Another Perspective

Redemption Center

In Boston, it passes for skid row.

By 12.12.04

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BOSTON -- The other day while walking to the Post Office, I had what could only be described as a Frank Capra moment. The wind was coming hard and fast down the brittle gray avenue I brave almost daily to retrieve whatever package the mailman opted not to carry to my apartment. I turned my head to protect my eyes from the airborne specks of dirt hurtling towards me, like nature's sandblaster. This is when I happened to glance down an alley I had never noticed before and saw the sign in bright red letters: REDEMPTION CENTER.

I spent most of my life in a state where one would put their recyclables in a little green bin alongside the trash. That state, as those who regularly read my columns likely know, was New Hampshire, a place that, for whatever reason, much of the rest of the country insists on portraying as a cultural backwater. Yet here I am now in true blue progressive haven of Boston, Massachusetts, where instead of backing up their rhetoric by making it easier to recycle, they simply charge you a five cent deposit on every can or bottle you buy and dare you to try work your way through the maze to get it back.

For the life of me, lo these four moths, I could not figure out how the system worked. But that was before the wind, the dirt and the streets. Now that I knew the location of the Redemption Center, I was determined to get back what was rightfully mine and do something of purported ecological soundness to boot. So a day or two later, I packed up two garbage bags full of cans and headed out to win redemption, albeit in a much less heroic fashion than, say, Beowulf.

The weather was better and the ease of the walk made Redemption seem much closer than before. I took the alley, and settled into my place in line next to a giant canvas cart filled with shattered glass. A beautiful cacophony churned out of the building drowning out the usual horns and sirens, a rare moment of peace in the cityscape. The crushing of aluminum, plastic, and glass all create sounds distinct from one another. Intertwined each is a section in a madman's orchestra. I looked forward to my own imminent role as a guest conductor.

Preconceptions are both unavoidable and almost always wrong, so my expectations for a crowd of dreadlocked, patchouli-soaked guys in Phish shirts saying "Dude" this and "Jah" that was about as far off base as possible. Instead I finally figured out where all those guys always tooling around the city with shopping carts are headed. Alongside these impressive hauls, my two white garbage bags felt quite inadequate. The man behind me, for example, was pushing two shopping carts, one brimming with glass, the other aluminum, and he smoked a cigarette down to the filter without removing it from his lips. Clearly I was out of my league.

I HAD BEEN IN LINE for about ten minutes when a man approached me, leaning close enough to share a secret. I thought he was about to offer to take my cans off my hands. Several other folks had done so, and, frankly, it would be an act of charity considering the deplorable state of some of these men. Still, I felt I needed to see the noisy room for myself. I prepared to answer with the never pleasant, "No, sorry." But he only stared at me before coughing twice and throwing up on, among other things, my shoe. It smelled of bourbon, straight on the wrong kind of rocks. Then he righted himself, wiped his mouth, and said, "Better get behind the yellow line or Joe's gonna yell at you." I was touched. Here's this drunk, ill, and, by all available evidence, homeless man trying to educate a stranger on the rules of one societal ritual he understands well. I crossed the line. A man immediately recognizable as Joe came out and eyed me like a troublemaker before telling me my turn had come.

Inside, the Redemption Center was all I hoped it would be. Machines sucked in cans, spun them as little red beams read their barcodes, crushed them with a loud steel wallop, and, finally, added up my full credit on a little white slip the corner liquor store would redeem for me. So I dumped the soiled, sticky trash bags and walked into the liquor store asking the first employee I saw where to turn in my credit. He pointed to the cash registers where I got into line with roughly the same folks as around the corner, except I was the only one without a bottle. Hundreds of empty bottles were being traded for but a few full ones. No one seemed to see the sad irony. Neither the desperation nor the sadistic mockery these perfectly legal beverages so often make of meaningful existence seemed to flutter through the minds of the two women chatting over the hum of the cash registers. This was just another minute, hour, day at the Redemption Center to them.

Then and there two ideas I had long held were reaffirmed in my mind: The state's idea of redemption is wholly separate from humanity's idea of redemption. And, much as we'd like to believe in words scrawled on signs, true redemption never comes as advertised.

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