Neighborly Niceties


Canning used to mean something different, at least here in Iowa. If someone said they were going to spend the afternoon canning, it mean they were going to be putting yummy tomatoes and other perishable foodstuffs from the garden into jars (oddly enough) so as to store them away for winter. My grandmother had rows and rows of canned food in jars in the basement.

These days if someone is going to spend the afternoon canning, it means they’re going to go out and root around in other people’s garbage cans in hopes of finding aluminum soda or beer cans, which they then take to the Can Center for the five-cent recycling deposit.

Many people in the neighborhood don’t like having homeless people going through their trash looking for cans. Quite a few businesses have “No Canning” signs up above their garbage cans and dumpsters. I hear people complaining about “the bums in the ditches” looking for cans. It’s not a pastime that makes a person popular.

There’s a homeless guy in our neighborhood that is very polite. He always smiles at people, but never starts those awkward conversations. He stops to pet the neighborhood dogs and cats. Nice guy. A few weeks ago I saw him coming up the street, pushing his shopping cart, so I went inside and gathered up our eight or ten empty cans for him to have. When I told Dagmar later that I’d given our cans to the guy, she thought that was a nifty idea. The next time the guy came by, a few days later, Dagmar went out and talked to him for a few minutes. I poked my head out the door and heard her tell the man, “We’ll just put our cans in the garage there every week, right around the corner where no one else can see them. You just go ahead and have them…. Yes, it’s okay, you can go in our garage for the cans, but only take the cans, and please don’t let your friends go in our garage. We trust you.”

That system has worked well for several months now… Whenever we get a few cans together we simply put them in the corner of the garage, and the homeless guy comes to pick them up when he goes canning on Mondays and Thursdays.

This morning I was out watering the new plants in our front yard when I saw the guy coming up the street. I ducked into the garage to get the cans for him and save the poor fella a few steps, but there were no cans there. I went back outside, caught his eye, shrugged and shook my head. He smiled at me and said, “Oh well, maybe Thursday,” and went on to go through the neighbor’s garbage. I turned back to watering the plants. After a few minutes I heard our new neighbor lady in the other house come outside.

“Uh oh,” I thought to myself. “I wonder what she’ll think of this guy going through the neighborhood trash.” I glanced over. She had three cans in her hands.

“Here,” she said to the homeless man. “You have these. There are only two empties, but this one’s full — I hope you like Diet Coke. If you ever get too hot, you just come on into our porch and sit down for a while, okay? Now you have a good day, and remember, if it gets hot, you can sit on our porch.”

I stood there, spraying my flowers, listening to the various things my brain was telling me, including:

“I need to think outside the box. Giving the guy empty cans is nice, but this lady is actually helping him. I need to do more.” and… “Hey, the neighbor lady doesn’t have any money herself — her and her husband are really struggling themselves.” and… “Wait a minute! Did the neighbor lady and her husband already take in a homeless guy? Isn’t that nice man who lives there with them a formerly homeless man?” I felt pretty bad about only giving the guy a few cans a week…

A few minutes later I went inside. “Honey,” I said, “Where are our empty cans? The nice homeless guy was here but there weren’t any cans in the garage.”

“Oh,” she said. “I gave them to the new neighbors. They don’t have much money.”

So we gave our empty cans to the someone in need, who in turn gave them to someone needier and went on to offer part of their home, even though they are already housing a person in need.

I like our neighbors. I need to learn things from them.


We’ve been on vacation the last five days or so. Dagmar got bit by a poisonous spider, but she’s okay now. We went camping, but never spent the night outside ’cause it’s way too hot for that sort of thing. Now I’m tired.

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10 thoughts on “Neighborly Niceties

  1. pistols at dawn

    Well played, you and your neighbors. It’s impressive and depressing how people with a little to give give it far more willingly than those with a lot more.

    And camping has never been my thing, because if the outdoors were so good, they’d put them indoors and charge admission.

  2. Pixie

    I’m right there with you Pistols re: camping.

    I think you’re on to something… could make a killing here in the summer!

    (Chris, what kind of spider??? We have Brown Recluse and Black Widows here… they are of the debbil).

  3. Leonesse

    I am afraid I hate camping. I love the outdoors and will hike and cook and play outside, but once it comes to sleepytime, I want a bed. And a roof.

  4. Pixie

    That is such a good story. Abit like spreading a smile round the world. We so need to think more about the people around us and stop being so insular in our safe little worlds. I think your boss could learn a thing or two from you and your neighbour.

  5. Leonesse

    Chris, we have a few can collectors in our town. I do not think they are homeless, though. I was going to post about them last week but was bitten by the Lazyassed Bug and didn’t get around to it. Maybe I should just start a blog with titles only and let the comments create the damn thing. …wait, maybe the toxin from the bug hasn’t passed yet…

    Hope your Darling Dagmar is feeling much better.

  6. sis

    We don’t have canners in our neighborhood. Wish we did. My neighbors throw out cans rather than go through the hassle of returning them. Occasionally they’ll actually put them in the recycle bin, too.

    I wish I canned in the old sense. Standing over a stove full of pots of boiling water on a 95 degree day just doesn’t sound like fun to me. I suppose it’s not about fun. As food costs keep rising, I may take up the practice, though. Nothing like canned homegrown tomatoes in sauces.


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