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Hawaii News | Incidental Lives

Collecting bottles and cans keeps this retiree in the red

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"Uncle" wants to keep this on the down low, so no real names, OK?

Seems what Uncle does for extra income could be misinterpreted by certain people. Like, say, the folks who cut his disability checks.

Uncle could explain that he doesn’t actually do any of the heavy lifting (hallelujah for young dudes with good hearts, strong backs and necks that don’t scream in pain at every wrong move), but reasoning with bureaucrats in a lousy economy is sort of like arguing to a wolf in late winter the merits of skipping an easy kill.

In any case, if we want to know what it is that brings 73-year-old Uncle and his 83-year-old girlfriend, Peggy, to the Reynolds Recycling center at the Hawaii Kai Park and Ride every morning, Uncle has to stay "Uncle," capisci?

As a retired cop working part time for the city, Uncle earned a decent living but not so much that he could contribute the kind of money he wanted to his grandkids’ savings accounts. And so, at the suggestion of one of his sons, Uncle began collecting bottles and cans for recycling.

Every day, Uncle drives from his home in Kuliouou down to the Ward Avenue bar that lets him pick up its empties and to a few choice spots downtown where the used plastic and aluminum are ripe for the taking. And every morning, he hops in his pickup, drives to the Park and Ride and cashes in his bounty.

Uncle splits the daily earnings into separate deposits for his grandkids. And while he might save a few bucks to give to the guys who help him load and unload the heavy plastic bins, or to homeless folks he passes along the way, he says he doesn’t keep a cent for himself, not even for gas.

For Uncle the rewards are twofold: He helps his grandkids save for college, and he keeps his island home clean.

"I just don’t want all this stuff ending up in the ocean," he says as he loads a fresh wad of dip into his cheek.

Which brings us back to how Uncle ended up on disability in the first place. Seems he’d come across a garbage can some knucklehead had pitched into the ocean. As he tried to fish it out, a wave knocked him over onto the reef, injuring his neck and back. Some days it doesn’t pay to be a good Samaritan.

Uncle is prohibited from lifting more than 25 pounds, so he depends on Reynolds workers Keaka Kepa and Mylo Laurito, as well as pal and fellow recycler Dickie Boy, to help him load and unload.

It can be painful watching Uncle at work. Dressed in a Gold’s Gym sweat shirt, paint-splattered shorts, ancient work boots and a yellowing neck brace, he leans over his plastic bins, grimacing as he sorts cans and bottles into their proper repository. Kepa and Laurito will handle the rest.

Uncle takes a deep breath, readjusts the wad of dip in his cheek and spits. It’s 9:30 a.m., and the hard work of the day is already done. He waves goodbye to Dickie Boy.

"Good guy, him," he says. "Gives his money to his mother. You look at all the guys who come here, and all the stuff we do is for a different reason.

"We all have our reasons."

Reach Michael Tsai at


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