Canners (2015) - full transcript

In an ode to the men and women who earn their daily bread by diligently collecting New York City's cans and bottles. They talk about their struggles, their families, and their dreams,

I had moved away and I ran
back into him three years ago.

- No, and didn't
want to go. For what?

To go fight a war with
it that's not our doings?

No, no. This is
the war right here.

This is the war, right here.

United States, it's the war.

The war is hunger, starving.

You understand, people that
are homeless. Too much.

- Nine, 10, 11, 12.

13, 14, 15, 16, 17.

18, 19, 20.

20, 21, 22.

28, 29, 30.

30, 31.

- How you doing? My
name is Nathaniel.

Nathaniel Beuton.

And something that you
want to know, ask me.

Well, basically I'm from Harlem.

That's where I'm from.

I was put out in the streets.
You know, no where to go.

Trying to earn a dollar.

It's what you may
call like a hustle.

It's a few dollars in the
pocket that keeps you going,

and keeps you out
of crime, all right.

I started this when I was 25.

I'm 54.

- David.

That's like, uh...

Uh, you know...

You know what I'm saying?

- You got the
knucklehead polices, yes.

They will give you a hard time.

Yes they will.

Two months ago, I got a ticket.

I got a $77 ticket
just for doing this.

Just for doing this,
I got a $77 ticket.

I done went to
jail back to back,

the 22nd and the 24th of
this month, back to back.

You can't even sleep out here.

That's how bad it is now,
you can't even sleep.

You can't even sleep on
the concrete no more,

whatever, just out
here and chill.

They gonna lock you up.

- Some people don't
want to go to shelters.

People are looking for an
apartment where they can

relax, rest, put a key in
they door, say it's their own.

Nobody wants to
be in the streets.

Nobody wants to
be in the street.

But to be in the streets is
no joke, man. It's no joke.

♪ Will you please remember me ♪

♪ We never never meet again ♪

♪ Will you please remember me ♪

♪ I'll always be your friend ♪

♪ I want to go go back home ♪

♪ I can't find my way ♪

♪ I want to go back home ♪

♪ Guess I'll get lucky one day ♪

- My name is fully
Alvarez Arty Singleton.

I was born in North New Jersey.

Good old North New

I've been in New York 10 years.

Yeah, I'm in Manhattan.

Yes, I have a place.

- I was, worked for
a Data Communique,

which was Metro Seliger,

which was Accurate
List Letter Service.

They changed the name.

And 38 years, I have very
nice bosses and everything.

I was a Supervisor.

I have a pacemaker.
I have a fibulator.


Y'know, they just put me on
disability, my doctor.

I couldn't work no more.

The social security
doesn't give me enough.

My pension, I've been
working 38 years on one job.

They don't give me enough money.

So I had an opportunity to be
in post office, and I didn't.

That took away a lot
of opportunities.

Now I'm 67 years old,
and trying to get

a little money to keep
my, keep me going.

But I just depend on God.
I don't depend on man.

I depend on God, and
God has seen me through.

When I don't have
nothing, he makes sure

that I have a little
something by doing this.

- One time in the morning,
I was standing by the door,

about to get off shift,
maybe an hour in.

And I saw a lady.

She was picking up
the cans and bottles

that were left over
before the truck came.

And there was a lot
she wanted to take.

So I see left, and
then she came back.

And she came back
rolling up in a

brand new car full
of cans and bottles.

- Y'all want to do me a favor?


- Stay right there
till I move my car,

so I can get these bottles.

Okay, don't let
nobody get this spot.

- 59.

If I made...

- When you first start out,

you don't know which can is
good, at which can is not good.

But it's a good
thing they started

with the five cent
on the water bottles.

Because the water
bottles are light.

Actually, the city garbage
cans, I really don't do that.

Because you got dog poo,
and this and that in there.

My name is Peanut.

I actually started
recycling. My daughter is 21.

I started recycling
like 22 years ago.

It wasn't straight through,
it wasn't consecutive.

