Issue 4, Autumn 2007


Picking Through Garbage
by Yu-Han Chao


As the day grew dim one could see the shadow of a hunched little old man reaching into a large public trash can, picking through the garbage.  PE plastic bottles were still worth 1 NT per bottle, very profitable; cardboard boxes and large bundles of newspapers could also be tied up in large loads and sold by the weight.

Old Kio, now in his late seventies, had been picking through garbage ever since he was forced to retire at the maximum age of sixty-five as a Taipei City Street Cleaner.  People in the neighborhood, especially the high school students who saw him every day as they waited for the bus in the morning and walked home from the bus stop after school, nicknamed him Old Kio because kio in Taiwanese meant "to pick up."  He walked along the major streets in the Sinyi neighborhood searching garbage cans for saleable recycle items every day.  Ever since he turned in his bright orange Taipei City Street Cleaner's uniform jacket over ten years ago, this had been his job.

Smelling of refuse, dragging a cartload of recycle items he had collected from various trash cans, Old Kio unlocked his gate, left his cart in the patio, and unlocked the front door of his one story house.  His wife was frying salmon in a pan; he could smell it half a block away.  He heard voices in the kitchen; Kitty, his daughter, must have come for a visit.

"Dad, you're back?" Kitty said, wiping her hands on an apron as she came out of the kitchen.  Kitty had short permed hair like her mother and a loud voice, also like her mother.

"Yes. Where is Ronnie?" he asked.  Kitty didn't like to bring Ronnie, his grandson here, because she didn't want her son to see that his grandfather was a trash collector.

"Ronnie's with his dad; they went to MacDonald's because he did well in the second grade monthly exam."

"Very good, very good," Old Kio said.  "He will do well in life because he is clever. He can be like his father and have a high paying management job in a bank."

"Talk, talk, talk," Old Kio's wife muttered.  "Come help me put these dishes on the dining table and we can eat dinner," she called from the kitchen.

"Right away, Mom," Kitty replied.  She was in a hurry to walk away from her father, who reeked of unidentifiable odors.

Kitty continued wrinkling her nose throughout the meal in her father's direction.

"Dad, I've told you so many times, stop picking through the garbage! It's so embarrassing to us children because people think that we do not give you money, and that you are poor. We got you this whole house and can afford to keep you in a comfortable life, why do you have to do this to your family and yourself?"

"I am not old and useless, I can still work to earn my keep."

"Ronnie was crying the other day because his classmates laughed at him because his grandfather kio bun so, picks trash off the streets! I had to tell him that they made it up, that his grandfather was a very respectable man and does not do that."

"What is so shameful about gathering recycling? Were you embarrassed of me when I swept the streets? I brought all of you up, my work fed you. And now you think you are all so much better?" Old Kio said.

The discussions were always the same, and without conclusion.  Old Kio would continue to pick through the trash bins in the Sinyi neighborhood, and Kitty went home in a bad mood.  She had heard what the neighbors whispered; they said she was an ungrateful and mean daughter to make her father pick up trash to support himself.  She had given him so much money over the years but it all went into his bank account, he never spent it, only used the change he earned collecting recycle items.  If only other people knew how stubborn her father was, then they wouldn't criticize her anymore.


Ronnie had been planning to take the bus to see the old man who picked trash, who was supposed to be his grandfather.  When his classmates made fun of him yet again this morning, he slipped out of the school gates during naptime and took the bus to the Sinyi Developments bus stop.  He was wearing his blue and white school uniform, with his red backpack on his shoulders.

"Can you tell me when we are at Sinyi Developments?" Ronnie asked the bus driver.

"Okay, boy. Sit behind me and I'll call you when it's your stop. Aren't you supposed to be in school right now?" the driver asked.

"The … the teacher said I could go," Ronnie lied, afraid that the bus driver would drive him back to Jian An Elementary School.  "I have to do something very important," he added, trying to look believable.

"Very well," said the bus driver, uninterested. 

He spat into a white plastic cup beside his steering wheel as he made a sharp right turn and nearly threw Ronnie off his feet.  The boy held on to a metal pole and crept into a seat when the bus drove down a straight street again.

The bus pulled away as soon as Ronnie hopped out at the Sinyi Developments bus stop.  A motorcycle nearly ran the boy over as it rushed by the just-opening bus doors.

"Be careful!" hollered the driver as Ronnie ran off. 

