A chance encounter puts a face on caring

As a youngster growing up poor in Southern Oregon, I periodically gathered empty beer and pop bottles found alongside roads to cash them in at a local store for spending money.

A couple of local urchins joined me and my brothers in this endeavor that involved stuffing bottles into gunny sacks as we trudged along. We were recyclers before recycling came into vogue.

This was during our pre-teen summer when there were no jobs to be had. We weren't big enough to buck hay or old enough to convincingly exaggerate our age to get a job setting chokers in the local logging woods. We needed money, and it was honest labor.

Yet it was not done by kids from the few well-off families in our hometown of Kerby. Back then, I would have defined a well-off family as one with two parents, one of whom worked full-time. My family had neither.

We bottle-gatherers were all from the wrong side of the tracks, had Kerby any tracks.

Memories of those gunny-sack days popped up last week after Mike Foley, 48, a homeless fellow in Medford, discovered a deceased newborn girl while canning — searching for returnable cans — in a Dumpster in Medford on Aug. 15.

A burly fellow, Mike doesn't come across as particularly warm and fuzzy. He looks more like a bouncer who has taken a few direct hits from life's hard knocks. Touchy-feely he is not.

Yet he displayed a sensitivity not often seen in our world today. Not wanting to see the infant labeled Jane Doe or some other tasteless media moniker, he has unofficially christened the baby girl "Beautiful."

You have to be very cold not to get a lump in your throat over that simple gesture of humanity.

At this juncture, none of us knows the circumstances of how the baby came to be in the Dumpster. Police have tracked down the 19-year-old birth mother. Answers will come when the investigation concludes.

But Foley put a caring face on the local homeless community that most of us wouldn't have expected to see.

After I interviewed him on the afternoon he found the baby, I offered Mike a couple of bucks for lunch. He politely declined, noting that he makes enough money from his can-collecting to survive, and rode off on his bike.

Given today's shaky economy, there are many employed folks out there, including journalists, who are only a couple of paychecks away from joining the ranks of the unemployed. I found myself wondering whether I have the physical and mental wherewithal to survive on the streets.

Back in my college days, a smooth-talking friend talked two college-kid employees at a fast-food restaurant into putting uneaten burgers along with fries and special sauce into a clean sack and onto a Dumpster each night at closing time. The student, who lived in the back of his old pickup on campus, munched happily on stale burgers and fries until the employees were busted and summarily fired.

Not being a smooth-talker or too keen on fast food, stale or otherwise, I couldn't go that route. Besides, businesses aren't likely to welcome anyone on their premises who are neither employees nor customers.

My fall-back position would be to gather roadside bottles, although Oregon's Bottle Bill has no doubt drastically reduced the treasure trove out there.

Back in the day, a regular beer bottle was 1 cent, a small pop bottle 3 cents and a large pop bottle was 5 cents. Quart-size beer bottles brought in a whopping 2 cents each.

While that may not seem like much today, this was when a candy bar cost a nickel.

The return for bottles has inched up a bit over the past half-century. But it remains hard, nasty work. Many of the bottles invariably contained liquid. We always made a point of pouring them out before putting them in the sack. Otherwise, when you swung the sack over your shoulder, a foul-smelling liquid of dubious origin soaked your back.

It would be far easier to keep my day job.

Call Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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