It was like off and on.

Whenever I was out of work,
I knew that I could recycle.

I started by the museum,
because I would see

busloads and busloads of people.

So I got an idea.
I said okay, cool.

I'll take a clear plastic
bag in the morning,

and I'll put two or
three cans in there.

I'll go upstairs to
the top of the museum,

where they have the garbage can,

and I'll put them bags there.

That way people will
know this is for cans.

And before you know it,

everybody was throwing
their cans in.

And I come out with four bags.

I got famous for carrying four
or five bags on my shoulder.

You know, I was a girl.

And so a lot of people
was impressed by that, and, um...

Actually it was enough
to get me an apartment,

after a few months or whatever.

I saved every dime I made,

besides taking out
for something to eat.

- I do what I do.

I do what I do. I
pick my cans up.

I mind my business, I
stay out of trouble.

At least I'm not
dead or in jail.

My name is Eddie, and
I live in Manhattan.

I'm too old, 60.

I can't run like
these guys no more.

I started doing this
since about '88,

in '88 when I came
out of prison.

God told me. He said, boy.

You want to stay out of
jail, you better find you

something to do besides
committing crimes.

So he introduced me to this.

Now I was in jail
from '82 to '88.

No, from '82 to '83, I
was fighting my case.

Six years.

What a waste of time.

But I can't complain.

Some negative things were
happening in my life.

This is fun.


Where else could you
get tax free money?

Like here, every
Sunday I come here.

Most of the guys that
recycle, they know.

Don't come over here.

Because it's the only
place that I do on Sunday.

And I will defend this spot,
just like I own the land.

Because here I get
enough, generally,

to carry me through
for two or three days.

So I get very very defensive,

when people sort of
think that I'm stupid,

and they just want to
try to take advantage.

Nah, this is the
only place I come.

And I'm not gonna let
you have it. I can't.

- When I was 14 years old,
I had gotten a summer job.


There was no other job that
they couldn't find for me.

So they asked me,
they said, "Nathaniel."

They said, "how
good is your math?"

I said well, I'm good.

So they said would
you be what they call

a substitute helper,
like for a teacher?

I said, okay.

But when I got nine grade,
or something like that,

I jumped out of school.

- I was working.

I was a case manager for
people with HIV AIDS.

And because of the
economy, I lost that job.

And that brought me back here.

That's about being
addicted to drugs.

That's been off
and on for years.

But I've been clean now I'm...

I've been clean
for two years now.

- Well, I had a job.

I lost the job.

I lost the job. I was
working in Jersey.

Costac Minache Road, wholesale,
working for David Smalls.

And um...I got fired.


- Because I was like,

I didn't show up
for three times.

and I was late twice.

But I was always
there on my job,

because I started doing garbage.

Then I worked myself up
to packing and invoice.

And only been there
less than a year.

- I can do maintenance
work, I do security work.

I'm on the net, trying to
find a suitable employer.

Not easy to come by these days,

when folks are holding
back the money.

And I only pick
this, I only pick up

the cans and bottles
from out of my building.

I don't go outside of that zone.

It took me 10 bags to make $84.

what time period?

- Three months.


How do you live?

- My daughter.

I supported her most of her
life, now she supports me.

At least until I finish
doing what I need to do.

See there's another side of
life, other than just working.

- Me personally, I do
warehousing and security.

I'm certified to
drive a forklift.

But they would give
it to this guy,

because he wanted to work
for six dollars an hour.

I stopped.

I just quit. I quit.

I come to the conclusion
that I can't work for nobody.

- I'm independent.

I don't have to answer
to anyone but me.

Nobody tells me what to do.

I know I should be doing better.

And given enough
time, I probably will.

But I'm not gonna kill
myself if I don't.

I got this. No, I
got this. I got one in the-

You arms are longer than mine?

That's to let the
other canners know,

that somebody's working
in this building already,

that somebody's here.

They like that about
us, that we don't

break the bags open
and get them tickets, y'know.

