Lilly also told him that one of her canning friends was raped in an alley one night. “You get a taste for how tough it is on the streets and how marginalized this whole population is in the film. It’s really about survival.”
 
She hasn’t seen the movie yet. “She doesn’t want to see herself ugly on the screen,” says Chao. She’s not sure, but she thinks some people who saw the movie recognized her on the street. “She doesn’t know why, but a few foreigners passed her by and called her ‘Lilly,’ and she doesn’t even know them,” says Chao. As for the Oscars, she knows they’re a big deal, even if she doesn’t quite understand what they are. Alpert invites her to the DCTV Oscar viewing party on Sunday night. “After the party, she can get all the cans and bottles,” he promises. She’ll have to fight for them, though; DCTV’s building already has its own canner who likely expects to take that haul. “She’ll see if she can make it,” Chao relays, “but probably not. A lot of pubs throw out trash during that time.”

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Photo: Tom LeGoff/HBO