In towns all across America, there must be men in their eighties and nineties chuckling over the fancy names and avante guard initiatives called recycling. For in the Thirties and Forties and Fifties, these men were doing the same thing in their creaking vehicles from neighborhood to neighborhood. Only they were called “junk men.”
The “junk man” did not have a very high status in the community. After all he picked up the debris of the households and, instead of taking them to the local dump, found ways to sell them to scrap metal dealers or reuse them or their spare parts. The “junk man” was a scavenger; today that task would be called environmental recycling.
About a month ago, the Hamilton County (Ohio) commissioners conducted a recognition ceremony for Mr. Tommie Jackson, who for over four decades made a very modest living collecting and recycling an estimated 17,500,000 pounds of throwaways left on the curbs of thousands of subdivision homes.
Mr. Jackson, a veteran now stricken with cancer, would start at 5 a.m. on his rounds, often with his wife. Because he is an African-American, he took frequent abuse by bigoted homeowners who would call the police to say that a “nigger” stole their lawn mower, bicycle or their television set. They neglect to tell the constables that such items were piled up with the trash in front of their homes. The police would come and accost Mr. Jackson as if he were a felon and it was a hassle to explain and keep going down the street collecting what was thrown away.
Picking over trash cans for items that could be scrapped or resold is not easy, even without the torrent of abuses and epithets.
It was heavy work, dirty work, sometimes injurious work. Broken televisions, broken bicycles, old paintings, used carpets, aluminum down spouts, busted toilets, broken lamps, old furniture, tire inner tubes, old clothes, cast iron tombs, auto engines and tons of old newspapers sometimes mixed with decaying garbage. Fleas, flies, cold, heat, taunting boys, your mother called “nigger junklady” by sneering residents — these are the memories of the Jacksons’ son, R. E. Jackson.
The elder Jackson never complained, never had a vacation and, of course, had no benefits. His son says: “A man who was raised poor, watched his parents die poor, lived his life poor and now will die poor.”
Loading all these tons of junk onto the truck from dawn to midnight and then unloading them for the scrap companies or secondhand stores or barter — made a meager living for the Jacksons and their eight children. The tonnage was also kept from landfills whose trash burning would fill the air with toxics.
Jackson was working in what then was called the “thrift industry” where things were repaired or reused or melted down as scrap metal. Today, we have a throwaway economy where products are built in ways that make them very difficult to repair, where consumers are told it is cheaper to dump them and buy a new product. Notice how rare repair shops are on Main Street America. There is no repair mall in America either.
Finally, in recent days, two newspapers and a cable station are doing stories on Mr. Jackson — an authentic part of local history that builds community roots and respect for the early environmentalists who were called “junk men” and “junk ladies.”
He is in pain now and one of his last wishes is to visit the Smithsonian — a wish his son is determined to fulfill.