Ronnie had spotted the old trash man from the window.  He does not look like my mother, Ronnie thought, maybe my classmates had made it all up, like Mom said.

Ronnie looked at the old man for a long time.  Old Kio noticed a child staring at him.  He smiled and pushed his cart closer to where the child was standing.

"Why aren't you in school, little boy?" he asked.

Ignoring the question, the boy asked in a squeaky voice, "Are you really my grandpa?"

Old Kio stopped.  "Ronnie? Are you Ronnie?"

Ronnie nodded.

"Oh my heavens, the last time I saw you you were just an infant!" Old Kio exclaimed.  "Look at you, such a big boy now!"

"Why do you pick trash, Grandpa? My friends say that our family is so poor that you have to pick other people's trash and take it home."

"Well, if they talk like that they are not your friends." Old Kio smiled.  "There is nothing bad about picking recycles, tell your little classmates that. In fact, would you like to work with me today? It's a lot of fun."

Ronnie's face brightened at the word "fun".  "Sure, Grandpa!"

The old man and the little boy still wearing his backpack walked through the streets of Taipei together, the boy holding a metal tong and the old man using his bare hands.  They collected twelve 500 c.c. plastic bottles, a large stack of paper and cardboard, and half a plastic bin of metal cans, which Old Kio taught Ronnie to flatten by jumping up and down on them.

At four o'clock, Old Kio brought Ronnie to another bus stop nearby where he could take the 235 bus home.

"Your house is Guting Station, remember to get off there," the old man said.

"Why can't I stay and see you change that into money?" Ronnie asked, pointing at the plastic bottles, metal cans, and paper he had helped his grandfather collect.

"You have to go home or your mother will worry that you didn't come home from school," Old Kio explained.  "Next time if you can stay until five thirty, I will take you along with me to exchange the recycling. Today I still have to work for a little while longer."

Ronnie pouted but allowed his grandfather to walk him to the bus stop.

"Can I come next week?" the boy asked.

"Certainly," said his grandfather.  "But don't neglect your studies!"

"I won't," Ronnie grinned.  "I get very good grades."

"So, are we ready? There's the 235, run along now."

"Bye, Grandpa!"

"Goodbye, my child."


When Ronnie came home he found his mother Kitty more upset than he had ever seen her.

"What happened, Mom?" Ronnie was sure that his mother had found out that he cut class that afternoon and he would be in a lot of trouble, but he still wanted to act innocent just in case.

"It's your grandfather," Kitty sobbed.

"What grandfather?" Ronnie blinked.

"The one that picks trash! He died in a dumpster, just collapsed and fell into a disgusting pile of other people's garbage!" Kitty cried.

"What are you talking about, Mom, I just saw him today and he was fine."

"Don't lie, Ronnie, you did not see your grandfather. You were in school when he died."

"I saw him, I saw him," Ronnie said, tears coming to his eyes.  "He is not dead. Next week I will go collect recycles with him again, he said so, he wouldn’t lie to me."

Kitty knelt on the floor in front of her small son.  He was short, like his grandfather.  "Tell Mommy the truth. Why are you saying that you saw your grandfather? You couldn't have."

"My ... teacher let me take the bus to see my grandfather. It was very important."


"I had to see if it was true that my grandfather picks up trash."

"You ... my poor child."  Kitty sobbed.

"Don't cry, Mom, it was fun. Grandfather is great. There's nothing wrong with collecting recycling, it's good for the environment, and you make money. I want to be just like grandfather one day!" Ronnie said.

"You stupid, stupid child. Your grandfather is dead. You are not going to pick up trash. Your grandfather is dead..."  Kitty put her arms around her son and drew him near.

"He is not, he is not!" yelled Ronnie, breaking away from his mother.  "Grandfather is alive, he is just working late. I'll show you, I'll take the bus to find him and bring him home to show you. You just don't like him, that's why you say he died.  He said he missed me and wanted to see me more often. I like Grandfather more, I want to go live with him. I'll run away from home!"  Ronnie screamed.

"Ronnie!" Kitty called after her child.

She watched him run out of the door.  They lived on the sixteenth floor, however, so that after he left the apartment he had to wait for the elevator.  When Ronnie saw his mother follow him outside, he struggled to open the heavy door of the fire exit staircase.  The door was too heavy for him and Kitty came over to grab him.

Ronnie kicked and screamed, fighting his mother.