- Like I have this
guy, he's here.

He lets me go
downstairs and get the,

help him with the garbage.

I have a friend on a 103rd
Street, little white guy.

And I have a little friend,
yeah I have friends.

They help me out.

I said
the number to call

to get into the show
is 888-965-0440.

Say what you want to say.

I wasn't
working for a long time.

And God moved in
less than a month.

I got a part time position
at a dealership, basically.

And God moved in
less than a month.

- Warren, are you in yet?

I'm going around the corner.

Well, you could talk to me
now. I'm gonna do this here.

I'm gonna do this.

I'm from Queens.

I'm the President of my usher
board, and I'm a Deaconess.

Well, we go around and help,

go around and see people if
they're sick or whatever.

And then we help
with the communion.

Like, I have a lady
that goes to the Bronx.

And she has cancer.

And I take her every
Wednesday to get chemotherapy.

They pay me.

Four o'clock in the
afternoon, they put this out.

So they can take the cans
and the little plastic.

But the majority of
time, I take the bottles

to a beer house in Jamaica.

And you put them in the machine.

I hear the truck.

I want to try to get
some of these out.

What's a beer house?

- A beer house. You don't
know what a beer house?

know what a bar is.

- A beer house.
- No, I don't know what-

- Where they have
beer, they sell beer.

What's where, where you been?

How long you been
in United States?


You never been to a beer house,

where they sell beer and soda.

I don't. See that?
You made me miss.

You made me miss my stuff.

You made me miss it.

Go ahead.

- Is this yours?

- Yeah. No, go ahead. Take it.

It's yours.

See that? Y'all made me miss it.

Getting interviewed
and made miss my stuff.

And y'all, when you start
coming around this way?

- It ain't made me no problems.

- I got to go over there,
'cause the man's not there.

- We're not as young as
we look. I'm 49, he's 50.

- I'm 50.

- So my check is like
maybe seven and change.

And his check is
like six and change.

And to get a month of
eating and paying bills,

utilities or whatever.

It goes real quick.

And if you have a disability.

We have the same thing.

I'd rather not say.

Uh, y'know, I mean...

Everything I do, see I have
my little handicap pass.

Actually, this is his.

That's mine.

- Because we both,
in Atlanta, Georgia

we both worked for UPS.

Our job was, we
were loading planes.

But it got to a point
where it was starting

to affect our health, so
we couldn't work anymore.

So we had to rely on
social security disability.

But yet and still, it's not
enough to make ends meet.

- My name is David.

And I have a different
approach than he does.

I do try to make money with
the cans and everything.

But what I like most of all
is, I call it treasure hunting.

Y'know, because I find all kinds of,

you'd be surprised
what people throw out.

I must have like about five
stereos at home, two computers.

And they don't throw away
stuff that don't work.

They throw away stuff,
because they want to upgrade.

So I mean, nine out of 10,
if I find three computers,

two of them are gonna work.

Now this right
here, chances are.

I look at it, it's
in good condition.

Chances are it works.

Oh, yeah. Also, we find a lot of
books, a lot of books.

And thank God for
the Strand Bookstore.

We take them downtown
and sometime I get
as much as 40, $50.

One man's trash-

- Is another man's
treasure, and it's true.

Because I actually furnished
my first apartment,

over on York Avenue
where Gracie Mansions at.

Furniture was kind of easy
because by me recycling,

I come across things that's
in good condition, like this.

This is a clothes dryer.

Sometime people that have
a abundance of things,

they will order things
from magazines, or stores or whatever.

They get it delivered by UPS.

And when it comes,
they look at it.

They don't like the color.

And they throw it away
with tags and everything.

So I was like, one
of the best dressed

homeless person you
ever want to see.

- We both lived in Atlanta.
He's actually from Louisiana.

- We fleed Katrina.

- Yeah, we were Katrina victims.

- We were Katrina victims.

- Yeah, I lost everything.
I was a student.

I went to SUNO,
Southern University.

