This Millennial Is Putting Herself Through School by Collecting Cans

On the streets of New York City there is an underground economy of sidewalk hustlers. If you look closely enough, you’ll see it: wannabe rappers handing out CDs, carts selling homemade churros and fresh-sliced mango on a stick, kids doing pole routines in the subway for a few extra bucks, and then there’s always the can-collectors sifting through yesterday’s garbage. Among this assorted riffraff you’ll find Carita, a 21-year-old double majoring in psychology and nursing at Hunter College.

Carita is no stranger to hard work, but unlike other college students, her resume doesn’t include fancy internships at well-known companies or institutions. Instead, she has been working afternoons, nights, and weekends to support her mom, and put herself through school by collecting cans on the streets of Lower Manhattan — a grueling job that is usually relegated to the homeless, immigrants who lack the English language skills necessary to find other work, retirees no longer collecting an income, or the otherwise bedraggled.

Her day starts at 5:30 a.m., which gives her just enough time to make it to her first class at Hunter. From 7 a.m. until noon she’s in school, then after lunch she heads straight to the day’s pick-up neighborhood. The mother-daughter pair operates like a well-oiled machine. Each week, she and her mom make the rounds: Monday they’re in Union Square, Tuesday they’re downtown, Wednesday they’re back in Union Square, Thursday they go ‘uptown’ to Chelsea, and so on. They stick to a set schedule and maintain contacts in many of the large buildings they collect from.

Together, they work quickly, picking up about 2,500 cans and bottles a day. At 5 cents a piece, that translates into roughly $900 a week. On average, they haul in 72,000 cans a month. Do the math and that adds up to 864,000 cans a year, which means they pull in nearly a million cans annually.

Can-collecting is a territorial business. Fights break out over buildings flush with beer bottles, bags of cans left unattended are quickly stolen, and collectors often resort to bullying and guerilla tactics to maintain territory. Carita says they’re the best can-collectors in the city, a status that is not without its hazards.

“There’s definitely hardships. I mean, I’ve been attacked many times,” Carita explains. “There’s actually a lady on Ludlow, and she hit me with a glass bottle before in the back of my head. I got a concussion through it.”

In Chinatown, she gets harassed on a daily basis. No one else comes close to bringing in the same number of bottles and cans she and her mom do. So jealous and resentful competitors scream at her when they pass in the streets, calling her a prostitute and other nasty names in Cantonese all because Carita is young and speaks English — advantages that make it easier for her to procure cans from building managers.

They’ve learned the hard way not to leave their shopping carts unguarded. During the day, they have to take turns watching the carts when one of them leaves to use the restroom. At night, they lock the carts on the street outside their apartment, yet sabotagers still find a way to meddle. After she and her mom found their padlocks superglued shut, they switched to combination locks. The next morning they discovered the combination locks had been smashed to pieces with a hammer. Now they use a combination lock that is too bulky for a hammer to break. It’s a constant battle.

Staying on top of the can-collecting business in NYC is no easy feat, but the money is good and the daily hustle has become a normal, even comforting part of Carita’s routine. “[People] ask me all the time when am I going to quit. School is important and I know that, but it’s hard to give up. It’s such a routine to me and I like it. Well, I like the end of it. The end of the day is nice. I feel like I’ve accomplished something.”

They got into the business, like many other unemployed New Yorkers, shortly after the recession hit in 2008. Carita’s mother originally immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong at the age of 18. For many years she worked as a seamstress in a clothing factory, but her eyesight began to wane from years of squinting at needles and thread, and then she lost her job when the clothing factory she worked at went bankrupt. With Carita’s father long out of the picture and no one else to support their 4-person family, her mom was struggling to make ends meet and provide even the most basic of things like money to take the subway to school. It wasn’t long before Carita’s mom caught on to what others in Chinatown were already doing: collecting cans for cash.

“I was starting high school at that time and I had to take the train to high school. We didn’t have money for a MetroCard…so that’s when we started doing it,” Carita says. Her two older brothers were disgusted and embarrassed when their mother began storing bags of smelly cans in the 1-bedroom, 4th-floor walk-up they all share. But Carita saw things differently. Her mom was doing whatever she could to make ends meet for her family. So at age 15, Carita started helping her pick-up cans after school.

“My high school was in Union Square, so a lot of people found out I [was collecting cans] and they looked at me differently,” she recalls. In spite of her embarrassment, she still takes pride in the work knowing that she and her mom earn every single penny they have — they’re not sitting around asking for handouts. “I hate, absolutely hate, when people beg for money. It bothers me because they could, you know, pick up bottles too. They could make a living.”

I ask Carita what her plans for the future are. She and her mom talk about it all the time. They’ve been collecting cans for more than 6 years now. “I ask my mom, when am I going to stop? Because, you know, eventually I have to find a job. Like, I can’t pick up bottles all my life.”

Carita will start her clinical routines for nursing school in September, which means less time for collecting. But her mom says she’s going to keep doing it whether or not Carita continues to help her, to which Carita, ever the loyal Chinese daughter, just sighs. “I told her when I was 18 that I was going to stop and then I gave her three years. I’m 21 and I feel like even now, I’m not going to stop…I don’t think I’m going to be out of this business for a while.”

Photos by Curvel Baptiste. This article was originally published on Utmost.

My writing and photography has appeared in The Ringer, VICE, Roads & Kingdoms, The Margins, and elsewhere. I’m currently at work on a book about Anna May Wong.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store