"Stay away from me! Stay away from me! You are a liar, you told me I did not have a grandfather, and now that I saw him you say he is dead! You are a bad person! I'm running away from home, stay away from me!" he screamed.

Kitty, tears streaming down her face, tried to fight her son and take him home.  She had always cared a great deal about what other people thought of her, what they said behind her back.  She did not want the neighbors to hear her son screaming such things, making a scene, it was too embarrassing.

"Shhhh. Shhh," she said.  "It's okay, let's go home. We will go see Grandfather together," she said softly.

"You're lying," Ronnie said, glaring at his mother through his tears.

"No, I'm telling you the truth," Kitty said.  "I won't lie to you again. Your grandfather did pick trash. And that's perfectly okay. Come back home, we'll clean you up, and then we can go see grandfather together, okay?"  Just as Kitty said this the elevator arrived with a ding.

Ronnie bit his lips, looking at the opening elevator doors, then back at his mother.  For a few seconds everything stopped--the elevator, Ronnie, his mother.  Then the elevator doors closed, Ronnie wiped his face with the back of his hand, and let Kitty take him by the other hand back home.

As the boy sat in the bathtub melting a piece of soap between his palms, he was excited about seeing his grandfather again.  Grandpa was his favorite adult in the whole world.  Now that he had found Grandpa, everything would be different.  He wouldn't care anymore if the kids at school made fun of him.

Kitty sat in the master bedroom fixing her makeup.  At the morgue she had just called, makeup artists were rubbing powder onto her father's face.  Kitty did not know if it was the right thing to do, to bring the boy to see his grandfather's corpse.  But somehow she thought it felt right.  She zipped up her black dress in the back with some difficulty, wishing her husband were here.  But he happened to be in Malaysia right now at a high level bank managers meeting so she did not want to bother him.  She always suspected he was ashamed of her father anyway, though he never said so.  She ran mousse through her curly hair and evened out the lipstick on her lips with a cotton swab.

"Are you done washing yourself, Ronnie?" she called in the direction of the bathroom.

"Yes!" was the reply.

"I'll get your towel," Kitty muttered.  She picked up a towel, which was sitting next to her son's best formal suit on the queen sized bed in the master bedroom.

"What did your Grandfather say to you?" Kitty asked, trying to make friends with her son again by going along with his fantasy of having met the old man.

"He said there is nothing wrong with his job," Ronnie said, "and he told me not to neglect my studies."

Kitty frowned.  These, and the other statements he had made didn't seem like words that Ronnie could make up by himself--somebody must have said these things to him.

"Next week I will help him with the recycling again," Ronnie said with pride.

"Really?" Kitty asked.

She found that she had no words for her son at this moment.  She had questions, but not questions she could ask him, at least not right now.  Did he skip school?  Was he going to skip school next week?  (How could she ask?  She didn't want to antagonize him--he was such a sensitive boy.)  Was he lying?  Had he ... seen a ghost?

As Kitty helped her son button his shirt, pull on the stiff tuxedo jacket and suit pants, and smoothed out his hair, she felt an involuntary shudder taking hold of her body.  Ronnie was looking into the mirror, at himself, and at her reflection.  She saw an adult expression in her son's face that she used to see on her father's face.  A kind of smirk, lips curled in a way she thought only her father could curl them.  But her son had either inherited or learned the expression.  Kitty's hands and feet turned cold and she removed her hands from her little boy.

"So, are we ready?" Ronnie asked.

These were the exact words that Kitty's father used to say to Kitty when she was younger, when they were about to go out--on a picnic, to school, to a fancy seafood restaurant, into a taxi, onto a Taipei City Bus.

"Yes, my dear," Kitty replied.

With a corner of her sleeve she wiped her eyes, which burned with tears.  Kitty suddenly regretted everything.  The harsh words to her father, how she avoided him for all these years, acted ashamed, hid Ronnie from him--she had been a terrible daughter.  And her father had been a good father.  She clasped Ronnie close to her and squeezed him so hard he struggled to break free from her.

"Don't, Mommy. I haven't forgiven you yet," he pouted.

Kitty withdrew her hands and covered her face with them.  There had been a split between herself and her father, too, early on, just like this.  A point at which she was no longer behaved kind and loving towards her father.  She hoped that Ronnie had not reached that point--never would.  She wanted a chance to be a good mother, and Ronnie was supposed to be her baby, her favorite little man in the whole world.