My major was psychology.

And I had been going to school
already for like two years.

I had started going
to school in New York.


I don't know,

for whatever reason I
wanted a change of pace.

So I moved to Louisiana,
and that's where we met.

After about a year, you know,
Katrina hit.

And luckily we got out
before it actually struck.

I had just got my student
loan, and I had rented a car

so we can hang out
on the weekends.

And then I took my computer
and different things,

some clothes or whatever.

And I think I had a dog then.

- Yeah.
- And we left, thinking that

okay, after three days or
so we can come back.

But of course the
rest is history.

And you know that we
weren't able to go back.

I lost everything.

- I left my husband, and
I took to the streets.

Y'know. it's a long story why
I left or whatever.

And I was homeless. I found
myself over in Central Park.

I was on 57th Street
and Fifth Avenue.

I stayed hungry

because I wasn't used
to being on the streets.

I had no idea about soup
kitchens or anything.

I didn't know.

But after four
days of not eating,

and being so hungry
where you can't cry.

Your tears, you
have no more tears.

And you're so hungry,
you figure out things.

The restaurant, they
would put the food

that they had to throw out.

They would put in
clean containers,

and they would offer it to us.

One person would go
by Dunkin' Donuts.

One person would
go by Pizza Hut.

One person would go by Chirping
Chicken, you know, the chicken place.

One person would go
by the supermarket

to get the vegetables
and the fruit.

And we would all bring in
whatever that we collect.

We would bring it in, and sit
down and have a family dinner.

It was 20 strangers,
sitting there having dinner.

And we would do this each night.

And therefore the money that
I was making from the cans,

I was saving it and saving it.

I walked around with my
backpack, my belongings.

And my money would be in my bag.

seen families out here.

The mother's pushing her
cart, and then you see

the little kids on the side
digging in the garbage.

I've seen people out here that
I would have never thought

that would be picking
through people's garbage.

Never complain.

- There you go.

It's getting hot out here.

Na, nah, gimme one...

Hey yo, do me a favor.

You got plastic. I got a
lady over here with plastic, alright.

I need you to get on a line.

- He got plastic.

- No, no, no. I need
you to get on a line.

I'm the onsite
maintenance personnel.

I'm 26 years old.

And when I started eight
years ago, I was 18.

18, so I was kind of
real young in the field,

dealing amongst older,
older gentlemen and women.

You know what I mean?

And you have to learn
how to deal with

the psychology of
you know, groups of people.

And just focus on
what the task is.

And that is, help making
the world greener.

- Oh man, my first
week on this job.

I think I told myself,
what am I doing to myself?

Lifting, my body wasn't
conditioned for that.

And doing that every day.

- These guys don't
have enough help.

They need more help because,

like with people
standing in line,

and machine's getting
cleaned out, you know.

It's always, people
are always waiting.

- The stereotype of
people picking up bottles,

and canning as they wanna
say, was very unsanitary.

You know what I mean?

And, y'know, just people who
lived on the streets.

But actually, when I
began to work here,

I learned, I learned differently.

You have people who have lives,

who basically live in
homes and pay bills.

- If you was to see me walking
down the street doing this,

I would have a
hood over my head,

sunglasses because I don't
want nobody seeing me.

I'm embarrassed, this and that.

I do it proudly now. I
have no problem with it.

And um, you know,

It came to,

- And like he says,
a honest dollar.

- It's an honest dollar.

- And there were fewer
people doing it back then.

Now it's more or
less acceptable.

Now, I can't always say that
about every neighborhood.

I'm from uptown. I'm from
what they call the hood.

And up there, it's
not really acceptable.

People still see,
they'd see you as a bum.

And I hate to say it,
but my own people.

I'm recycling.

The law says you gotta recycle.

So what I'm doing?
I'm obeying the law.

Hey, what if I were some
lunatic, with a knife or gun,

or some kind of weapon or
something taking your money?

How would you feel then?

- I just want humanity.

