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Backstory: Story I Lost the Most Sleep Over

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Sorting bottles and cans at Winooski Beverage Center - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Sorting bottles and cans at Winooski Beverage Center

["No Return: Loss of a Redemption Center Complicates 'Canner' Lives," October 19]

When I got the assignment to cover the closing of Burlington's biggest redemption center and its impact on local "canners," it seemed pretty straightforward: Talk to the owners of Burlington Beverage; ask some collectors how they're coping without it; and check in with alternative places to see if they're getting more business.

I studied the city's recycling routes and set out at 6 a.m. on a Tuesday in the Old North End. Cans were everywhere during the two hours that I biked; canners were not. I ran into the same four over and over again, and they didn't seem to understand my questions or pantomiming.

After several similar early-mornings quests, we hired a Bhutanese translator. One full week after my first foray, I picked him up in my car at 7 a.m. We crept along at 15 miles per hour, pulling over and accosting any canners we encountered. Several chatted with us, but I still needed more material.

That didn't come for three more days, when, on Friday afternoon, the news gods took pity on a sleep-deprived, curb-sitting reporter.

I heard the rattling and clattering before I saw Birdman pushing his shopping cart down the middle of Murray Street. The eccentric Jamaican is a longtime "recycler," as he calls it. He said he was in a hurry (though his pace suggested otherwise) and didn't have a phone. But he gave me his address and suggested that I come over later, if I wanted.

It was an unseasonably hot October day, and I had planned to spend the evening playing bocce with some friends at Oakledge Park. But I couldn't miss this opportunity, so I biked downtown to Birdman's place instead.

When I arrived at his jam-packed second-floor studio, he was wearing army shorts with a red purse slung over his bare chest. He had on two baseball caps, one facing forward, the other backward.

Birdman ushered me toward his bathroom, which was barely big enough for both of us. I hesitated. He seemed offended, so in I went. From there, we climbed through the open window and out onto a fire escape lined with unruly plants.

As we looked out over Burlington, he talked at length in a thick island accent — about horticulture. It took a while, but I managed to steer the conversation to canning and the redemption center. Finally.


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