Many Happy Returns

Paul Zentgraf offers you greetings! and salutations!

For nearly ten years, since long before there was a ballpark in the ballpark neighborhood, Paul Zentgraf has been the Redemption Center's unofficial apostle. A vigorously healthy 65, tanned but with no visible teeth, dressed in hiking boots and rodeo belt buckle, he is notable for saying "Greetings and salutations" to customers expecting "Hey..." and for his encyclopedic knowledge of science-fiction paperbacks and his tenacious devotion to all things scrap. For while a visit to the Redemption Center is a religious experience for legions of frugal people, this is not a church, but a recycling collection and drop-off point.

Two weeks ago, though, the Redemption Center fell unaccountably quiet -- and Paul Zentgraf seemingly dropped off the face of the earth. The center's parent company, Waste Management Inc., continued to run its noisy, mixed-paper operation next door at Broadway and Walnut, but people who pulled up in their station wagons full of pop cans and junk mail and asked, "Where's Paul?" were told they'd now have to direct their cars' contents to the company's recycling facility in Globeville.

Even more persistent regulars, the ones with shopping carts draped with lawn-and-leaf bags and wearing all the clothes they own on their backs, were more fatalistic. They read the hand-lettered sign about Paul's change of address, sighed and began trudging north.

Paul Zentgraf is no ordinary garbageman.
John Johnston
Paul Zentgraf is no ordinary garbageman.

The Franklin Recycling and Waste Transfer Facility, located between an automotive junkyard and an Army National Guard armory, is no scenic north-of-downtown garbage haven. Circled almost entirely by razor wire, the facility takes up an entire city block -- except that this particular block is incongruously situated in the middle of open/industrial space, and a few hundred yards away, a field of zucchini thrives by the railroad tracks. It is hard to find Redemption in a place like this. Finally, you whip out your cell phone and call for directions. (The guys with the shopping carts just keep walking around and around the perimeter, looking for an opening.)

"Take a right on 48th Avenue," the receptionist tells you. "Drive in by the commercial scales, and you'll see a bunch of dumpsters in the parking lot. That's what we have now."

"What kind of dumpsters?" you ask, because the landscape you survey is full of nothing but. "What color? How big?"

"Just look for Paul," she tells you. "He'll be standing right there."

And so he is, at his new, oddly hygienic-looking station, smack on pristine blacktop, surrounded by six smallish dumpsters, anchored by a Tuff Shed so new its price tag is still legible. Paul is not only relocated, he's also a little unsettled -- because he suddenly has time to talk. After nine years of preaching redemption through recycling by the side of a busy street, he's now inside a chain-link fence in the middle of nowhere. There's no traffic, if you will.

So he can give you a tour of the place, meaning the dumpsters.

"We still take anything," he says. "Anything made out of paper. Some we even pay for. Bottles or container glass, no Pyrex. Aluminum, scrap aluminum, copper and brass. Corrugated cardboard. I have often said," he adds, warming to the subject, "that you could kick down the walls in your house, peel off the gypsum and bring in the drywall -- we could recycle that. Probably most of your house, actually. But don't really do that. It's just something I like to say."

Another thing he likes to say but doesn't want you to (necessarily) do: "If you wanna bring down a Cessna with no engines or seats, we could probably take that, too."

The guy who's just appeared in a battered red van sporting a Tiny Town bumper sticker has nothing that grandiose to recycle, though. "Nope," he says, "nothing but cans. I just been saving them up in the yard, like you do."

It must be some yard: Paul unloads fourteen lawn-and-leaf bags full of cans, weighs them on the scale in the shed, then rips the bags open with a knife just before emptying them into the dumpster. They are all Pepsi and Sprite cans. "You know what else I use this for?" he asks, showing soda-drinking man the six-inch blade of his knife. "Fillet of customer! Excuse me while I take care of this charming young lady.

"Greetings and salutations!" he yells, rushing over to meet a woman in her fifties with salt-and-pepper hair, sensible shoes and a trunk full of cardboard. Oh, and a few cans.

"Which are not worth you being paid for," Paul tells the charming young lady. "I'll hold them for one of my street people who, believe it or not, have actually walked all the way up here. I'll tack these onto their ticket."

"Okay," she says, "and thank you."

"No, thank you. Uncommon beauty like yours is always a pleasure."

Soda-drinking man, unfazed by the fillet-of-customer comment, is happily counting the 49 bucks he just received from the cashier at the commercial scale. Meanwhile, Paul greets another potential customer who has brought in a small box full of very heavy plumbing fixtures. Solid copper. Maybe. Paul takes a magnet from his back pocket and passes it over.

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