Redemption is part of HBO’s Fall Documentary Series and gives viewers a harsh look at what New York’s unemployed do to survive. The film was written and produced by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill.
If you live in New York, chances are pretty good that you have seen people digging through the trash, pulling out cans and bottles. Many of them lug bags of recyclables around town, using shopping carts, bicycles or their own two hands. Some do this work alone, with friends or even with their small children. Many work tirelessly through the night, exposing themselves to the elements and the dangers of the streets. These nameless people are called “canners” and redeeming cans and bottles everyday to survive has become their way of life.
When I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I frequently saw canners sifting through the trash while I walked home, to a restaurant or to Central Park for a run. Usually, I would see the same people on the same blocks, silently sifting through bags and trash cans. I was always curious about how they started canning (although I did not know the proper term for what they did), where they lived, if they had families. HBO’s Redemption answered a few of my questions by interviewing canners from different areas of New York, including a couple I have seen on the Upper West Side.
Walter, a 60-year old Vietnam Vet, is a canner I have seen before. He has been canning for 10 years and is homeless, sleeping on park benches near Riverside Park. Walter said that the odd jobs that used to be so readily available have all but dried up and that finding a regular job would be like “hitting the lotto.” That sentiment is echoed when Walter meets up with another canner named Charles, a former short order cook at Houlihan’s. He, too, has been unable to find work so has resorted to canning in order to survive. And survive is the operative word, as bottles and cans are redeemed at 5 cents each. In order to make $100 per day, a canner would have to redeem 2000 cans or bottles. The odds of that happening are extremely slim, especially now that the number of canners has skyrocketed thanks to the economic downturn.
Susan, a former computer sales executive, goes canning in order to supplement her social security. She said that at first, she would hope to never run in to anyone she knew. But now, she could care less about that. Susan, who has a Bachelors Degree and won the IBM Winners Circle award, sometimes has to fight in order to collect enough recyclables in a day. But that rarely happens, as the canners have their own community and are usually respectful of each others space. John, who also worked in the computer field, had a job at the World Trade Center until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. John, originally from Osaka, Japan, now sleeps at the Redemption Center in Chinatown and has no direct access to water, food or a place to live. If John did not go canning on a daily basis, I seriously doubt if he would survive.
In Queens, Nuve is a mother of three who goes canning after she puts her two oldest on the bus to school. Her youngest goes with her, as he is not in school yet and child care is too expensive. Nuve speaks no English so it is hard for her to find work. She is also the oldest in her family so is obligated to help them, as well. Nuve goes canning everyday, sometimes getting help from her sister and nephews. Both women are trying to provide a better life for their children, but it has been extremely tough. Nuve said that although what she does is very hard, it is honorable work and she is not ashamed.
Redemption does not sugarcoat what life is like for canners one bit, and the disparity between them and working people is eye-opening. Many of these people were working just like the rest of us, but now cannot find a job. The number of canners who are senior citizens is staggering. As Susan pointed out in the film, the young people in the city hold the good jobs. One canner in Brooklyn said that he sees being arrested as a “rescue” because then, he at least would have a bed, 3 meals a day and a job. The fact that some of them would consider jail over canning is telling. As the gap between the haves and have nots continues to widen, New Yorkers will see more and more canners on the streets. Or maybe they won’t see them at all.
Redemption is currently airing on HBO, HBO2, HBO On Demand and HBO GO.
Photos courtesy of Tom LeGoff.