By Kelley A Pasmanick
Writer’s statement: “The California Return Value” begins with me collecting recycling to exchange for money in Napa, California with the assistance of my power wheelchair that I use due to having cerebral palsy, a congenital neuromuscular defect. I do this in an effort to make ends meet living and working in such an expensive locale.
In my personal essay, I learn through the interactions with passersby, that the institution of the California Return Value, the monetary value for which bottles and cans may be exchanged, presents a conundrum of progress: Money is in the trash, and trash is money. In realizing this epiphany, the reader discovers along with me the other conundrums of progress related to disability, education, mobility—both literal and figurative—and the power of perception.
I’ve just finished my grocery shopping at Safeway and roll out the double doors. I swivel my power wheelchair toward the trashcans. I put the latex glove on my left hand, and with my right one, I retrieve my empty tote bag from the handle behind me and set it on the sidewalk, although not without purpose. This empty bag will hold my recycling. Prophylactics donned, I’ve officially entered Phase Two of my time at the grocery store: picking plastic and glass bottles and aluminum cans out of the trash.
I heave myself out of my wheelchair and stand in front of the trashcan. Bending my knees, I shove my whole left arm into the trashcan, aiming my gloved hand toward its bottom. My fingers touch nothing. I straighten up and step back, lowering my head to get a better view of the inside of the can. I spy a plastic water bottle, its label still on, reading Dasani. Arching myself forward again, I guide my hand to it and pluck it from the trash. I examine the bottle of Dasani. It isn’t empty, and I untwist its cap and dump the remaining water out on the sidewalk. I replace the cap and inspect the bottle’s label once more. It’s firmly stuck to the bottle. As it should be, I think. Every bottle should include a label around its base. The label is the key, for on it is the California Return Value or CRV.
As my co-worker, Sande explained, the California Return Value or CRV is the amount of money paid to consumers when they recycle beverage containers at certified recycling centers. For beverage containers under 24 ounces, consumers are paid five cents. For containers 24 ounces and over, they are paid ten cents. “So, a 16.9 fluid ounce six-pack of water, for example,” Sande said matter-of-factly, “would have a CRV of thirty cents.”
I chuck the Dasani bottle into my bag. Five cents literally in the trash, I think, staring at the bottle too long, knowing that I’ve been staring at it for too long, but still unable to look away. I know why I stare. I know exactly why. I stare because the CRV, as the acronym indicates, ascribes the bottle with value, with worth. The CRV renders one man’s trash another person’s treasure. Mine. The California Return Value is a paradox of progress, deserving not only of my stare, but my exertion.
I shift my gaze back to the trashcan’s contents. Something shiny catches my eye. My eye is practiced enough to recognize it at once: the gleam of glass. Without hesitation, I thrust my gloved hand into the bin again, extracting the glass bottle. It’s a Snapple ice tea bottle, label intact.
“Are you okay?” someone asks as I drop the Snapple bottle into my bag. I look up, and a pretty, blonde woman with shoulder-length hair and bangs is looking at me with genuine concern. How I must look to her. I know I don’t aesthetically look bad, having just come from work. I’m wearing a white camisole with a black-and-white wrap around striped sweater and blue jeans. My sweater and blue jeans are both designer, but what she doesn’t know is that neither are new. Nothing I have is. The sweater is a hand-me-down from my fashionista older sister and the jeans are a Liz Claiborne throwback from 2004 bought new when I was 18 years old, nearly 13 years before.
I look at her. “Thank you, I’m just fine! I’m just collecting bottles for pocket money. Napa’s expensive.”
“It is,” she agrees. Standing, I’m self-conscious of my wheelchair cushion, now exposed, with a patch on it, strategically ironed on to cover a rip in the Nylon. I wonder if she notices it, hoping she doesn’t, wondering if I only notice it because I know where to look. I also know my wheelchair isn’t new either. It’s nowhere near it. My Quantum 600 Power Wheelchair is as old as the blue jeans I’m wearing.
“I moved here recently, so I’m still adjusting to the difference in prices.” Even as I say this, I wonder why I feel compelled to justify this to her. It’s none of her business, and I know this, but then I remember the rule: I’m disabled, so I must justify it. I must justify me. I am obligated to give her a reason of why I do what I do because I am, have been, and will always be what she is not.
“I just wanted to make sure you were all right,” she says. I smile a smile that must reassure her because then she is gone. I sigh, relieved, grateful that she didn’t press further. I’m grateful for her restraint because what I’ve told her is only a half-truth. What I haven’t told her is that I collect bottles and cans from the trash for money. Not pocket money, just money.
