“GET A JOB!”
Joana looked up and watched the man walk away down the block. He didn’t look back. He didn’t have to. His words hung over her like a cloud. The square of his black jacket a dismissing punctuation.
She took a deep breath of the blue morning and returned to the task at hand–digging in a trash can. The warm sour smell of stale beer was thick. She pulled out a couple beer bottles. She shook out the remaining drops and put them into the main bin of her shopping cart. Using her elbow, she carefully wiped at the sweat gathered at her temples.
This is her job. Every day she leaves her small shared apartment at 1am. She pushes her shopping cart up and down the blocks of Brooklyn brownstones and row houses til 7am gathering bottles and cans for 5 cents a piece. It wasn’t her dream to come to the USA to dig in garbage cans, but this was a way to make money without too many questions asked. There was no paperwork and no boss with big eyes and sweaty palms.
She pushed her cart to the next building and wiped her big latex gloves down the front of her apron. A few little green bags of dog poop moldered on the top of the recycling bin. At least these were tied. If she got shit on her gloves, the smell would follow her home. She had been lucky today so far.
A squad of blue translucent recycling bags, plump with beer bottles and cans, were huddled around the bins. Someone had had a party last night! This would be a nice bonus to her take. She sorted these into her own bags separating the bottles and cans, glass, plastic and aluminum. Brooklyn was bountiful terrain for her. She always got lots of PBR and Bud Light cans, as well as the colorful craft beer cans and bottles. She re-tied the bags when she was done with them, knowing that if she left things neat she would be less likely to receive any trouble from the tenants.
Then she kicked the actual trash cans to scare away any rats that might be hiding inside. The rats were the worst part of the job. They terrified her. She had almost been bitten several times. She kicked the can again and waited for the telltale rustle. They were the beasts of her mythology, far more real and terrible than Medusa or a Minotaur, trolls or ogres. To her relief there were none hiding in this corner of her labyrinth.
Inside the bin she found some empty Prosecco and Champagne bottles. This was more than just a hipster soirée. They had been celebrating something. Was it a wedding or a baby? A graduation? It was nice to be in a place where people could celebrate life, even if it was just her job to sort out their refuse.
She had come to the USA as a refugee. Her old country was at war. There was no food, no education, no jobs, no future for her there. She remembered waking up there feeling desperate and useless. She left everything and everyone she knew behind and nearly died of dehydration passing through six countries to get here. In her country getting killed by a stray bullet was an everyday concern and the soldiers were more likely to rape and rob you than save you. Here every day was an opportunity. It wasn’t easy, but every morning she woke up there was a little less fear and a little more hope.
It wasn’t the happy ending she had dreamed of yet, but it was a start.
She groped farther into the darkness to see if there were more big bottles hiding. A jab of pain caused her to withdraw her hand quickly. Bright red seeped from a slice in the powder blue of her glove. She looked into the can and saw the glinting shrapnel of a shattered bottle and cursed herself for being so careless.
Cursing softly, she took off her glove to inspect the wound. As she did, the door of the house opened and a young woman her age stepped out. She was dressed in a nice dark suit and her blonde hair was done up perfect. The woman looked up and down the block seeing everything but Joana. Her partner stepped out a minute later and they came down the steps together.
The man actually met Joana’s eyes for a second. She braced herself for another reprimand, maybe this time for bleeding on his property. Instead, a weak smile fluttered across his lips like a dying butterfly. Then they strode off together, the woman’s high heels clicking down the sidewalk.
Joana watched them disappear around the corner, then pulled out a clean rag and dabbed at her bleeding hand. She would need to clean it or it would get infected, but first she had to finish her job. She would live.