On moving to the North Country for good a couple of years ago, I kept seeing all these “Redemption Centers,” and I thought to myself: I had no idea the Adirondacks had this many Baptists. And I certainly didn’t know they drank that much Bud Light.
Of course as it turned out, Redemption Centers up here are places where you go, not to be saved, but return your empty bottles and cans for a nickel apiece.
Because my brother lives here and considers bottle-deposit revenue to be his ice cream money, I was aware of the concept and I knew better than to toss out the bottles — but I couldn’t bring myself to turn them in, either. I was disinclined to go to one of the bottle-swallowing machines outside the grocery store, with the gaping maw that looks disturbingly like one of those inflatable sex dolls that you’d see advertised in the classifieds of filthy magazines ca. 1975.
No, I take that back, I did try at least, but the first time I lugged a bag up to the vestibule there was a guy in front of me with the alacrity of a coral reef, and somehow I felt ashamed to be waiting there in public with a bag full of garbage. I’m a man, not a raccoon.
The second time, the very first bottle I inserted into the machine was spit back out at me with the e-message that this particular brand of water was not sold by this particular store. Ergo, no nickel for you, bottle boy. I didn’t like the machines to begin with, and I don’t handle rejection well, so that was that.
But the redemption centers were scarcely better. Most of them seemed to be built out of wood pallets and aluminum foil, and made the refugee camps on the southern border look like Bolton Landing.
So the months went by, and the bottles piled up, and the garage reached the point where the car would no longer fit. Finally, I swallowed my pride, loaded about 12 lawn and leaf bags full of bottles into the truck and drove to the nearest redemption center. It was closed. It was open, the hand-painted sign said, Mondays 9 am til noon, closed Tuesdays, open Wednesdays noon til 4 pm, open the second and fourth Thursdays 9 am to noon and first and third Thursdays 2 pm til 4 pm, and so on, and then the capper to it all, “hour’s suBject to chAngE.”
So I decided to let the bottles take up permanent, legal residence in the bed of the truck, where they would stay until I chanced to drive by a redemption center at some point that happened to be open. Maybe two weeks later, I passed a redemption center with a guy sitting out front with no other apparent obligations, so I put on my brakes and pulled into the lot.
I off-loaded the cargo, and his first question was, “Did you count ’em?” To my mind, this was like asking if I’d counted the number of bones at a perch-fry prior to throwing the plate into the Dumpster. He was a good man though, and he said he’d count them himself. Somehow, and I learned this is a skill peculiar to all redemption centerists, he was able to count and talk at the same time.
He was chock full of fascinating information. He said you can tell what Adirondack neighborhood you’re in just by looking at the discarded cans and bottles. His was a Pepsi/Bud Light community, but one valley over it is Coors Light and Coke. Closer to the Peaks, another proprietor told me, it’s craft beer, particularly in the summer, and water tends to be more popular than soft drinks.
It is interesting to me that they bag the cans by brand, so there will be big clear sacks of nothing but Budweiser cans or Diet Coke cans. A guy near E-town said the state makes them do it that way, but when they take them over to be processed in Burlington, they’re all dumped on the floor together in one big, nonstorted pile.
I don’t know how accurate any of this information is, and Lord knows don’t feel like researching it. Some redemption-center guys (a century ago, they would have been sitting around the general store’s wood stove playing checkers) have that look, as if they’ve been waiting these yea-how-many years for a mark to come along and start asking them questions so they could spin their wildly inflated yarns. But many stories have that ring of truth.
For example, they say that people who bring in large quantities of alcoholic-beverage containers always feel the need to explain themselves. Like they just had a party, or they’re “collecting for the neighborhood.” At a redemption center in Lewis, one guy came in with 2,000 beer cans, explaining it was the byproduct of a hunting camp. But he must have done some quick mental math and determined that even this sounded a bit excessive, so he added that the pile had been accumulating for a number of years.
But my favorite story was that of a disheveled wino who pulled up in a battered pickup and asked the redemption-center proprietor, “Can I have the full ones?”
The owner said he was new to the business, and that the ne’er-do-well knew something he didn’t: That of all the beer cans that are thrown into the recycling, there is a certain percentage that are unopened. It’s not a high percentage, but based on volume it was enough to keep the man comfortably numb in perpetuity.
It just goes to show — you should never judge an industry until you have checked it out on your own. Because now I pop in to the once-dreaded redemption centers and listen to their stories even when I don’t have any cans.
Photo of All Brands Redemption Center Sign in Chestertown by Greg Dower.