Her name is Lori.
I don’t know her last name, because she refuses to tell me, but she’s anything but a mystery. I run into her most Thursdays when she stops in from my house to collect grabs the paper bag of goodies I’ve left especially for her. If she sees my car, she’ll ring the doorbell and a 5-10 minute conversation about the week that almost always ensues.
Lori is a picker. She’s a short, elderly but sharp-witted Asian-American woman, and can be found pushing a small shopping up cart up blocks throughout the neighborhood stopping intermittently to sift through recycling bins and bags looking for one thing: cans.
We’ve spoken a few times, I’ve naively offered a few bucks but she refuses to take it.
“You wanna help me out? Just save me all your cans, please,” she’ll plead. It’s come to the point where on Thursdays now, a part of my morning routine before getting out the door has become “making a bag for Lori.”
Lori, 68, claims she has lived in my neighborhood just at the edge of Fishtown proper her whole life. She’s seen the changes the neighborhood has undergone from once blighted section into one of Philadelphia’s most vibrant communities. But it’s been that change that has displaced Lori since 2015. The perfect storm of losing her job, her husband “Andy” due to throat cancer and subsequently her home forced her out onto the city’s mean streets.
“It was like by the time I realized what was happening to me, I had nothing,” Lori told me. “We didn’t have much money, to begin with, and were just hanging on with my job. My husband’s money went to all of his hospital bills and everything just piled up. We don’t really have any family in this country and the few friends we do have they have problems of their own and I didn’t want to bother anybody.”
It’s her pride that I think impresses me the most. Even with the cans, she doesn’t beg or ask for anything else and whether it’s one can or several, she accepts with a smile. On this day, while we stopped and chatted on my front stoop, she kept saying “I hope I’m not taking up too much of your time.” Of course, mesmerized like a 5-year-old listening to a grown-up read a book at the library, I told her to continue.
“So I stayed with friends for a while, but things always went south,” she continued. “People want to help, but help has a time limit and when it’s time to go, it’s time to go. I’ve stayed at shelters, but they can be a scary place, but I have a nice place to go where no one bothers at night and I feel safe there.”
That place is in a wooded area of a local park in which Lori wakes up with the sun, goes into a local coffee shop to clean up and then goes about her day. The day is picking, walking for miles combing the streets for metal that she can bring to recycle at the various recycling centers or scrap metal yards throughout Kensington. She noted on a typical day she can collect enough cans to make $20-25. And on a good day can collect as much as $40.
“I use it for food, to buy some clean clothes, a bottle of white wine,” she said, vowing that despite plying her trade in one of the city’s most drug-infested areas she’s never been tempted to join in. “I drink, but I don’t do drugs,” she continued. “I see what it does to people around here, they look like zombies walking around, it’s so sad.”
What Lori doesn’t want me to think of as sad is her life. Does she wish her circumstances were different?
I think anyone not living among the 1 percent wishes that.
But to people that also know her and see her around, please know: “I don’t hurt nobody, I don’t steal and I’m not like these other [pickers] who go through the garbage and leave a mess,” she said. “Recycling helps the community and the environment and allows me to get by until I can one day get back on my feet.”
She’s Lori, and while she probably doesn’t know it, she’s truly an inspiration.