From the Field

Jingle Bottles

Posted: Dec 24, 2012 1:26 PM ET Last Updated: Dec 24, 2012 1:26 PM ET
The tinkling of wine bottles and the lacka-lack of shopping cart wheels echo through the alley. It's 5am on Christmas Eve and John Gray is on his final run through North-End Halifax. The 46 year-old parks his cart and heads for the dumpsters at the back of the alley. His boots lose grip on the ice and he reaches up to grab the cold steel edge of the nearest one. He laughs it off and ducks his head inside. No luck.
 
He pulls his hoodie around his face and guides the cart out of the alley. The wine bottles start again. Little bells in the night. His smile broadens. That tinkling is the sweetest carol he'll hear. Heavy glass he calls it. Money in the cart. He hit the mother-lode in the South End just before midnight.
 
John likes the South End for its parties. The Christmas season is best. Corks are popped as toasts are made. Laughter fills the big houses as he walks quietly through the streets and backyards unseen.

He waits and watches for what's left when the party is over. Champagne bottles brush up against beer cans in the bulging bluebags on his cart this morning. John figures this is sixty-dollar night. Not bad for ten hours work.
 
Like most of us, John Gray had plans once. He even got married. It didn't last, they were too young he says. He took a job in a warehouse where he liked the work and the people. But John liked something else.
 
A different set of bells made him smile back then. They were electronic, a fake computer-generated thing. Nothing like the crisp tink of glass on glass on a cold winter night. Still, back then they were the bells John chased all night. The bells of a video lottery terminal.
 
His story is not unique out here and he knows it. He's met others who've lost everything to one addiction or another. He shares territory with some, competes for it with others. John is sure he has his addiction under control now. That's not unique out here either.
 
He is out of the Salvation Army shelter and in an apartment now. He is in a program and on assistance. Things are looking good. He is grateful for the shelter and the monthly cheque but says he still needs to work to make ends meet. It's why he leaves the apartment at around ten thirty and heads out behind an empty shopping cart most nights.
 
He walks from the North End to the far South End and back again. It takes all night. He stops at most houses and collects something either at the curb or beside the house. He hits the alleys behind stores and restaurants. He never misses one of those small metal waste baskets hung on poles. 
 
He's been ridiculed and taunted by young drunks leaving downtown bars. One took his cart and ran a block and-a-half away before leaving it for John to recover. He's heard gunfire in the night and a lot more.
 
But ask John about life out here and he'll tell you the good things about his city. About the people who stop cars to hand him cans and bottles. Or the police officers who stop to tell him where they've seen a promising curbside bluebag. A man forced a one hundred dollar bill into his hand at four one morning. He likes to tell that story.
 
 John Gray sees the good in a city that rarely sees him at all.
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About the Author

Phonse Jessome has been chasing stories down the main streets and back roads of Nova Scotia since the spring of 1981. So far he is showing no signs of giving up the chase.

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