Giving thanks for ‘nothing’

I’ve told you guys in the past about Lori. 

She’s the nearly 70-year-old woman who stops by every Thursday to pick up the cans I leave just for her as she goes through the neighborhood sifting through the garbage cans looking for aluminum to sell for scrap. 

I’ve offered money, she refuses, citing the two kids I have to take care of. She just wants my cans. It’s to the point where on the weeks we don’t have cans I find myself – if only for a moment – feeling like I failed Lori that particular week. The most she’s taken from me is a box of medical gloves I’ve implored her to wear if this is truly to be her day-to-day.

“OK, OK,” she’ll reply. 

I caught up with her last week as I was getting ready to head out for work and, of course, what should have been a five-second hello turned into a 10-minute conversation. We talked about how cold it was on this particular day and if she was all good. Lori joked, “I have a big coat, look at you,” pointing to my too-light fall jacket on what felt like a frigid February morning. 

She had me there. 

A brief synopsis on Lori, the kindhearted older Asian woman who collects cans through Kensington. She used to be gainfully employed many years ago until a loss of a job and her beloved husband left her with little left to work with. She stayed with friends and couch-surfed as long as she could until she exhausted the temporary kindness of friends. 

While she won’t tell me exactly where, from what I’ve been able to understand, she spends her nights “sleeping around” the neighborhood. In the summer, she has a favorite spot in a nearby park where “nobody bothers her and can see her.” It’s a grind of day-to-day, wisely spending the money she gets from canning on food and making it last until the following week. Thursdays and Fridays (trash days in East Kensington) are her paydays as that’s when she’s out sifting through heaven knows what in efforts to score some tin. 

At 70-years-young, she’s pushing her cart up and down blocks with giant trash bags stuffed with tin. She said to me that in her years of doing this, she’s only been harassed and had her cans stolen a handful of times. 

“The guys that do this lookout for me,” she told me when I asked if she ever gets nervous. “It’s respect too. If I’m on the block and there’s another [canner] then whoever is on the block first take the block. If you live like that people know you aren’t going to take from them.”

As for people in the neighborhood?

“They don’t bother me,” she said. “I smile, say hello, some people wave back, some look at me like trash. But I have to live my life and this is how I do it, so I come back and [my hope is that] if they see me then I become normal and not gross or disgusting to them.”

On this particular day, she was in good spirits. She informed me that just last week, she found a place to stay with a friend who just landed a two-bedroom apartment in the neighborhood. 

“It’s not big, but I have my own room and I don’t have to worry about anyone stealing my things,” she said, clasping her hands together. “This girl don’t want nothing, she just says to me ‘keep it clean.’ So I clean for her and I get to stay. I feel so lucky.” 

I don’t believe it’s luck in Lori’s case. 

If you met this woman you’d never meet a nicer person. Each meeting is met with a smile and each smile turns into a conversation. She always asks about my kids, who come to the window and stare while we talk. My daughter bangs on the glass and Lori will wave and smile, referencing how big she’s gotten whether it’s been a week or a month since she’s last seen her. 

I’d like to believe the woman who took her in saw the same level of genuine as I have. Her kindness isn’t in deceit or to try to get more or one over on you. Her questions are out of legitimate care. She wants to listen, she wants to know. 

And I’d like to believe that if she can help, she does. 

So this week, I’m giving thanks to the person who gave Lori a place to rest her head. If that’s you, I hope you read this and know just how great of a thing you did to someone so deserved. In a weird way, it means a lot to know she’s got a place to go after a long day in the cold.

Because, despite her unfortunate circumstances, as we say in Philly, Lori is “good people.”

  • Kerith Gabriel's Headshot

    Kerith Gabriel is the former editor-in-chief at Philadelphia Weekly but somehow hasn’t figured out that means he doesn’t have to write nearly as much. As a routine contributor, journalism has been in his blood since his beginnings as a sports writer over a decade ago for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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