Many Happy Returns

Paul Zentgraf is no ordinary garbageman.
John Johnston

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.

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.

"Uh-oh, I got a problem. Steel. A magnet is only attracted to ferrous metals. Take off these steel fittings and I can give you top dollar," he says. "No, I am not a metallurgist, but I took general science in high school."

The fixtures are taken away as silently as they arrived, and perhaps just as well. "You bring me copper fittings or a lamppost, say, from downtown somewhere, you have to show me a government ID," Paul says. "I have known the police to want to trace items of this sort." Criminal garbage? "Bingo! I had the misfortune of growing up in the Bronx, so I'm not exactly unacquainted with various transactions, capice?"

That Bronx youth comes out in Paul's voice -- "metal" is "meh-ul"; "dollar" is "dollah" -- but otherwise he is Western to the core. He realized long ago that he would never be able to work in electronics, the career he chose in high school, because it was physically impossible for him to be "cooped up behind any four walls." Glossing quickly over his past -- mentions of long- and short-haul trucking, an ex-wife, a sense of impermanence -- he comes across as one of those distant relatives that crops up in every family, the guy who just takes off. "I realize all this now, at this late date," he says. "I shoulda been a forest ranger, where you're outside weeks at a time."

But the recycling job has worked out well. There is something about the facts and statistics of it -- and the metallurgy, of course -- that Paul finds irresistible. "Who knows everything about everything?" he says modestly. "I know 75 percent. But you're darn tootin' I believe recycling is a good thing. What's in a landfill? You don't know. You don't want to know, believe me."

Better it's there, though, than some other places he's seen. "All of a sudden, at the age of 65, I got the urge to go hiking, which I hadn't done since '57," he explains. "I did two fourteeners and a thirteen -- and I do not care for the sight of cans up on those mountaintops. Not at all."

The recycling business has been gradually decreasing ever since Paul started with Waste Management. Curbside recycling, plentiful jobs for guys who used to go canning, and now this odd location for the Redemption Center have made his a lonely occupation.

But now Paul hears the familiar dry rattle of a big bag of cans. The man carrying it is gaunt and sunburned, wearing a heavy Army jacket and long hair.

"You have any trouble finding me?" Paul asks.

"Yeah...what?" the man replies, as if startled from a light nap. " I, what, walked?"

Paul hands him a ticket, to which he has added nearly ten pounds of odd cans collected from customers who didn't care about a few cents here or there. The man walks over to the cashier without uttering another word.

"Silent Sam is my own private name for him," Paul says. "I known him forever, but I don't know anything about him. He speaks maybe six, seven words and that's it. Sometimes I see him sitting quiet by the side of the road, like a soldier on bivouac. He's always quiet and courteous, and he always has a lot of cans.

"I think he might have some problems, but I don't know," he adds. "And I don't jump to no conclusions."

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