Gilbert Walker was in the Dumpster beside the old Rockola Motel on Patton Avenue in Asheville last Tuesday morning, looking for aluminum. He crouched low in the semi-darkness, lifting bags of trash up to the light to see if there were cans inside.
“I go all over,” he said. “I pick up cans and stuff all over.”
Walker was born in West Virginia but has lived in Asheville for the last 30 years. Each morning he pushes his “buggy”—his word for a grocery cart—through West Asheville, gathering scrap metal to sell for cash. On a good day, he can make as much as $20. Walker suffers from a heart condition and said he draws $500 per month in disability from the Social Security Administration—modest wages for a man with five children. “By the time you pay rent and all that, you ain’t got nothin’,” he said. “If you don’t get out here and try and make some money, you’ll starve.”
By mid-morning Tuesday, Walker’s buggy was laden with empty Bud Light tallboys, a handful of soda cans and an upended discount-store mountain bike, looking worse for the wear. Walker had big plans for it. “I’m gonna try to fix it up for my kids for Christmas,” he explained. The biggest find of the morning, though, had been a big arrow made of crimped sheet aluminum and colored lights, part of the Rockola’s dismantled sign. The motel’s owner said Walker could take it with him; he expected he would get two or three dollars for it.
“I like getting out and collecting,” he said, smiling a diffident smile. “It keeps me busy. I don’t like sitting at home. I never did. I take after my dad—he worked in the coal mines all his life. He always kept busy.”
The Rockola Dumpster was pretty well picked over and Walker was ready to move on. “I’m going up here, then back down past the filling station and then back that way,” he explained, gesturing east along Patton Avenue.
He pushed the buggy up a slight rise and a few seconds later its gentle clatter was gone, overwhelmed by the sound of the traffic rushing by.