When I meet people,

that's all I expect out
of them is humanity.

I'm David Durrah.

I've been doing cans
ever since 1990.

Maybe 1995.

And it's been like a
supplement income for me.

It helps with what
I got coming in.

A lot of people feel like a guy

with my education, and
all that kind of stuff,

have to feel some kind
of a feeling of shame.

You know, but I don't.

This is just making money,
just like anything else.

Like this Thursday is my last
day at the club I play at.

Yes, I'll be working
on a cruise line.

- If you coming
to do a dirty job,

you're not gonna come
in a three-piece suit.

You know what I mean?

You know, seven days.

- People look at me like,

"Ew, you're putting
your hands in there?"

You use gloves.

No, I don't use gloves
because I do certain buildings

where I know I don't
need the gloves.

But constantly, I
carry hand sanitizer.

I wash my hands
constantly. So I'm okay.

Nobody would know you're
homeless, because you're clean.

See, I used to always be clean.

I used to go inside the
restaurant by the zoo.

I used to go, wake up in
the morning, wash my face.

And they have security.

So I wasn't really afraid
of being out there.

They tried to take her stuff.
She had her eye swollen.

People are talking,




- My kid's mom, she passed.

And I started just saying,
ah the hell with it.

But her heart messed
up on her. She was 30.

We had such a good time.

As far as we were concerned,

our boys is the most
important thing in our life.

But they're good boys.

My baby is 31.

The other one is 33.

- I have a son that's 28.

My daughter, yeah.

I have a daughter
that just turned.

She just turned 17 the
first of this month.

And I have two grandkids.

She's with her mother.
Yes. She's cool.

She's in they nice
house in Jersey.

Good, they living all right.

She got remarried
after the divorce.

She got remarried
and everything, so...

I let it go.

As of right now,

I couldn't really tell
you what my son is doing.

'Cause I haven't seen my son in,

I haven't seen my son in
about, maybe say 11 years.

- She's gone.

A lot.

A whole lot.

- Well, my son died at 30.

- Really?
- Yeah. He had asthma.

And my daughter
lives in Florida.

My granddaughter is
gonna get married.

They bought me a nice
dress, 200 dollars. Yeah.

My daughter, she's
going to school

to be a physical therapist.

So when I put 25 bottles in
the bag, it's pretty good.

But if I put 48 or
50, it's too much.

My lungs and my heart
keeps flooding with water

because I'm trying to, I'm
not eating the right things.

And then when I don't
eat the right thing,

and I'm lifting, it's
too much on my heart.

So basically what I do now,

I send her 50, 60 dollars
a week every week.

Or either I'll wait
and send once a month,

I'll send her like 200 dollars.

And all of that money
comes from the cans.

He started when he was about 14.

He wanted these expensive things

that I couldn't
afford to buy him.

So I showed him
how I get my money.

I say you want this?

He said I'm too
young to get a job.

I said, okay, but you
can go to work with me.

Come on, I'm gonna
show you what I do

to buy you those sneakers,

to buy your school supplies
and things like that.

And I got him out here
and it took him awhile.

He didn't want to do it, and
it was too hard. It's tiring.

But then once he got
his own bag of cans,

and took it and cashed in,
and kept his own money.

Then he's like
wow, this is good.

And he did it for the
next two summers, he did.

You know?

- I mean, you figure
one can is five cents.

So I have to get 20 cans
just to make a dollar,

100 cans to make five dollars.

- The thing about it is,
picking up is the easiest part.

It's not easy at all,

but that's the easiest
part is to collect them.

Come on.

You be like,

Good morning.

You can imagine how we work.

But of course they couldn't
bear us in Manhattan.

And everything were
plastics and glass.

And I mean, it could not be.

So we were asked,
after two months

we were asked to
leave the facility.

We went to a better place.

Now we are very open.

But we hope we will stay
here longer, hopefully.

I will just...

That's good.

- A different company.
No, different.

- Certainly, I am not here
because I love counting

bags, or counting,
or loading trucks.

