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Grandpa, The Group, and the Garage

Joshua Hart


Grandpa. The old man must have had it in for me. Grandpa was peculiar to use the nicest of adjectives. I would like to say that I loved the old man, or at least it is consoling to describe my feelings toward him in that way, now that so much time has passed. He was disagreeable always and quick-tempered. The slightest of infractions on the part of a child in his home was intolerable to him. His fraction of Irish blood arose in his voice when he gruffly snapped his ready-made warnings in moments of such infractions: usually playing too loudly when the television was on (the television was always on). “You can stay, but that noise has got to go!” and “Kids are to be seen and not heard,” were commonly heard on visits to see Grandma and Grandpa. His face would become red instantly as he pointed the stem of his old, still-smoking pipe at the guilty party, clenching his dark teeth which were forever stained in the copyrited Hills Brothers and King Edwards tradition. Grandma would soothingly advise us to go and play outside for a while. His mood would improve almost instantly after these explosive moments, and he would soon be smiling contently and puffing his pipe, awaiting the next infraction. Though it seemed the old man hated me intensely, he would always greet me with a smile when I arrived at his house for a visit. This same smile appeared, perhaps only a bit more cheerfully, when he waved goodbye as I left with my parents. “Goodbye,” he would say, “for a while.”
Grandpa was shrewd with his money, however: a good provider if nothing else. When he died, he left Grandma with a house and two cars ‘free and clear’ and well over a hundred thousand dollars in savings (she gave all of the money away and was near destitute in less than ten years).
After retiring, he started going for walks every day, and he soon began collecting aluminum cans. He would walk for several miles and was easily recognized by his old khaki pants and shirt. This routine he considered good exercise, and his collection of bags full of cans slowly filled his garage, awaiting sale on the unknown yet glorious day when the price per pound of recycled aluminum was to reach its peak. This habit, or one might say hobby, of his progressed into something less socially acceptable over time. His route became depleted of aluminum resources, as even the small town drunks could not throw enough beer cans to the side of the road to supply his daily appetite. This alone is a testament to his work ethic in the business of can collection, as this particular town had no shortage of drunks. The old man, out of boredom or perhaps a striving to maintain his quota, began peeking into garbage bins as he passed to see if there were cans on top of the refuse. Of course, when his investigation paid off, he would collect these gems, and in doing so, reveal treasures beneath. Perhaps it started by lifting a bag to see if there were cans underneath. Within a short time, however, my grumpy old Grandpa graduated from simple can collector to the most honorable profession of full-fledged dumpster diver and official ‘town crazy man.’ His once-timid peeking and discrete removal of cans became bold and shameless rummaging. The old man saw nothing wrong with this behavior. He never left a mess; always replaced the lids.
It is not entirely clear to me whether he lacked the understanding of his daily faux pas or if he simply didn’t care, and I am not sure which explanation is less socially indicting. What is clear is that my Grandpa became obsessed and would take longer walks every day. The spoils grew out of the realm of recyclable metal to ‘perfectly good’ knick-knacks and small appliances, and then ultimately, to food. This last bit will strike most as completely repulsive, but I can assure you that it was a natural progression. Another of Grandpa’s favorite ready-made phrases was, “You can take what you want, but eat what you take.” Wasting food was an abomination, and it was amazing how much food a small town could waste! Why, some people would picnic in the park and leave half a package of lunchmeat and three quarters of a loaf of bread in the trash: all perfectly sealed in plastic. Can you believe it? Shameful! And it was impossible to convince Grandpa of any flaw in his reasoning: it was all perfectly sealed in plastic… IN PLASTIC! – An impenetrable force field against germs! He reveled in salvaging what others had cast aside. Grandma, though she dispatched many of Grandpa’s spoils to their own trash bin, was also raised in the Depression and not inclined to throw quite all of it away. She became less inclined still as she acclimated to his new manner of shopping. (We stopped eating even the occasional dinner with Grandma and Grandpa).
One day, at the height of his rummaging career, my Grandpa met the president of his bank downtown. After the customary greetings, Grandpa invited the man to his house for a beer and then proudly explained where he had acquired it. Some unthrifty fool had left most of a six-pack of perfectly good beer in the trash in the park. The bank president consulted his schedule, and most regrettably, was forced to decline. It was during this time, however, that quite an agreeable turn occurred in his demeanor. He became increasingly more pleasant, presumably as a result of his newfound method of significantly decreasing his grocery bill. He would gleefully prattle about his magnificent discoveries, and a few times, even invited me along on expeditions. I, being young, did not fully understand the stigma associated with his activities.
Then it happened. One evening, my father took me with him to the American Legion building, which was only two blocks from my Grandpa’s house. There was a banquet of some sort to be held the next night and the parents were preparing the tables. This left me and several other elementary school boys to play. We ran out of the back door and onto a loading dock-sized rear porch, which was flush with the tops of the two large dumpsters that sat beside. It was late evening, and the streetlights were shining into the space. There was a man wearing khakis, silhouetted with his head and both arms hidden beneath the plastic flap of the far dumpster. As the back door swung shut, and we came to a halt, he looked up and said, “Well hi, Peter.”
“Hi, Gra…” and it hit me. At least five sets of eyes moved quickly from the old man to my face. There was something terribly wrong with the situation… something shameful… something threatening to my status in the group. The old man’s face disappeared again under the dumpster flap, and I turned back toward the door.
“Who’s that?” one asked. “Is that your Grandpa… diggin’ in the trash?” asked another. With my head down and my back to him, I said in a half-whisper, “No… he’s… he’s just some old man I’ve seen before,” and I walked back inside. The others followed. Grandpa kept on digging, I suppose. I didn’t look back.
“You sure he ain’t your granddad?” asked another boy.
“No, he ain’t. I don’t know him…”
“How did he know your name?” someone pressed.