JASON WITT and HEATHER HOLLOMAN
Jason is the Olympic champion of recycling. A native of West Oakland, Jason has been recycling since he was thirteen. He often carries up to a ton of recyclables on one shopping cart. He takes great pride in his craft. And for good reason, no one knows the secrets of the recycling king. Those who try to imitate him come to grief. Knowing how to balance the loads around a shopping cart, how to read the gradient of the road, when and where to avoid potholes, and how to steer a one ton shopping cart with a rope requires a combination of intelligence and sweat that few can muster.
Jason’s success makes him a target for poachers. He’s ferocious about protecting his recycling routes, so he has become a master at concealing his tracks. A recycling route is not just a path—it’s a trade route, a lifeline. Access to trash is a function of a whole series of calculations and relationships developed over time. It’s a matter of style. Of knowing what to wear, how to appear and who to approach without having the cops called on you. And it’s also a matter of consistency—hitting your spots at the right time, every time, before anyone else so that your route always appears dry.
There really is no redemption for Jason until he has collected his money. This means that even, and especially inside the recycling center, when he transfers his load from his shopping cart into buckets, he’s got to be watchful. Competition for scarce resources is intense, and, nowhere is it more intense than inside the recycling center—the trading floor of the commodities market where Jason converts other people’s trash into his cash.
That cash is Jason’s lifeline. A former gang member, recycling is what has allowed Jason and his wife, Heather, to survive. Struggling with addiction, a severe heart ailment, and an injured leg, Jason powers on through a wall of pain. Having lived in West Oakland all his life, even as a homeless youth, Jason knows how to put up a good fight. As he makes clear before the Oakland City Council, he is not about to surrender his turf or exchange his profession for prison. He’s been stripped of everything, over and over again, but his pride is intact. And so is his desire to protect what he cherishes the most: his freedom.
Hayok Kay, Miss Kay as she is known, is as tiny as she is grand. We first met Miss Kay in Captain Fred’s car. The two of them lived in the car, which was quite a feat, as it also contained most of their belongings, including Fred’s easel, paint brushes and dozens of paintings, and empty bottles of booze. It was a bedroom, living room, kitchen, bar and studio all wrapped in one. And when Captain Fred, a rotund, gregarious fellow with a belly that chuckled with a pirate’s gusto, would squeeze himself through the door and back into the car, you would expect their whole flimsy world to fall apart.
It did. Fred Griffing III, California landscape artist, died from liver and kidney failure. Miss Kay was not allowed to visit Fred when he was in the hospital, and nobody invited her to Fred’s funeral. Stripped of the protection of a partner and their car, Miss Kay was flung onto the streets of West Oakland. There are no more barriers separating the former punk rocker from the elements. And, even worse, from the predators and crazies that roam the streets of West Oakland at night and day. A diminutive and much diminished Asian-American woman, Miss Kay is easy prey. Amongst the recyclers, her chances of survival are by far the worst. Fred’s death has shattered her world yet again. She has collapsed into herself, collapsed into a space that she cannot endure. Fred, after all, was a big man who, for all his faults and failings, came with a big heart—Miss Kay’s last refuge. With her father and now Fred also gone, Miss Kay’s grief, the tears of an abandoned and betrayed girl, begin to burn and singe their way through her numb, wet and tired spirit. Cans and bottles, converted into cheap alcohol sold by Oakland’s Yemeni grocers, can no longer stitch her day together.
But she can’t stay numb. Armed with a few clues, Miss Kay begins what looks like a treasure hunt in an empty cemetery. She’s looking for Fred’s grave. She finds the stone, wipes it clean, lies above it, and falls asleep.
Fred is painting a new life for Miss Kay. The colors are dazzling. Between recycling runs, and an accidental encounter with a Korea Times reporter at the local Korean-American diner, she may be catching glimpses of her portrait as a woman again. Fred Griffing III’s masterpiece? Perhaps.
For now, Miss Kay has more practical problems—the doctors have found what looks like a tumor the size of a tennis ball near her liver. And, even if she does get hospitalized, she’s worried that if she does not find shelter, the winter will claim her as its own.
Among the recyclers, Landon’s known as the preacher. He’s their minister. A gentle, stylish man, he has a warm, generous and gracious smile that conceals his fall from grace. As he puts it, “I’m in my valley of weeping.”
Despite his grace, life on the streets of Dogtown is taking a toll on Landon. A victim of two vicious back to back attacks by West Oakland’s gangs, his faith and compassion are being tested to the limit. With Oakland bustling with paranoid drug dealers, you can’t even get a good night’s sleep on the street. Landon’s in trouble. His shack, a regular sanctuary for many a recycler seeking his company, no longer feels safe. Nor do the streets.
After almost losing his life, Landon’s ready for change. And change comes in the form of his cousin. We watch as Landon leaves West Oakland for some tough love: his cousin’s drug rehabilitation center. We track Landon as he leaves behind his friends and community—the recyclers—to return to his position as preacher.
Whether he succeeds in shaking off his past, shedding his old skin, and walking out of the valley of weeping remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: Landon is not about to abandon West Oakland’s recyclers. The question is what part of his past can he salvage when he comes back?
Given their trust in him, can Landon provide the recyclers with what they lack? Can he serve as the bridge reconnecting the recyclers back to the worlds, the churches, the professions, families, and futures they have lost? Can he draw upon his faith to make time turn in a new direction?