So, the only reason just
really that I get involved

to this kind of projects
is because I like people.

Not because I like
whether they get

five cents more or
five cents less.

- I used to make a lot of money.

I mean, I used to
make incredible money.

And back then I also had a car.

So, I was stuffing
stuff in my trunk.

I was padding up my back seat.

Actually, I had a Cadillac.

And people would be wondering.

What's this guy with a Cadillac

doing with bottles in
the back of his car?

But I was making money.

And people would be wondering.

What's this guy with a Cadillac

doing with bottles in
the back of his car?

But I was making money.

Now I make 15, about 10,
15 dollars every day.

And I put my numbers, my
lotto numbers in with it.

'Cause my car won't
hold that much.

If I have it loaded,
it holds about 40.

Today I'll probably make
maybe 40, anywhere from

30 to 50, 50 dollars.

- I see an average
of about 80 dollars,

to about 120 dollars a
day for some people here.

- This is a good thing for
me, 'cause I like good things.

I like cell phones. I like
watches. I like good shoes.

This pays for all
this that I wear.

- It pays for the cell phone.

It pays life insurance,

which I didn't have,
even when I was working.

I didn't have life insurance.

Now I have life insurance.

I pay for cell phone bills.

Basically, you know,
whatever I need

is taken care of through cans.

- Well, I hope to get
a really good job.

That's what I'm hoping for.

It's simple, I know how to go.

You go into the department
store, fill out the application.

But now they want
you to go online.

I'm not too keen about going
online. You understand?

Just give me pad and
paper, let me fill it out.

And whatever tests you
take, and that's it.

But all that going online
because I won't get no feedback.

The reason why I
won't get no feedback,

because I don't have a computer,

nor a laptop to get
any feedback too.

At least I know I can
fill the application out

and say, well, hey.

You got the job, you
hired or whatever.

- I would like to either be
a substance abuse counselor,

or work with people
living with AIDS.

Actually, I only have
like 13 credits to go,

believe it or not.

It's just I'm getting older,
and I've got kind of lazy.

And I got kind of sidetracked
'cause of Katrina.

'Cause I was going to
Southern University.

So eventually I will go back,

and I'll get those
last 15 credits.

Um, I know I can do it.

I can do anything
I put my mind to.

- I would like to
be a counselor.

I'm working on that now.

I figure this way, I have enough

in my life going on that

I can help somebody with it.

I think it's okay to have a
person that you can talk to,

y'know, and not be
afraid or ashamed,

a person that you can say
anything you want to, to.

And know they're not gonna
judge you, good or bad.

Well, I have to
finish two more tests,

and I'll get my
certificate in counseling

from Stratford Career Institute.

I'll finish the two tests
within the next week.

And I'll mail them in.

And then from there,

I'm gonna try to get
funding for higher training.

If not, I'll pay it for
myself. I don't care.

I prefer to have funding,
because I really can't afford

to spend that kind of money.

- 'Cause God is gonna
take care of me.

God takes care of me.


- This is my card right here.

And if you go online,
you will see my trio,

and you'll see all the
records that I've done.

Yeah, and I do classes.

I teach the kids around
the neighborhood.

I do it to them for free.

I teach the kids that
want to learn for free

in my neighborhood,
over on 129th Street.

My apartment, their
parents bring them over.

But I'm working on a cruise
line starting Friday.

And we'll be sailing
to Alaska for a month.

I've been through the
canal a lot of times.

A lot of times.

If you know how to
survive in New York,

you can survive anywhere,


- God bless you.

- They are my family.

And I love that they're from

different nationalities,
different races.

And that gives me a lot of
joy, to have such a big family,

and such a diversity of
friends and companions in life.

They are the most important
people in my life.

I don't have husband.
I don't have children.

So my whole life is for them.

Working. No no.

Working for to make.

- Right about now
my stomach's hungry,

and I'm going home to eat,
to a friend of mine's.

Y'all take care now.