Sidney Bryant Jr. thinks about many things as he walks the streets of the Lower West Side picking up cans and bottles. “Picking up,” Bryant said, takes him away for a while.
Bryant grew up on Dodge Street near the old War Memorial Auditorium. His younger years, he explains, were defined by crime and drugs and street gangs. He talks of a first wife and six children.
At age 54, Bryant has taken steps to turn his life around. He plans to marry in June, and after a day of bottle collecting Bryant looks forward to returning home to his fiancee and their Jack Russell terrier.
On a good day, Bryant will fill nearly eight large garbage bags with cans and bottles though he can only “comfortably” fit two bags in the old shopping cart he pushes. Bryant’s been working the bottle beat full time for the past two years. He says he shares his turf – the Niagara Street corridor downtown – with about 20 other collectors.
People Talk: Do you realize you’re performing a service for the environment?
Sidney Bryant: I kind of think of it sometimes. Some people look at you like you’re dirty and I’m thinking, “Man, I’m helping you all clean up.” I don’t think people have much regard for us. They think we’re bums. I don’t know, but I know it’s better than being in prison, better than asking somebody for something all the time.
PT: How did you break into the field?
SB: I couldn’t work because of arthritis and rheumatism in my arms. I used to do floors. I was a floor specialist, and we had to work all night cleaning with machines. My arms started conking out on me and I couldn’t keep a job.
PT: So why did you choose bottles and cans?
SB: Well, having been in gangs when I was younger getting in trouble for easy money, I just decided it would be better to find something to do that was not illegal and maybe a little humiliation involved in it. I needed that.
PT: You needed humiliation?
SB: To be humbled a little because of the life I used to lead. It makes me feel better to feel like I’m not that guy anymore.
PT: You must have been a rebel.
SB: Yeah. My dad used to own speakeasies and stuff in Buffalo. He was in the paper. He was an entrepreneur. I had less than a happy childhood. I’m OK now. I have six daughters who are doing great. I’ve got 11 grandkids, all of them pretty much respect me just the way I am.
PT: What are the best weather conditions for collecting?
SB: When nobody else wants to come out and get them – bad weather. I dress real warm for it. In winter I make more money because in summer more collectors come out.
PT: You can make a living collecting bottles and cans?
SB: Yeah, I pretty well make ends meet off of it. On a good night I can make $150. That’s if I go to certain places like Erie Community College for the swim meets, and the arena for Sabres games. Canadians love to leave cans and bottles because they can’t carry the containers back over the bridge. So they leave them in the parking lot.
PT: How do you stake a claim to prime collection territories?
SB: When you first find out where they’re located, you find out who else is going there. Then you look what time it is, and you be there before them. Usually by the time somebody else pops up, I’m almost done. You have to be smart doing it just like anything else.
PT: You must have good eyes.
SB: Yeah. I mean it’s something I do, look around. I can tell from far away what kind of cans they are and everything. Just from looking across the street I can see if they’re any good. Some are not carbonated. Some are Canadian, and you don’t get American money back – stuff like that. You have to know what to look for. Certain labels have red on them and they’re not going to take them at Tops.
PT: You redeem them at the Tops on Niagara?
SB: Yeah. Other places are not equipped to take a mass of cans. If you have three or four garbage bags full, you can’t take it to the store. Stores won’t buy them.
PT: How much money will a full bag get you?
SB: Twenty dollars if it’s all cans or plastic water bottles. If they’re bigger, half that. The big plastic bottles take up more space and bring less money.
PT: Doesn’t glass weigh you down?
SB: Yeah, that’s why I use a cart for glass. And I make sure I get a cart from a store that’s not currently open. I have one posted at a friend’s liquor store, in the yard. My apartment is too small so I keep the carts in different places. A cart can only take two bags comfortably. With four bags on one cart, it would take you an hour to get home. My advantage is I live right behind City Hall.
PT: How often do you find collectible cans that you would like to keep?
SB: I haven’t yet, but I would know because I work part time for Salvation Army and Goodwill. So if I see something old I know to keep it.
PT: What percentage of your time is spent in the bottle return line?
SB: Maybe six, seven hours a week.
PT: Are there battles in the bottle line?
SB: Yeah. I don’t battle. I don’t argue.
PT: Do people rinse their bottles and cans?
SB: No. What I do, I carry a rag with me and I carry a water bottle. Always gloves. You can’t work without gloves. I mean come on, you go into a garbage can. That’s nasty. I must go through two pairs of gloves a week. I don’t wash them. I just throw them away.
PT: How’s your health?
SB: Pretty good. I went to the doctor today. I have a little bit of arthritis. I’ll take Motrin and maybe a shot of brandy. Then I’ll go home and play with my dog. We have a Jack Russell terrier. He meets me in the hallway when I get off the elevator. It’s kind of fun. I’m getting old.
PT: What’s the key to success for a bottle collector?
SB: Staying up long hours and being out at night. The people who make the most money stay out constantly. It’s like they go home just to rest and then go back out.
PT: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
SB: Just that people shouldn’t look at you like you’re a bum. They don’t know. You might be trying to fight doing wrong things, and [bottle collecting] might bring you peace of mind. Go out and walk, get some exercise and pick up some cans. It gives your mind time to settle down and think about what you want to do when you get home. It’s like a therapy for me. That’s just the way I think of it.