by Eva Bell
The man was dressed in a black corduroy pant and dark grey jersey. His felt hat was drawn over his forehead so that part of his face was hidden from view. He had a large jute bag which he rested on the ground as he rummaged in a garbage bin and lifted out discarded plastic bottles. Thrusting them into his bag, he hopped on to his bicycle and rode away.
From my bench in the busy market place in Bonn I had a good view of the activities around me. As a tourist, it was fun to watch the world go by. It surprised me that even in this affluent country there were people scouring the garbage bins placed in different areas around this shopping precinct. Most of them looked poverty stricken, some were dirty and dishevelled and probably alcoholics or drug addicts. They not only fished for empty bottles but also for discarded remnants of food. So I wondered why that well dressed healthy man collected empty bottles.
I was there again the next day, seated on my favourite bench opposite C&A. I had brought with me two empty bottles to discard. The same man rode up on his bicycle, parked near the bin and repeated the procedure of the previous day. I caught his eye and beckoned, waving my two empty bottles. I hoped he’d know English so I could strike up a conversation.
“Morgen,” he said, raising his hat as he approached. “You called me?”
“Yes. I’m curious to know why a decently dressed man like you should collect bottles from the garbage bins.”
“May I?” he asked, pointing to the seat beside me. His English was perfect, though heavily accented.
“You don’t seem to be out of pocket. So why this daily ritual?”
“I’m an environmentalist, Madam. I’m sure you know plastic can be recycled and put to good use instead of cluttering the environment. Now that I have retired, I have all the time in the world to help make the city cleaner.”
“How thoughtful and concerned!” I said, handing him my two bottles. “But aren’t you depriving poor people of a few coins? I hear that large bottles returned to the shop fetch 25 cents each and the smaller ones, 8 cents each. So if a person collects ten bottles a day he has enough money to get something to eat and probably buy a small bottle of beer.”
“Don’t you bother about poor people, Madam. They get a generous dole from the government, enough to live comfortably if they don’t squander it on drinks and drugs. I must be getting along. So glad to have made your acquaintance,” he said and walked away.
I sensed that what I said had made him uncomfortable.
It was my last day in Bonn and I planned to buy a few things to take home with me. I was pottering around between the well stocked shelves of a supermarket called Mini Asia in another part of town, when I heard a familiar voice in conversation with the cashier. There he was exchanging 50 large bottles for a handsome sum of 12 Euros.
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Eva Bell is a doctor by profession, and a freelance writer of short stories and articles published in magazines, newspapers, anthologies and on the Net, She is the author of five novels, two non-fiction, and three children’s books. Blog: http://muddyloafers.blogspot.