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The Can Man Cometh

Carlton Stewart is on the job.

Carlton Wayne Stewart has never played the stock market, but he watches it every day. So he can tell you that, at the moment, the market value of a pound of aluminum is roughly 46 cents, or $1,000 a ton, making it the most valuable of all reclaimable scrap metals.

Stewart knows this because reclaiming things is his life. Every day, he rides his bike from Capitol Hill to an industrial cranny beneath West Colfax Avenue, lugging pounds and pounds of aluminum refuse. He finds the cans in dumpsters, alleyways and recycling bins, then converts them to cash at metal-reclamation houses like All City Recycle, where he is a regular. But unlike many of the men and women who flock to this neighborhood every day, toting shopping carts and garbage bags, Stewart considers himself an entrepreneur.

"The way I see it, the can people are cleaning up the nation," he says. "If we don't recycle, we're going to lose everything. So why not get organized, start an independent operation, and feel some of the benefits of doing this good work?"

Stewart is the founder and president of Colorado Recycles Pick Up, a can-collection operation headquartered along Colfax in Capitol Hill, where he also makes his residence. His primary domicile is a blue sleeping bag, and his transportation is an elaborately rigged bicycle he calls the Hummer 00. Invented twenty years ago, the Hummer 00 is Stewart's first real stroke of genius as a businessman. His current model is an all-weather cruiser fitted with five feet of steel pipe that lug a loading dolly and a gigantic plastic receptacle that can hold 300 pounds of aluminum. That's $138 worth, at current market values.

"My goal at one time was to become a millionaire," he says. "And I also wanted to be the president. But people said, 'You can't run for president!' I like to believe that I can do anything, so I haven't ruled that one out. But for now my goal is to make between $50 and $100 a day. And that isn't such a bad living. I must be doing okay, because everybody I know is always asking me for money. I got to stop giving it to them, too."

From behind the Hummer 00's handlebars, Stewart has perfected the art of the pick. He knows what kinds of dumpsters yield the greatest rewards, how to time his pickups so that he reaches a trash bin before sanitation workers do, and how to fend off trouble. Stewart is friendly with most Colfax regulars, who call him EZ Money and Can Man, but the street brings its own brand of chaos, no matter how well acquainted one becomes with it. That's why, in addition to food, water and wine, Stewart's backpack contains a pair of pliers, screwdrivers and an actual ax -- tools of the trade, Stewart says, but also handy in an emergency.

"I'm not a violent person, but these streets can do things to you, and I've got enough stuff to start a war," he says, turning to reveal a large purple welt above his left eye, a gift from a disgruntled former employee. "The minute you leave your house, or wherever you are, there's all kinds of shit going on, and you got to be ready for the world. That's why I don't read the news. I say, 'Step outside. That's news, happening all around you.'"

Stewart is 38, with short dreads and a muscle-ripped body that's been earned one wheel rotation at a time. Several times a week, he rides through Cherry Creek and into Englewood, logging nearly a hundred miles on a good day. Capitol Hill is a hot spot, largely because the city's Denver Recycles program is available only to single-family residences and apartment buildings with seven units or fewer; businesses owners and property managers often leave bags out for Stewart to collect. The five-block area from Williams to York streets, with its plethora of dive bars, diners and convenience stores, is especially lucrative.

"People in Cherry Creek will give you a nice donation," Stewart says. "I once had an old dude give me $65 just for picking up some trash. Here on the Hill, you're more likely to get a dollar. But it's all about who you know, and how you know it, and people from all over here be showing you where to find the best stuff."

Stewart once had seventeen Hummer-type bikes in the Colorado Recycles fleet. Today that's down to four, with a rotation of six to eight drivers who man them every day of the week. Most of the riders are, like Stewart, homeless, and many have mental and substance-abuse problems. Stewart usually recruits potential employees in bars, on the street or inside Ready Man Labor on Colfax and Race (which, incidentally, has one of the hottest dumpsters along the strip). Turnover, not surprisingly, has been a problem, though Stewart does have a couple of longstanding employees. Josepheus Verilla has been working with Colorado Recycles for fifteen years, on and off.

"Some people might see him and me as bums or whatever, but we get to go where we want to go, and we can make more money than the rest of the people in the world make in all the regular ways," says Verilla. "I told him early, 'I'll pull my weight. I'll stick with you.' And I have. Because he's just a good leader. If you follow your leaders, you might learn something."

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