By Ivan Taurisano – If you live in Jamaica, Queens, you are probably familiar with Rufus King Park, a sporadic green lung in the middle of the neighborhood, situated between Jamaica Station and Hillside Avenue, the main arterial road of the area. At nine in the morning, squeaking squirrels look for the acorns of the day, chipping birds look for the best melody to tweet, and Ms. Tiana Hicks looks for the best plastic bottles and cans to pick up.
It’s early morning. Ms. Hicks is wrapped in an old brown sweater twice her size. There’s an empty shopping cart with red handles and a tag with the red and white T. J. Maxx logo next to her. She’s using a bent metal hanger to move the trash inside a bin.
When she sees me, she stops searching and waits for me to speak. I ask if I can be her shadow for a while, and explain that I’m a student writing a short story about life in New York City. She is reluctant initially on whether to trust me or not; she probably doesn’t wanna be bothered. I innocently offer her $20 dollars to accept my proposal and I tell her I’ll buy lunch for the both of us. She accepts the lunch, not the money.
“If I wanted to beg for money I wouldn’t go around picking up these bottles,” she says.
Ms. Hicks is a middle-aged African American woman, probably in her late 50s. She has no family except for a sister in Washington who she quickly mentions and dismisses right away. She sleeps wherever she can and eats whatever she can afford. She is one of many homeless people in New York City that pick up empty bottles and cans from the streets and the dustbins to bring to the recycling machines.
She survives with the sum of the deposits she gets in return for each bottle, five cents each. This means that with twenty bottles and cans she can make a dollar. She tells me she needs an average of ten dollars a day. Two hundred bottles. Ms. Hicks is able to collect two hundred bottles, but it takes her the entire day. She must do it every day of her life.
“When you see someone with a cart filled with mountains of bottles, it probably took them days to gather them all,” Ms. Hicks says.
We reach the end of the park, at the corner of Jamaica Avenue. The last bin on this side is full, and with bare hands she picks up the trash from inside the bin and throws it on the grass. Her hands are dirty and stained with what looks like spoiled ketchup from a half-empty box of McDonald’s French fries. She quickly rubs the back of her hands on her pants, leaving red stains on them.
Around the bin the trash is now scattered. But then Ms. Hicks does something that surprises me. She kneels on the ground and picks up the trash to put it back inside. She obviously cares about the park. I try to find an excuse in my head not to do that but I can’t simply watch an old woman cleaning and act as a bystander so I put my notebook back in my bag and kneel next to her to help. I feel wet and clammy things on my hands and wrist, but I keep going.
“I’m hungry,” she says, so I look around and see the Popeye’s on Sutphin Boulevard. I point to it.
“I could use some wings,” she says. She laughs loudly and I laugh as well.
We reach the restaurant and I go inside to get her food so she doesn’t have to leave the bottles unprotected. While I’m in line, I can’t help but think about how different lives can be. Sometimes what we do doesn’t really matter because life is not about what you deserve. It’s about what you can do with what has been given to you. Sometimes you can get very little, and you have to do too much.
Fifteen minutes later we are back at the park with wings and fries. We eat in silence. She eats very fast and I see that she doesn’t eat the whole wing but gives it a bite, then takes another wing, and eventually goes back to the previous one.
At this point, I had been hoping to go to the recycling machine but Ms. Hicks isn’t done yet.
“These are barely a couple of dollars,” she says. “I need more bottles, and the line is always long there, it makes no sense to go now.”
I understand that my time with her has come to an end. When I stretch my hand to thank her, she takes it but doesn’t shake with strength. She says, “Thank you for what you did today.”
“It was just lunch,” I say. “It’s no big deal. Thank you for allowing me to stay with you.”
She shakes her head and answers, “I’m not talking about that. You kneeled next to me to help me pick up the trash. That was really nice of you.” She turns, and leaves.
Ivan Taurisano is a student at John Jay College.