Joel Harlan — whose assistant calls him the “Can Man” — has collected empty cans and bottles from Cornell’s fraternities, as well as other locations in Ithaca and around Central New York, for 25 years.
In his heyday, Harlan says, he made $500 a week by collecting and redeeming empty cans — a job that he calls “picking.”
“I’m more or less the king of the can pickers,” he said. “When I die, I’m going to be dying a legend.”
But times are getting tough. Police ticket his van when he picks cans in Collegetown. The University prohibits him from picking on its property. And now, this semester, fraternities are holding fewer large parties due to strict new University regulations — adding another pressure to Harlan’s declining livelihood.
Harlan, 64, belongs to a coterie of can collectors in the Ithaca area who support themselves by gathering empty cans and bottles, then redeeming them for their 5-cent deposits or selling them for scrap metal.
Harlan and Fred Sylvester, 66, who calls himself Harlan’s assistant, said that they have collected significantly fewer cans in recent years compared to earlier in their picking careers.
“What we make [over a weekend], I could have made in two dumpsters” several years ago, Harlan said. While he would bring in $80 a day in past years, he has recently seen his revenue fall to $80 total from Thursday to Sunday — peak days for pickers.
This semester has made a bad trend worse.
The University enacted new rules at the start of the semester that prohibit freshmen from attending fraternity parties that include alcohol. Fraternities, which previously held large open parties partly as a means of recruiting freshmen, have vastly reduced the number of large parties they hold.
Much of Cornell’s partying now occurs in Collegetown, but other pickers have already laid claim to that territory, and police frequently ticket Harlan’s van when he parks it in Collegetown. That leaves him with few options except his route from fraternity to fraternity.
“It’s slim picking,” Harlan said, referring to the dumpster at one North Campus fraternity that previously yielded large quantities of cans.
But even before the new fraternity rules, Harlan’s livelihood was facing problems. Cornell and Ithaca College barred him from picking on their campuses years ago.
At Ithaca College, “you definitely don’t mess around,” he said.
“They don’t want me at all. They barred me from campus for life” 15 or 20 years ago, he said, adding that Cornell also tries to keep him out.
With less revenue from cans, Harlan has to rely more on Social Security payments. To make ends meet, he said he has to pick enough during fall semester to make it through winter break and the cold months.
“You’ve got to save until Christmas break because there ain’t nothing here” once students leave for winter vacation, he said. “Everybody leaves, and the cops are watching.”
Even when students return in January, there are few cans available, he said.
“It slows down until April,” Harlan said. “There’s not much out here during the wintertime. And let me tell you: It gets colder than a mother—.”
Harlan said cold weather bothers him more now than it did when he was younger. He has also had to cut back his work hours, he said.
“I used to be a round-the-clock picker. I’ve done quite a few 18- to 24-hour days,” he said, adding that he cannot work such hours anymore.
Harlan has been picking for 25 years. He said he was inspired to take on the work after a visit to Cornell.
Twenty-five years ago, he was a student at Tompkins County Community College and had to go to Uris Library to conduct research for a paper, he said. He happened to be on campus on the last day of Cornell’s spring classes, and he witnessed the precursor to Slope Day.
“I saw what was going on [on the Slope], so I went down there and I said, ‘holy shit — Libe Slope!’ Cans all over the place, and I started there,” he said.
But before he graduated from college, his trailer was destroyed in a fire.
“I lost everything, so I had to quit school,” he said. He soon began picking cans full time.
Sylvester, who calls himself Harlan’s assistant, began working with Harlan eight years ago. He previously held a variety of jobs at Cornell, including a stint working in the Hotel School and one at Cornell’s alumni records office.
Now, when he is not picking, Sylvester said he enjoys reading about legal cases.
“I’m a legal nut. I like to follow murder cases,” he said. “I try, when I can, to read about Michael Jackson’s doctor, because he’s not really getting a stiff sentence for helping to kill Michael Jackson.”
Harlan and Sylvester have found themselves with more free time on their hands in recent years due to a combination of their increasing age, fewer fraternity parties and University restrictions.
Harlan said he and Sylvester avoid picking in Collegetown because they are unable to use their van, in which they transport the cans.
Harlan is unable to walk very far without feeling pain, he said. But when he has tried driving the van to Collegetown in the past, he frequently receives tickets for illegal parking.
Most other pickers in Ithaca stay downtown or walk because driving creates too many problems for them, he said. Harlan added that he is unsure how much longer he will be able to continue picking.
“I’m the last of the Mohicans,” he said. “I’m getting tired of it.”
Original Author: Michael Linhorst