I haven’t told her that I am prohibited from having cash on me at any time without being able to account for it dollar for dollar and cent for cent to the Social Security Administration. I certainly haven’t told her that I owe the Social Security Administration $3,184.20 because I work full-time and no longer receive disability-related monetary benefits. I also haven’t told her that I’m not allowed to save any of my wages from my full-time job because doing so would jeopardize my ability to receive state-sponsored healthcare since my employer, a disability-related nonprofit established for disabled individuals and run by disabled individuals, offers health insurance coverage that is too limited to cover the scope and breadth of my disability-related needs, all the while not even knowing if I’ll receive state and federal tax refunds the following year while knowing without a doubt that the aforementioned tax refunds would be my savings. I haven’t told her that I reuse stamps that aren’t canceled by the U.S. Postal Service, reuse bags originally used for recycling for trash even if they are ripped from the glass bottles and aluminum cans, shop at The Dollar Tree—where everything is sold for one dollar—as much as possible, complete multiple online surveys daily to rack up enough airline miles for bicoastal travel since I can’t afford to fly. And there’s not any way in the world that I would even consider telling her about what I view as no small feat which is to have deferred my student loans for another five years under the little known and even more underutilized Vocational Rehabilitation education-related deferment for the disabled that I have already been using for the last twelve years, grateful that this deferment, however unknown and underutilized is also unlimited. And I most certainly have not told her that I only have the student loans because my doctors didn’t understand the meaning of the terms, Total and Permanent Disability Student Loan Discharge, for which I was eligible up until this year since my disability, cerebral palsy is a congenital neuromuscular defect, affects everything I do. It affects me totally and permanently as the name of the official discharge suggests, and for twelve years it kept me below the poverty line because I wasn’t working, although not for lack of trying. The discharge only required me to meet these criteria for three years, and I met them four times over, but because my doctors thought that “total and permanent disability” meant that the disability had to be fatal, even though I told them they were mistaken, and they chose not to educate themselves about this loan discharge program, I am now responsible for $40,000.00 of student loan debt.
I haven’t told her any of this, but this is what I’m thinking about as I make my way over to the trashcans at the Ross department store, but not before another well-meaning woman comes up to me, thrusting an empty vitamin water bottle toward me. “I wasn’t going to throw it away,” this new woman says.
“You keep it,” I reply, my face hot with chagrin, knowing all too well that she’s seeing on my face what I am feeling.
“I would rather give it to you,” she says, to which all I can do is to say thank you and take the bottle.
This was a paradox of progress, a conundrum of consumption, indeed. I’m not harming anyone. I’m taking what others have discarded, what others have decided they don’t want or need, so why do I feel guilty?
I sit there feeling ashamed of my resourcefulness—the attribute I admire most about myself—when the first woman comes back up to me with her hand out.
“Here,” she says, thrusting green toward me. “So, you don’t have to collect trash just for pocket money.”
Suddenly, I’m short of breath, having registered the significance of the green in her hand. I’m taken aback and pounce on her with an immediate, “Thank you so much, but I don’t need this. Really, I’m only collecting recycling for pocket money.”
She looks at me and says, “There’s you and Rico out front. I always give him something when I come.”
“I really don’t need this,” I reply again, having no idea who Rico is and frankly, not caring. “I have a full-time job. I have a master’s degree.” The irony of her last retort about “Rico out front” is not lost on me. Her mention of Rico is ironic because “rico” means “rich” in Spanish. I know this because I’m fluent in Spanish, having formally studied Spanish from the age of 11 through 21. In addition to my master’s degree, I have a minor in Spanish and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English which is composed of double majors in Literary Studies and Creative Writing. Out of the three Pasmanick girls, I am the most formally educated, having more letters after my name than both of my sisters combined. And yet, out of the three of us, I am the one who is paid the least and is collecting trash to make up for the fact that one of these things—me—is not like the others.
As I gaze into the pretty face of this woman with shorn blonde locks who is genuinely good enough to give me, a stranger, a gift of money, I realize that everything I’ve ever done is an attempt to make up for it. I hesitate to use the word premeditated here because of its close association to crime, so if not premeditated, then calculated. Every decision I’ve ever made has been a calculated one to what I can only hope has and will continue to undermine the fact that I never have been nor ever will be what she is or what my sisters are.
My reverie ceases with the sound of her voice. “Really, giving you five bucks won’t kill me. Fortunately, my husband works for a big company which allows him to do well enough that I can do full-time charity work.”
Admirable, I think, honorable. She doesn’t have to work, but she does, and not even for herself. This woman is what selflessness looks like, I think as I stare at her in wonder. It isn’t often that I get to meet selflessness in human form, stare selflessness in her face, hear her voice and know her wants. Seeing the obvious ethical dilemma by taking from this woman—by literally taking from selflessness—I say, “I’m an Independent Living Advocate at a nonprofit in downtown Napa. I serve the homeless and disabled of Napa.” I stare at the five-dollar bill in my hand and stammer, “I know who needy looks like, and I’m not it.”
“Keep it,” she cajoles, pressing the bill back into my hand. With the other hand, I remove one of my business cards out of my pocket, evidence to legitimate my words, to justify them. “You didn’t ask for it,” she continues. I look up at her knowing she’s right. I didn’t ask for the five-dollar bill, and I didn’t ask to be what she and my sisters aren’t.
“I’m doing the best I can with what I have,” I reply, this time not intending to legitimize or justify anything to her, just simply making a statement of fact, my truth. One man’s trash is another person’s treasure. Mine, I think, as I very carefully unfold the five-dollar bill to put it in my wallet.
Kelley A Pasmanick is a thirty-one-year-old woman with cerebral palsy from Atlanta, Georgia. She lives in Denver, Colorado. Pasmanick’s work has appeared in Wordgathering, Squawk Back, Praxis Magazine, The Mighty, Loud Zoo, The Jewish Literary Journal, Umbrella Factory Magazine, and Breath & Shadow. Her work has also been reprinted in Queen Mob’s Teahouse. Pasmanick’s work is forthcoming in Kaleidoscope.