The Recycling Program

The old lady ambles across the street in baggy floral pants, shuffling her tattered sandals along patchwork sidewalks pulling a large, flat wheelbarrow loaded with possibly hundreds of pounds of cardboard. People steer slowly out of her way, barely glancing up from their smartphones. Cars pause before her path; buses wait for her to cross the street, yet she is somehow disregarded as an inconspicuous piece of city life, discreetly moving among the masses.

She is the can rattling along the sewer grate in a breeze. She is the stray cat mewing in a filthy corner. She is the invisible working poverty. I wondered about her. Does she have a family? Are they proud of her for continuing to work at her age or embarrassed of her lowly standing? Does she make good money recycling? Where does she go after work? I tend to think Koreans can ignore her along with the legless beggars of Itaewon and subway stations, but do they see her and feel pride or shame? Is she a part of their former provincial history that hasn’t been eradicated by modernization? Or is she just a helpful part of the trash removal system that rewards salvaging?

All the same, she is one of many familiar faces in my neighborhood. I know the cardboard ladies’ faces, just like the sock sellers, cell phone hawkers and tteokbokki dealers who I pass along the daily travels of my main street. I look at them, but never too long. They have penetrating eyes like black holes of vague awareness. I don’t know if those are the sage eyes of a lifetime of labor or the darting eyes of cardboard pursuit. Their wrinkles tell stories I can’t translate. Their tanned skins tell of extensive work hours my soft moisturized hands can’t possibly understand. Their rotten clothes speak of a humility most educated people wouldn’t recognize.

They serve a purpose; they do their job. How long have they done this job? One lady is so hunched from pulling those massively heavy, overloaded carts that she is literally shaped like a number 7. I see them chatting together at twilight, on quiet, dusty stoops, holding their faces in their hands as they speak, caricatures of themselves, like living black and white photos of a poorer time. What do they talk about? What do people unlike myself talk about? What can permanent disfigurement caused by toil teach a person? I can learn, again, to cease any entitlement to complain and strive to be thankful, positive and respectful.

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