BALTIMORE — A new breed of entrepreneurs reminiscent of old-fashioned rag pickers has appeared on the urban scene, trundling battered grocery carts up and down alleys in search of recyclable aluminum cans.
At first glance, many of the "cart" people appear to belong to the mass of homeless people who frequent downtown areas of major U.S. cities. But most are far removed from that desperate world, if not so much by appearance as by attitude.
"Most of the cart people that come to me are in a good mood, friendly and nice. They know they aren't doing well, but until they can do better, they want to do something. They have what you would call 'self-pride,' " said Nelson Cropper, who works for Reynolds Aluminum Recycling Co.
Willie Wilson, 71, has been collecting cans from garbage containers lining Baltimore's downtown alleys for about 1 1/2 years. Wilson, who has a permanent address and subsists on meager Social Security payments, said he makes about $800 annually by selling cans to recycling centers.
'Lot of Hard Work'
"It's a lot of hard work. A lot of people turn up their noses and say they wouldn't do it. But as my father always said, half a loaf is better than nothing," Wilson said.
Twice a week, the former construction worker wheels his grocery cart out of his home and trudges about 1 1/2 miles to the downtown alleys that are the prime collection grounds. Among the best stops along his route are bars and a couple of hospitals.
The rattle of Wilson's cart and the "crunch-crunch" of his can stomping signals his approach to neighborhood residents. Some people save their beer cans for him, but he gets most of his booty by sorting through the trash ahead of city garbage collectors.
Wilson keeps detailed records of how many pounds of cans he gathers each week, noting that he collected at least 33,000 cans--or more than 1 1/2 tons--in 1985.
'I'm My Own Boss'
"It's like I have my own business. I'm my own boss. I work when I want to," said Wilson, who carries a magnet to check cans that might have too much steel to be suitable for recycling.
The short, stocky man, who refers to his trade as "junkin'," is just one of thousands of people nationwide who depend on aluminum cans to eke out a livelihood.
Cart people are not limited to such major urban centers as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta and Washington. Some scour the alleys of smaller cities such as Richmond, Va., Wilmington, Del., and Laurel, Md.
Cropper, whose firm operates its aluminum can-buying program out of the back of truck trailers, said dozens of recycling enthusiasts--including doctors, Boy Scouts and senior citizens--pull up daily at his stop near Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. Of that number, about 15 are cart people.
"Most of them (cart people) are older, not many young people do it--and when they do, they aren't steady. Most are men, but a few women do it also," Cropper said.
The Reynolds Aluminum employee said one regular, named James Brown, comes in about three times a week with two grocery carts full of cans. "One time he brought in $100 worth--that's a whole lot of cans to get on those carts," Cropper said.
As of December, the price for clean, dry aluminum cans was 16 cents per pound for amounts ranging from 1 to 50 pounds. The price goes up slightly as the number of cans increases.
Reynolds also accepts aluminum scrap and castings, as well as aluminum foil and pie tins.
But beer cans remain the cart people's money-making staple.
Beating Garbage Trucks
Dozens of junkers gathered to pick cans off Memorial Stadium's parking lot after a college football game. Their carts also start clattering through alleys as early as 3 a.m. on weekends and holidays in an effort to snatch up partygoers' discarded cans before the garbage trucks do.
One Baltimore professional couple delivered their weekly accumulation of beer cans to a collector named "Reds," who makes regular pickups at the Wharf Rat tavern near Baltimore's waterfront.
Mitch Snyder, of Washington's Community for Creative Non-Violence, said some of the homeless people he comes in contact with engage in can collecting.
'In Better Shape'
"Those who do obviously are able to function to some degree, and are in better shape than those homeless people who can't function in society," Snyder said.
The social activist concurred with the view that can collecting sometimes serves as a temporary occupation until a person gets back on his or her economic feet.
"People who are capable of collecting cans are capable of doing other things," he said.