WINTER HAVEN, FLORIDA — Winter Haven, Florida. Harold glanced at the yellow can, grimaced and threw it back in the dump. ''No damn good,'' he said, ''it ain't aluminum.'' It was a chocolate drink can.
As I watched, Harold's grimy, sun-darkened hands darted swiftly through the refuse, plucking out soft drink and beer cans, pie plates, foil, sardine containers. All went quickly -- in a practiced motion -- into the dark brown garbage bag that is Harold's constant companion, during business hours.
My companion, Harold, is a Florida ''canner.'' To be exact, an aluminum canner; he sells all the aluminum he can find, and has nothing but contempt for the few beverage manufacturers who still pack their products in steel cans.
''And the cat food cans, too,'' he fumes. ''They're in every dump -- some aluminum, some not. I skip 'em all. You can't tell 'em apart, and it wastes too much time hitting them all with the magnet.''
Time is money to Harold, as it is to all professionals. And Harold's is an honorable profession.
The magnet, and the garbage bag, are the tools of his trade. His ''company car'' is a grocery store shopping cart; he uses it to transport his gleanings to the collection center on days when the finding is good. The magnet -- probably found in a dump -- is used, but only on larger pieces of questionable metal: gutters, abandoned doors, screening, drums, other construction items. If sticks, throw it away; the stuff is probably tin or galvanized steel. Valueless, at least to Harold and other small-time ''independent scrap dealers.''
Harold is 72 years old, far older than most of his business associates and competitors; he is short, wiry, burned dark by the Florida sun and in excellent health from the rigorous demands of his profession. Constant walking, pushing the heavily loaded cart, crawling in and out of dumpsters keep him as well honed as a middleweight boxer.
Harold is also an alcoholic. Basically, he combs the dumpsters and sells all he finds to support his addiction, to buy beer or malt liquor.
Harold's home turf is North Tampa, Florida, but others like him may be seen on the streets and in the alleys of virtually any city in the United States, regardless of size. Most of these modern, urban gleaners are homeless.
It has been said that ''the sun is the poor man's blankets'' so expectably large numbers of canners are in Florida. California's beaches, such as Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice, also attract them. An acquaintance, Rosie, worked those heavy-laden lodes of aluminum for the several years I lived in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. She was bright, intelligent, also deeply tanned and carried an innovative tool of the trade, a small wooden mallet to crush the cans she dug out of beach trash barrels for ease of transport to the payoff place.
The men usually stomp the cans flat, or bring them in as they find them. Many of the canners -- all too many of whom, like Harold, are alcoholics -- work only long enough to pick up a sufficient quantity, uncrushed, to pay for a sixpack.
Canning is certainly no get-rich-quick scheme, but it does bring in money, regularly and honestly. In essence, it is big business in microcosm, for small stakes. At least, small stakes for the collectors.
Many people, ecology-minded or just frugal, save cans. Some bars and restaurants accumulate as much as a truckload, as do certain churches and charities. They are the heavy hitters of the business when they make the occasional run to the collection station. And, because life is like that, they receive a much higher rate of pay for their heavy cash-ins than do the one-bag, or one-cart men and women.
Winter Haven is a very marginal aluminum bonanza. In Tampa, on a good weekend, Harold could probably work into the big bucks, meaning $10 or $15 a day. I actually met one youngster working in Harold's North Tampa pea patch after dark. The beam of his flashlight caught my eye one night on East 127th Avenue. ''Hey, kid'' I yelled, ''You must be getting rich. How much are you pulling in, $20-25 bucks a day?''
L ''More than that,'' he yelled back. ''Some days I hit $40.''
That figures out to 280 bucks a week, maybe 14 grand a year, tax-free, zero overhead. Of course, the kid had youth on his side.
But, my heart goes out to the hard-pressed Winter Haven gleaners, and also my silent admiration:
* To bearded Avery, who labors long and hard for very little. He pops up behind, or out of, every dump I pass north of the Greyhound Station; but, obviously -- from his appearance -- he's not getting rich.
* To little Peggy, who always seems to have a loaded shopping cart. She's been sadly missed, and the word is that she has been the unwilling guest of Polk County, in the Bartow Jail. Hurry back, we miss you.
* To good-hearted, affable Earl, who hunts cans by bicycle. And quite successfully, too, until, after a couple of runs to the ABC store, he falls off his bicycle.
* And to the Quiet Man in the Hat. His contribution to the canner's art is a long stick, with a pronged end for spearing cans. He says he doesn't like crawling in and out of dumpsters.
To these daily, front-line ecologists, these unsung improvers of the environment, these hardy pioneers -- and to Harold and Rosie, and all the others -- I lift my frosty can in toast: thanks, gang, thanks for everything.
''Sure, Earl, you can have the can -- when I'm through.''
Cavanaugh Murphy is a free lance.