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Featured Essay 

Recycling Wasn't Always Fashionable

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by Martha Clarkson

My mom heard that Libbey-Owens would pay money for old glass at their plant in north Portland. Libbey drinking glasses sold in sets of four in the dime stores in 1972.

To get this money, my mother had to find glass. She drove her little blue Beetle around to restaurants in the area, asking for empty liquor jugs. Bartenders at three lounges were willing to save their empties for her. The three restaurants were Poor Richard’s, the Mandarin, and the tile-faced Pagoda, all within a few blocks of each other in a district called Hollywood. During the day she made her rounds, hefting the bending boxes of jugs into the front trunk of her Beetle and more into the backseat, reached awkwardly in the two-door car.

Sometimes she took me along on her collection route. I didn’t like going to the bars. She was only allowed to pick up by day, before opening, so as not to interfere with business. Walking into the dark empty bar to find an employee spooked me.

My father drank in public at places that I assumed were similar, at lunch and after work, making deals with his advertising clients, and sometimes losing them, depending on how drunk he got or how badly he’d estimated how drunk the clients were willing to get.

I didn’t like going to the liquor store either, government-run, walls always the same sour green, rows and rows of bottles behind the counter, their gold and black labels calling to the customers. And I never went to the liquor store with my mother because the stance she presented to the world was that alcohol was evil. She never drank at a social dinner out, but ordered a 7-Up in a haughty tone, something I never heard her use any other time, while the other guests gave their directions to the waiter, words like “up” and “with a twist.”

But at home in the evenings she drank vodka posing as water from a yellow Tupperware glass on the kitchen counter. The yellow glass’s contents came from under the sink, behind the onion bin, a half-gallon jug of Popov, secretly poured.

Our garage was underneath the kitchen, off the basement, a typical design for a house on a steep hill, and after dinner, which was sometimes cooked well and sometimes a disaster, depending on the action seen by the yellow Tupperware glass, she’d head to the workbench and start smashing. She wore glasses anyway, but never any goggles. She’d empty a box except for one jug, and smash that one to bits, because the recycler would only take broken glass, and on and on this continued until the box was full of fragments. She had to learn what weight she could lift in pieces, versus jugs.

I think in the beginning, my dad wondered if she’d adopted this hobby to pour the last bits from each bottle and keep a liquor stash on her workbench, which really was hers, because my dad was hard pressed to pound a nail, let alone operate a drill or know the purpose of a vice. But that wasn’t it, there was plenty of booze upstairs behind the onions. She was not desperate in that way.

The Libbey plant was a mammoth metal structure supporting two large angled sections at the top resembling a claw. I rode to the plant with her, the little Beetle sagging on its tires, wending through security to get to the consumer recycling station. The red-lettered sign by the huge scale read “No color contamination.” My mother had diligently sorted brown, green, clear. The burly worker wouldn’t even help us unload. At thirteen, I could barely lift the boxes, but my mother hauled them out like they held duck feathers.

We put the boxes on the commercial scale and the man in the blue jumpsuit paid my mother from a wad of bills in his deep pocket, between six and eight dollars. We drove home, the car floating on the road like a piece of plastic.

The money from the recycling was what drove her to do it. She was a Depression child, had grown up poor, with the bad molars from not going to the dentist to prove it. My mother paid cash for everything and used paper money even if she had the change. At night, she’d dump all her coins into a blue ceramic piggy bank by the phone. Twice a month we’d go to the bank, a square glassy building close to her bottle pick-up spots, and deposit the money. She’d show me her passbook with the updated modest total and tell me it was a secret from my dad, her stash. I wondered if she planned to run away.

She didn’t run away. She wasn’t the type. She was just saving for a rainy day, which she seemed to think could come at any moment from my father’s business decisions. The recycling went on for two years. Sometimes I helped her in the garage. I liked it when she left me alone down there after dinner to smash the glass. The first time she did, I was surprised how satisfying it felt to slam the family hammer down on those jugs. I combined the activity with swearing, which made it all the sweeter. “Break, fucker!” I shouted at the glass. I had loved learning the word “fuck” the year before. When I was done, I found the sweeping up of errant chips peaceful. Then I’d plant the broom on its wall hook because I’d get yelled at if anything was out of place, and walk up the stapled vinyl steps to the first floor. I’d sneak through the back hall to climb the carpeted upper flight, not wanting to see her staggering around the kitchen. My father offered to buy her a dishwasher each year, but she declined on the basis of losing cupboard space. What she really wanted was that time alone in the kitchen after dinner with the yellow glass on the pretense of washing dishes. Most of the them were chipped from the unstable handling. Two or three glasses broke a week. When I grabbed the stair’s handrail, a splinter of glass poked into my palm, but I kept my wits enough to skip over the stair that squeaked.


Martha_Clarkson.jpgMartha Clarkson manages corporate workplace design in Seattle. Her poetry, photography, and fiction can be found inmonkeybicycle, Clackamas Literary Review, Seattle ReviewAlimentumHawaii Pacific Review. She is a recipient of a Pushcart Nomination and is listed under “Notable Stories,” Best American Non-Required Reading for 2007 and 2009. She is recipient of best short story, 2012, Anderbo/Open City prize, for “Her Voices, Her Room.”

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