Jim McLay works at a dairy for $14 an hour. But with house payments and car payments and everything else, the Reseda man says: "I basically just live from week to week."
So, rather than sleep in on his days off, McLay often is out before daylight in his Datsun pickup, searching the trash along the curb for bundled newspapers and aluminum scrap.
McLay is an avid recycler, not for the sake of saving the planet but for a few more bucks in his pocket.
He's one of many people who pick up extra cash by gathering paper, metal and other materials and taking them to recycling centers, at least 31 of which are in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys and the eastern portion of Ventura County.
"Just imagine how much good stuff that you could make money off is buried in the landfills," muses McLay, a wiry man of 46.
Depressing and Exciting
The thought is depressing and exciting at the same time. "This really gets to be addictive," he says.
"I hate to see stuff thrown away that I can make money on."
In a couple of hours of cruising the streets, McLay usually amasses enough newspapers, car batteries and crumpled lawn chairs to redeem for $20 to $40 at a recycling center. On top of that, there is $5 from a TV repairman for each broken set he brings in to be scavenged for parts. McLay fixes and peddles other things at garage sales.
He says recycling pays for incidental expenses for him and his wife, Sheila, like the "food I eat at work . . . (and) all my gas going back and forth to work."
"I don't like to be broke, you know what I mean? . . . I don't want to be like my dad. He died without a penny."
McLay began scavenging in earnest a couple of years ago when a dairy he worked for closed, putting him temporarily out of work.
Geography of Trash
Naturally, McLay has developed an acute sense of recycling geography. Name an area, and he'll tell you what day the trash gets picked up.
But McLay isn't in sole possession of this knowledge. "There's a lot of people out doing this," he says.
So McLay was pleasantly surprised when he made $39.84 one morning last week, despite violating a cardinal rule by starting at 8 a.m.
At first, he paid the price for getting out so late. "This is pretty well cleaned out," McLay said as he cruised a usually productive Encino trash route where all newspapers had vanished this day.
Near Zelzah Avenue and Tiara Street, McLay found out why. Rounding a corner, he saw an elderly man with a flowing white beard next to a truck piled high with papers.
The early bird was Pete Avalos, 75, of North Hollywood, who was a little sour despite his impressive cache. He said some of the newspaper bundles were very old and dry and "lighter than hell," which would cut the price.
The two men exchanged a little shop talk, and then McLay drove off to prospect for streets where Avalos hadn't been. Soon enough he was in fertile territory, where he could stop his truck every 100 yards or so to harvest an aluminum screen or sack full of papers.
"You do get a few surprises once in a while," McLay said. Some people "put a bag of paper out there, but in the bottom of the bag there'll be dog crap, you know what I mean? Or garbage."
He saw a twisted metal porch swing but drove on by. "Too big and bulky for me, so I just don't mess with it," he said.
He stopped to check out the top of a barbecue grill, but left it when he found it wasn't aluminum.
Then he hit the mother lode. Someone had cleaned out an attic, or maybe six attics, and there was metal all over the place, including a big aluminum solar collector that McLay hefted onto the truck.
McLay usually takes part of his haul to California Public Recycling in Chatsworth, a place that attracts a lot of other enterprising folk.
On a recent afternoon, for example, there was Mildred Kosterec, a 64-year-old Palmdale woman. She showed up with 600 pounds of copper she had scrounged over two months from apartment construction sites. She left with $152.
"They pay the electrician too much money for him to stoop down and pick that stuff up," Kosterec said.
143 Pounds of Cans
There was Alex Marquez, 63, a retired plumber from Reseda, and son Willie, 26, who brought in 19 sacks of cans. They weighed 143 pounds and fetched $43.71.
There was Steve Brevik, 37, who was at Lumber City when he spied a small bundle of aluminum in a trash can. "It's amazing what people will throw away," Brevik said, as he traded the metal for $4.62 and walked back to his battered yellow truck.
Brevik said some items may seem worthless to some people, "but it's gold to me, brother."
Not all recycling centers bustle this way. Ask Errol Segal, the exuberant part owner and pitchman for Woodsy Owl Active Recycling Center in Van Nuys.
Segal, a former dental technician, dreams of opening Woodsy Owl franchises in every town, becoming the Col. Sanders of the recycling industry.