Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Enriching encounter with an old can collector

LAST Sunday evening, while waiting for my wife to finish her grocery shopping at Pasaraya Ong Tai Kim in Gombak, I decided to quench my thirst with a cold can of soft drink along the corridors.
As I was sipping my drink and staring at the surrounding area which looked more like a foreign land populated mostly by people from the African continent, an old Ah Pek standing not far away caught my attention.
The old man, who appeared to be in his 70s, was wearing a yellowed Eagle-Pagoda T-shirt, knee-length trousers, and a pair of dirty rubber slippers. He was holding onto a crumpled Sogo plastic bag as it contained his prized possessions. And he was keeping an eye on me.
At first, I thought he was a beggar. Just a day earlier at a hawker centre nearby, one had approached my wife and I while we were having lunch.
My wife had given him a ringgit. I had seen the beggar before in several places in the Klang Valley over the years. He was a lanky elderly man, about 70 years old, with no apparent disablement but who was hobbling around with a sawn-off broomstick in one hand and a plastic cup in the other. The few times I spotted the beggar, he was going from table to table, wearing a forlorn look.
He doesn’t speak much but would instead shake the plastic cup containing loose change to attract the attention of his target, and when he succeeded, he would bow several times in a woeful manner. If they ignored him, he would waste little time but quickly moved to the next table.
After my wife had given the beggar money, I had told my wife to be frugal with her generosity, especially towards beggars.
Her generosity could encourage the beggar to continue with his ways, or worse, motivate other people with similar intentions to do the same. For the little we knew, I said, the man could have belonged to a syndicate of beggars we read about now and then.
The old man with the plastic bag at Pasaraya Ong Tai Kim looked as old as the beggar we met.  For a moment I thought he would approach me for money and when he walked towards me, I almost applauded myself for being able to read his move.
However, when he asked politely if he could have the aluminium can once I had completed my drink, I silently apologised for jumping to conclusions.
“Sure, why not?” I said as I handed the man the empty yellow can. He thanked me as he took the can, promptly dropped onto the ground and crushed it with his right foot, before putting it into his plastic bag which contained other crushed cans.
“Good price in aluminium scrap?” I asked.
The old man looked at me, smiled, and replied with a nod.
“Better than newspaper and used cardboard,” he replied in local Hokkien.
“They are easier to carry and worth more in weight. Besides, you can’t find cardboards these days. They all belong to foreigners working at the shops.”
In the past, he said, he only needed to scour the alleys in the mornings to collect discarded paper cartons left behind the shops. These days, the foreigners working at the shops kept them for themselves and sold them to the scrapyard, he said.
“But people still throw away aluminium cans,” the old man continued. “At least I can still get 50 or 60 pieces a day if I go out early in the morning and later in the evening.
“I get more when I go to the parks. It’s not much, but sometimes, if I am lucky, I will also find a used car battery or two at the tyre shops for me to sell.”
I asked him if he had a home, a family, or any children. The old man nodded and said that he lived with his daughter-in-law and a grandson who would be going to school soon.
His son, he said with some reluctance, had left the family two years ago to go to Cambodia in search of greener pastures.
“He sends home some money now and then,” the old chap replied. “But they are just enough for his wife and kid. They need it more than me. Besides I am still healthy and I can still work and pay for my own meals daily.”
When I said he could apply for government assistance, my good intent was met with a cynical smile.
“Do you really think the government has enough money to give away some more?” the old man asked, shook his head, and left without another word.
As I made my way home, I told my wife about the elderly can collector. In the past, whenever I saw old people rummaging through rubbish piles, I used to wonder if it was a reflection of the deteriorating filial piety in our society or was it that life was getting so hard that the elderly have to stay alive by scavenging for discards.
Perhaps it was just an eccentricity that came with old age that could be dismissed with a sigh as being part of life.
Comparing the old man with the beggar we ran into earlier, I realised that the former chose to live with dignity.
To me he is leading a more purposeful life than some people his age, especially those who had been blessed with good fortune and station in life but continue to waste the remaining daylight of their twilight years on petty matters and creating unhappiness around them.

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