I was biking down Western Avenue in Chicago — actually I was riding on the sidewalk, with my helmet on, because you want to know what? I’ve reported on at least three people — cyclists and pedestrians — who’ve been killed on Western Avenue (RIP Chris, Fran and Isai). While the section between Division and Fullerton has slowed down a little in the last year or so, thanks to some new stoplights, I don’t like taking chances on that death highway.
Anyways, I ride slow when I’m in the Land of Pedestrian, out of respect, but also because you have a more interactive commuting experience. For example, I made a new friend. His name is Juan. And what attracted me to him were…his cans. He was sitting next to a big shopping cart full of them. And it reminded me of my grampa, who was an avid can collector, he would collect cans and cans and cans, and take them in and get money for them at the recycling centers around Chicago — it seemed like he’d do anything for those things.
One time my sister and I were in the car with him, he was driving, and we were stopped at a red light. The light turned green — but then he spotted a can across the way — so he yanked the car into park, and ran across the street to grab it! Oh, how the cars honked at us! Grampa pulled over on highways to retrieve cans. He picked them up out of gutters. No matter how rusty, shredded or caked with crud. And we loved him for it.
One year, for Father’s Day, we gave him 10 huge black Hefty garbage bags filled with the things. My sister was in college, so she got to work saving beer cans. When we pulled the 10 bags out of my parents’ car, I remember my grampa’s face lighting up, and how he started laughing, and he let out a big “Oh…!!!” My mom recalls, “He was in his glory…and our station wagon smelled of beer for forever because it seeped into the carpet.” My gramma said, “If you’d have given him a gold watch he wouldn’t have been any happier.”
I tried to tell Juan these stories, tried to find the word for “grampa” in Spanish — “abuelita”? I said. (I was close — it’s abuelit”o” — duh, I took Latin, I should have remembered abuelit”a” is feminine.) I tried to ask where he takes the cans in, and mentioned the center that closed down at Leavitt and Milwaukee — and how Grampa would sometimes go to the one on North Avenue, just west of Damen, across from what’s now Sultan’s Market. Juan said that he goes to a place over on Elston.
We talked for a bit longer, I gave him what change I had, and I headed on. Later that night, on my ride back down Western, I saw Juan half-asleep in a dark and wide doorway, next to his shopping cart of cans. I smiled lightly and waved and said hello. And then wondered what my grampa — a bread-truck delivery guy in Chicago for more than 40 years, who always gave bread away to people in need — would’ve done.