Scrap-metal prospectors

Every glint on the side of the road is an invitation to pull over and examine a potential haul.

Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Crushed cars await recycling in Los Angeles.

Soon after we shut down our small dairy operation in 2001, Charlie began collecting and selling scrap metal in earnest as an adjunct to his Social Security check and erratic income from carpentry jobs. It has been a sideline career ever since, one I've been ambivalent about. It can be lucrative, and is good for the environment, but oh, the time and effort!

Depending on who's at the wheel, outings in our pickup can be fleet and efficient affairs (Charlie rightly accuses me of being a New York driver) or long, slow meandering reveries from dumpster to favorite dumpster and on through student apartment complexes where metal refuse – everything from electronics with copper wiring to old appliances – tends to appear now and then. An original errand might even be forgotten once he succumbs to the lure of such side trips.

The nature of the quest depends on the state of household finances and the price of metal. In the perfect storm of scarce cash and a spike in, say, the value of aluminum, Charlie rarely allows me to breeze past something glinting from the side of the road.

"I think it was plastic," I say dismissively, hopefully.

"Just turn around," comes the clipped command, and usually I find a safe place to pull over so he can disentangle some treasure from the brambles and weeds. Ever since he found a $20 bill resting against a scrap of aluminum window frame that I'd scoffed at retrieving from the verge of State Road 45, he has felt vindicated.

Often, on an innocent trip to town for groceries I've found myself helping to heave discarded stoves, washers, and dryers into the truck bed. Once he talked me into helping him push a 200-lb. pump up a steep wooded slope, then up an even steeper makeshift plank ramp into the truck. Small wonder I keep mum when I spy heavy metal objects (HMOs) while his neck is craned the other way.

The treasures accumulate under the eave of the workshop barn where Charlie happily sorts and cleans, strips wires, and fills buckets with bits of copper and brass. Once he has a good truckload, I eye the booty carefully, knowing the high probability of finding a keeper.

"Connor still rides that bike!" I am indignant that Charlie has commandeered the tiny Spider-Man-motif vehicle that my grandson occasionally pedals up and down the gravel drive when he visits.

"He's outgrown it," Charlie counters, mentally weighing its frame. I will have none of that logic. I retrieve Connor's first two-wheeler along with a decorative tin I never meant to retire.

Yet I cannot resist riding along when Charlie cashes in his loads of scrap. He is a popular seller, often bringing the workers doughnuts, and once putting a young man who'd pushed ahead in the copper line (while talking on his cellphone no less) firmly back in his place. He'd appreciated the approbation of witnesses, regretting only that he hadn't grabbed the transgressor's little phone and added it to his pile.

With $100 or more in his wallet, Charlie becomes expansive, treating me to ice cream on the way home – his way of encouraging my future cooperation. And, truth to tell, something of the sport of it all has rubbed off on me.

One day I was amazed to find myself thinking of the copper screen I'd seen in the abandoned dump on a neighboring property. Soon I was taking a small detour in my farm walkabout and pulling it out. It was light stuff, no problem to carry, and fetched me $30. And my coup: Reading the want ads over coffee one recent morning, I suddenly sat up straight. "Here, under the 'free' ads, it just says 'metal.'"

"Well, call," Charlie urged.

I did, to find that I was the first in line for an old pool that a real estate agent wanted removed from a property she was selling. It was already dismantled and only needed hauling.

Later, eyeing the stacks of aluminum, I insisted that "we go halves on this one." Charlie had little choice but to agree.

By the end of the morning we were each almost $200 richer, and still had the garage to empty. I think I am hooked.

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