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Jim Kenyon: A Scavenger’s Hunt

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 9/23/2018 12:08:14 AM
Modified: 9/24/2018 9:30:47 AM

Twice a day, 81-year-old Frank Dow makes the rounds in Hartford and beyond, stopping his Dodge pickup at trash bins outside convenience stores, motels and rest areas.

“Every place I go, I check,” he said.

This summer, I came across Dow digging through the trash receptacles for redeemable bottles and cans at a self-service car wash on a Sunday afternoon.

Car washes are prime territory, he told me. Not only do people throw out their empties at the vacuum cleaning station, they often leave behind loose change.

It seems a tough way to make a buck. But for an elderly widower trying to get by on $1,500 a month in Social Security?

“It helps,” said Dow, referring to the $60 or so a week that he pockets from cashing in aluminum and glass beverage containers that come with a 5-cent deposit in Vermont. Liquor bottles are worth 15 cents.

Dow stores the bottles and cans in boxes arranged neatly in his enclosed truck bed. Once a week, he makes a trip to Hartford Redemption, a private business that operates out of the town’s recycling and waste management center on Route 5.

“He always has a big box full of 5-centers,” said Kate McGrotty, who works at the redemption site. “I don’t know where he gets them all, but he does.”

Dow puts the money toward his truck payment and his lot rent at Chambers Village, the aging mobile home park on Sykes Mountain Avenue in Hartford where he’s lived for more than 30 years. He puts a little aside each week to treat himself to a Western omelet sandwich at the Windsor Diner.

“I’ve been doing this all my life,” he said, recalling a time when he lived in Connecticut and cans were worth 2 cents and quart bottles fetched a nickel. (Vermont’s bottle bill dates back to 1972.) “I’m a scavenger.”

Dow doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. He spent a good portion of his working days repairing tracks for railroad companies. He also put in a dozen years on Dartmouth College’s maintenance crew.

Last week, I stopped by Dow’s home on a warm afternoon. He was resting on the living room couch while Hank Snow crooned from an old record player.

“In the evening, after I eat supper, I’ll make a run,” he said.

His living room walls were decorated with family photographs — his dad in an Air Force uniform taking front and center. On another wall is a Christmastime portrait of Dow and his wife, Lois, who died last year at age 76.

Dow pulled a picture of his daughter Susan from its hanger, dusting off the glass. “She was top of her class in high school,” he said. After graduating from Hartford High School in 1979, she went to Dartmouth, but left after three years without a degree. As an adult, she struggled with depression and substance abuse.

In 2002, Susan Dow, 41, was found dead in her Burlington apartment. According to newspaper clippings, an acquaintance had tried to rob her for drug money while she slept. When she woke up, 23-year-old James Provost stabbed her repeatedly. Provost is currently serving a 28- to 65-year sentence for murder.

With the death of his daughter 16 years ago and now having lost his wife, Dow acknowledges that he has “trouble getting out of bed some mornings. It can be a lonely life.”

Lois Dow sometimes tagged along with her husband when he stopped at rest areas along Interstate 91. She waited in the truck while he searched trash containers and Dumpsters.

When he was younger and nimbler, Dow was more apt to hop into Dumpsters in hopes of making a large haul. He’s fighting a bum leg and an aching back at the moment, but he still keeps up his scavenger ways. In part, driven by curiosity.

“If I found $2 every day, it would be boring,” he said. “I might find $1 or I might find $10. That’s what makes it fun.

“I find other stuff, too.”

Pickings from a recent run — an unopened box of shredded wheat cereal — sat on his kitchen counter. Not long ago, he opened a plastic bag and was pleasantly surprised that someone had left behind $8. He sometimes brings home discarded clothing to wash before donating the items to Listen’s thrift shop.

He once discovered an old jacket on top of a a motel Dumpster. Rummaging through the pockets, he pulled out a stash of $20 bills — 13 in all. “Somebody told me it was probably a drug drop,” he said.

Dow is picking his collection spots more carefully these days. A while back, a county sheriff’s deputy knocked on his door with a no-trespassing order. A business owner had gone to court to keep Dow from rummaging through his property’s trash containers. (I called the business owner, but I didn’t hear back.)

“I’m not a thief,” Dow said. “But I can understand what their reasoning is. It’s insurance. If I got hurt, they could be liable. But I’ve never complained.”

Arguably, Dow is performing a public service. The glass and aluminum containers that he redeems for cash might otherwise end up buried in landfills.

“I’m helping myself,” Dow said, “but I’m doing people a favor, too.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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