I am going to tell you a true story. It is about a man named Jim. That’s his real name, and I’m using it because, once upon a time, he gave me permission to tell his story.
I met Jim… I’m not exactly sure where. But at a certain time in my life—say, 15 years ago, he was sort of everywhere. When I looked out my window, there would be Jim, rolling his shopping cart down my street, and coming up on my porch to pick up a bag I had left there for him.
Jim was a small guy, perhaps in his sixties when we met, but he looked much, much older. He was wiry, and sort of bent over, and he didn’t have a lot of his original teeth left. He had a pack a day habit… these really nasty little cigars; I couldn’t stand the smell of them. I’m not sure whether it was the smoking that aged Jim or the drinking. Jim had a long career of hard drinking; but that was behind him now. When I knew him he was in recovery, a stalwart of the Thursday 8 PM AA meeting. He was so proud of his recovery. First he counted the days, then the months, and then the years. I was invited to go to the meetings in which Jim received his 10 year, his 11 year and his 12 year medallions.
When I first knew Jim, he was walking around the neighborhood, miles and miles of walking each day, to pick up cans and bottles, both those he’d pick out of the garbage or recycling, and those he’d get off the porches of friends who had saved them for him. I was in the latter category. For a long time… I’m not sure how many years… all my returnable bottles and cans went to Jim. It was convenient for me… no hauling them to the grocery store… and it was money Jim lived on. He was on disability because of his health, and he got a Social Security check every month. But the thing that allowed Jim to live in his little apartment on Main Street was collecting bottles and cans.
Jim kept track of his bottles and cans the way he kept track of his sobriety. Every once in a while, he’d give me a call, and ask me to drive him and a whole car load of returnables to the redemption center, and so I’d go, and we’d load them in the back of my car. Not everyone rinses out cans and bottles, especially the students at the frat houses who just put their stuff on the street. So inevitably my car would end up smelling like a brewery. It struck me as odd, maybe even tempting fate just a tiny bit, that Jim lived off beer bottles and cans. You know, given that beer almost killed him, and that he spent his days working very hard not to touch the stuff, to stay sober. But that smell never seemed to bother him… maybe the cigars had killed his sense of smell, I don’t know. But Jim, when we were driving to the redemption center, would say, “Well, last year I got all the way to $1800. It was a slow summer for some reason, I’m only at $1200 and it’s already Labor Day. But I think I can make it this year, if the kids have as many parties as they did last fall.”
To tell you the truth, I didn’t always look forward to Jim’s and my jaunts to the redemption center. I would get a message from Jim on my answering machine, and I’d think, Oh great, just what I need this week. I hated that smell in my car. And my kids were young, so I had to make sure someone was available to watch them, because I had a station wagon and we’d have to put the seat down. So I couldn’t bring them with me. It was kind of a pain in the neck sometimes. But then I’d be with Jim, driving to the redemption center, and, you know, he had this incredible optimism about him. I’d watch him walk, see how hard it was for him… I think his joints were painful, and he had emphysema… did I mention that? So… he’d get winded just going up a little set of three steps. So here was this guy… living alone in a tiny little apartment, living off social security and his can and bottle money, physically in pain a lot of the time… and he just was one of the most grateful people I’d ever known.
That was it. Jim was grateful. He was sober. He had that to be grateful about. He was able to not drink, one day at a time, as he often reminded me. And… in his recovery, he’d become interested in genealogy, so he spent a lot of time calling people, churches, cemeteries, trying to track down his ancestors. I think he had fully fleshed out family trees going back into the 16th century. He was so excited about his family history, and grateful for it. Sure, he was in a lot of pain, but he could still walk. He was grateful for that. And he loved those dreadful smelly little cigars. They just pleased him to no end. Jim was grateful.
Jim was a churchgoing man. That’s the other place I saw him. I was a director of Youth Ministries and Christian Education for a local Church, and Jim was a member. So I would see Jim there. Occasionally I’d hear his shopping cart squeaking down the hallway, and I’d know Jim was in the building. Jim could talk about his faith; he was an unusual person in that respect. He believed that God, working through AA, had saved his life. And he was grateful.
One fall the youth group decided to do a fundraiser. They wanted to buy gifts for the women and children who find themselves at Local Shelter over Christmas. As you may know, Local is a place for people who have experienced domestic violence, and who need a safe place. I don’t remember who thought of this as a mission project, but the kids were pretty pumped. This seemed like a worthwhile cause to them. They really wanted to help.
One of them got the idea to do a bottle and can drive, and the others all concurred that this would be a great, and relatively easy, fundraising project. All they’d need to do would be to remind the people at church to save bottles and cans for them, and then they’d bring them in, and, voila, easy money.
When you’re a youth leader, you really want to let the kids lead when they are excited about an idea. They really were excited about this idea, so I encouraged them. Sure! Absolutely. We can do this. And so the bulletin announcements were written, the signs were made… the word went out. We were collecting bottles and cans.
And, of course, I felt a little funny about this, as far as Jim was concerned. I was worried. Would we be cutting into Jim’s income? I knew he depended on his bottle and can money. I made a mental note to hold some of our family’s returnables aside for Jim…. maybe we could even try to drink some extra diet soda over the next month. I worried about the next time I would see Jim. Would he be upset? Would he be hurt? I didn’t look forward to our next encounter.
I was in my office one grey November day. I hadn’t seen Jim since the bottle and can drive had begun, but it was going well; I had an appointment to meet a youth group member and his mom to take two carloads to the supermarket to be redeemed. I don’t remember what I was working at, but I probably was on my computer. Then, I heard it: the familiar squeak of Jim’s shopping cart wheels coming down the hallway. I took a deep breath. I dreaded this meeting.
I stood up and poked my head out of my office door. “Hi,” he said. He had a raspy voice, a real smoker’s voice. “Can we talk? In private?”
“Sure Jim,” I said. “Do you want to come into my office?” Jim nodded, and he wheeled his cart just outside my door. He ambled in sort of slowly—he always moved slowly—and he let himself down in a chair while I closed the door.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this bottle drive, Jim,” I said. That was narrowly true. I’d had a sense I should talk to him. But, in my dread about hurt feelings and so forth, I’d not really made any effort to make it happen.
“That’s what I want to talk about,” Jim said. He reached into the pocket of his big parka— it was really too big for him. He pulled out a wet, folded up, wrinkled $20 bill.
I looked at him, blankly.
“This is for the bottle drive. I want you to put this towards whatever the kids make.” Then he paused. “I don’t want them to know it’s from me.”
It took me a moment to re-orient myself from the conversation I’d been anticipating. For some reason, the first words out of my mouth were, “Jim, you don’t need to do this.”
He looked at me, hard. “Oh yes I do,” he said. He paused again. “It should be a lot more, but this is all I can manage at the moment.”
I did a quick calculation. $20.00. That’s four hundred cans. I had some vivid mental snapshots of Jim walking slowly down a street in my neighborhood, of Jim climbing three stairs somewhere to retrieve a bag, of Jim excited and adding up the numbers as we drove to the redemption center. I knew exactly what those bottles and cans cost him.
“Jim,” I began, but I never finished.
“I have not always been the person I should have been, especially when I was drinking, especially where women are concerned. Just know that…” another pause… “I need to do this.”
His voice brightened up as he rose to leave my office. “Have a nice day!” he said. When Jim said that, he said it without a hint of sarcasm. He meant it.
He took hold of his cart, and I listened as its squeaky wheels rolled down the carpeted hallway.
Thanks be to God. Amen.