The Can Man

18 December 2017:

I called him a loner, a mumbler, a legend in the making—the little, grey-headed man picking up beer and soda cans around my neighborhood, senior year of college.

I first noticed him in September, early on in the semester. He pushed a grocery cart around, muttering things I never understood or ever fully heard. Like wind adjusting a loose gutter, his lonely mumblings were untranslatable, self-talk garble. He picked up cans for cash. That’s what he did.

Slowly, deliberately, he walked, bent over his wobbly cart. Day after day. Week after week.

I saw him on my way to class, on my way back to the apartment, on walks to the convenience store at First and Plum.

As the seasons changed—colder, wetter—still, he was out there, hunched over his cart.

As he walked, in and out of shadows, roadside acorns cracked beneath his steps.

*

The Can Man was seven years ago, and I shake my head at all the things I have done since then.

Since graduation (December 2010), I reckon I have abandoned Oklahoma four or five times. Never bravely, and always looking back, I left for places like Zion National Park in Utah. I left for Yellowstone. I left for those airy reasons, too—the pains of love: of land, of women, of books. How the years have been decided by stories I’ve read, or people I’ve met, is a wonder. One I am grateful for.

It is true: I took a job in Olympic National Park because I read Gary Snyder and wanted to see for myself what the Northwest was all about.

For a while, I catered Cuban weddings in Miami, working part-time as a writing tutor.

And in the fall of 2014 I camped across Nebraska over four days, following the Oregon Trail.

But why?

Oh, you know. This and that.

In college, I saw my life rolling along as a leaf is blown down the sidewalk. I think I wrote so many poems about it, the simple plot came true.

*

Now, writing from Montana—with another year coming to a close—I am amazed at the things I have done since college, since I used to watch the Can Man walk Sixth Avenue, mumbling at sundown, grabbing cans—his cart clanging a kind of music.

The Can Man still comes to mind sometimes, reminding me of time’s passing.

And when I think of him, I imagine his wobbly cart still brimmed with cans. I imagine his tough Oklahoma winters. I imagine a smile on his face when spring comes back around: the damp, easy streets of my college town littered with an honest day’s work.

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