Register Wednesday | June 7 | 2023
Monday Night in the Nickel Fields Illustration by Victor Kerlow.

Monday Night in the Nickel Fields

Every day in Vancouver, thousands of people comb through the trash for refundable cans and bottles.

SPORTING A GREEN JACKET, nylon pants and a days-old beard, Andy wouldn’t look out of place on the deck of a fishing boat back in the Maritimes. But this is a rainy February evening on the West Coast, and he’s walking with a bit of a limp down Dunbar Street. He’s out for a long night of blue-box binning in Kitsilano, an affluent Vancouver neighbourhood. One of his huge jacket pockets is stuffed with garbage bags, the other with a two-litre bottle of pink-grapefruit cider.   

His buddy James is legging it a few steps ahead. (The men’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.) James is clean-shaven and carrying two big bags: one full of cans, the other bottles. With each step, the bottles clink against his right leg and the cans rattle against his left. Clink. Rattle. Clink. Rattle. The rhythm continues uninterrupted all the way from 16th to Broadway. When they turn the corner, James disappears into a garage beside one of the century-old houses.

Andy pours cider into a small plastic water bottle, takes a swig and waits. Suddenly, the wooden garage door swings open and James bursts out, pushing a Safeway shopping cart.

“Two of my carts are gone!” he shouts.

“Ah, shit,” Andy growls. Someone else has discovered their stash. Andy passes the little bottle to James. “Don’t worry,” he says. “We’ll look for another one along the way. ”

Every day and every night in every neighbourhood in Vancouver, thousands of people comb through dumpsters, garbage bins and recycling boxes for refundable cans and bottles. They’re nickel-and-dime-ing their way to a meal, a drink or a bed. Some scavenge to contribute a dollar or two to a family income. Some are homeless and unable to participate in the dominant economy, so this back-alley market provides their sole source of sustenance. Others, like Andy and James, bin to supplement their meagre welfare or disability cheques. Every year, about 755 million refundable beverage containers are returned for deposit in Metro Vancouver. In the alleys that run through North America’s most expensive city, the competition to get those nickels and dimes is growing. Binners call these alleys “the nickel fields.”

In this job, everything depends on a shopping cart and a friend. With a cart, two people working as a team can easily clear $50 on a blue-box night by the time the bottle depots open in the morning. With two carts, no rain, an hour or two of sleep and no trouble, a pair can occasionally pull in twice that amount. But without a cart they’d be lucky to make $20 before the weight and the weather wear them out. And sometimes the drink, the dark and the disappointment in the nickel fields can turn friends into enemies.

Tonight, Andy and James start off walking east, following the alley between 8th and Broadway. They prefer to bin where businesses and apartments are most concentrated, not bothering much with curbside blue boxes unless the pickings are really slim.
For the first few hours, the teamwork is smooth. One of the men tips over a tall blue recycling bin and leans in, gripping a flashlight between his teeth. Two-handed, he throws the beer cans (worth 10 cents), water bottles and pop cans (worth 5 cents) over his shoulders. The other picks them up and puts them in a garbage bag. Then they switch. Beverage containers over a litre are worth 20 cents. They give a little whoop when they find one. When the bins are bountiful, they leave the wine bottles, which are heavy and only worth a dime. Tonight, the men put them in the cart.

Andy is used to counting things as a measure of his life. He’s been through detox at least nineteen times and has broken more than forty bones, including the hip that was smashed by a car when he was eleven. That accident got him hooked on painkillers and made his upcoming hip-replacement surgery inevitable. He says he’s been drinking “since Jesus Christ was a cowboy,” and by the time he was twelve he’d already been hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. He’s spent nine years in jail, a few trying to be a dad and nearly ten living on the street. He’s 4,400 kilometres from home. He’s missing one front tooth and more than a few on the bottom. He’s forty years old. 

Andy met James several years ago in a substance-abuse recovery house in Vancouver. James worked there as a monitor and Andy was a client. Having been through the process a few years before, James knew all about the challenges he was facing. “I just let Andy lay down all the stuff that was troubling him at the time. I became like an older brother,” he says. “And then slowly, slowly, a friendship developed.”

A few years into their friendship, James fell off the wagon. “Then sometimes the roles would reverse,” James says, “and although he’s younger, he’d be like the older brother and he would help me.” Andy throws his arm around James and says he’s one of the best friends he’s ever had. They drink to that.

SAFEWAY is their first cashing-in point, at 7 pm. It has a daily-limit policy of twenty-four cans or bottles per person. Andy and James wheel the cart up to the front doors and do a quick sort, putting the beer bottles and cans in separate bags. Andy takes in the first load. He makes $1.90. Not much, but, as Andy says, “it’s better than a kick in the ass with a frozen mukluk, eh?” Then James goes to cash in his quota.

Andy starts pushing the cart back to the corner, but, as it passes the driveway, the wheel jams. An anti-theft sensor around the store’s perimeter has been triggered and the braking cover drops over one of the cart’s front wheels.

“James!” Andy yells as his buddy walks out of the store. “The wheel’s locked on us!”

“What?” James wrenches the cart away from Andy, tipping it up and smashing it down on the sidewalk, trying to release the brake. The sound of clanging metal and glass draws indifferent stares from tired-looking men and women, still in their work clothes as they walk by the two angry, swearing men.

Andy and James ditch the cart. They both look sullen. “We’re screwed now,” says James. They decide to stash their remaining bottles somewhere until the depot opens in the morning. Andy walks ahead with the bags over his shoulders. “He gets angry and then I get hurt, that’s the way it always is,” says James. “To me the feeling and the friendship are more important than the cans. But not to him.”

 “Andy, are you angry with me?” he shouts.

“No,” Andy sighs. “I’m just trying to think of where to hide the glass.”

“I’m just asking because I feel you’re being hard on me and I’m just a person here trying to collect bottles.”

Andy mutters something under his breath. At the next corner, James just walks off.

“He’s never really been on the street,” Andy says. “He’s not a true binner.” Andy says James is too sensitive, too much of a whiner, won’t get himself right into a dumpster to find the hidden stuff. Their friendship is turbulent. Last year, Andy whipped a broken china cup at James, who needed eighteen stitches in the back of his head. Recently, James made what Andy calls a “rude gay comment” to a teenage boy walking by. When the boy was out of sight, Andy put the boots to James and left him doubled over in the alley, clutching his guts. The next week, they were binning partners again.

“James!” Andy shouts. “Where the hell are you?”

In the next alley, he points to a BC Hydro box beside a wooden fence. “I used to sleep in behind there.” It’s where he spent his last night before he moved into a supportive-housing complex just a few months ago. Sometimes, when he needs a break from the four walls, he comes back here for a night or two. For now, he stashes a bag of bottles back there.

“Oh shit!” Andy says suddenly. He remembers James has his money and the key to his place. He’s also got the keys they’ve “acquired” to a few padlocked commercial garbage bins along the route. He pulls out his flip phone and calls James. After a few minutes of muttering, he hangs up. “Feckin’ guy. I gave him twenty bucks to get two more bottles of cider and now he’s trying to tell me he doesn’t have the money anymore. He says he’s on his way back but I know he’s not.”

A coyote darts past the alley. “That’s what I miss, the wildlife,” Andy says. “I gotta go find another cart and do some serious binning.” He crosses Broadway, whistling no melody in particular, and disappears into the night.