Think You’re So Tough?

I give my empty plastic water bottles to the homeless instead of cashing them in for their five cent refund. “How nice of her,” you must be thinking.

Well, you can stop. There is nothing altruistic about my giving empty water bottles to the homeless. In fact, it’s pretty selfish. I don’t want the 5 cent refund because I am deathly afraid of the bottle return room. Ever been? If not, let me forewarn you: It’s brutal.

Last summer I hauled three garbage bags overflowing with empty bottles to my local grocery store’s bottle return room. When I entered, there was a man with a long, dingy stained beard and shopping cart full of bottles. We nodded a greeting to one another and I watched as he expertly fed his bottles into his machine. He moved in a rhythm that reminded me of an interpretive dance. It was almost … artistic.

Inspired, I fished out my first bottle and tossed it into the machine. Instead of creating my own fluid interpretive dance, however, I screamed and jumped back. The machine had sucked the bottle from my hand with intense force and an accompanying crunching sound.

I gingerly inserted my second bottle. The machine immediately spat it out. I retrieved the bottle and tried again. The machine spit it out a second time. I looked over at Dirty Beard for help. He came over, took my bottle and effortlessly tossed it into the machine.

“You have to use more force,” he said.

I shoved another bottle into the machine. It was accepted! I rammed in a fourth bottle, then a fifth. It was getting fun! Soon I had the same rhythm as Dirty Beard. As I slowly emptied my first bag, a public transportation bus parked outside. A stream of people entered. They took one look at my two garbage bags full of bottles and instantly became grumpy.

“Almost done?” one lady asked curtly.

I looked down at my bags, “Well, not really.”

The bottle return machine sensed I was nervous. It immediately began rejecting the bottles I tried to feed into its cavernous mouth.  I could hear people sighing behind me as I battled with the temperamental machine. Then, to my horror, the machine groaned and froze.

“Now look what you did!” someone said.

I stared at the machine – mentally begging it to start working again. I even reached into the machine (risking amputation) and tapped the trapped bottle with my finger. It didn’t move.

“I’ll go get help,” Dirty Beard offered.

I thanked him profusely and, like sharks to blood, the crowd behind me attacked the machine he had left. Most of them did the same bottle return dance as Dirty Beard, and within seconds several had finished returning their bottles.

Dirty Beard returned with a store employee . She marched up to the broken machine and peered inside.

“What animal did this?” she snapped.

Animal? Everyone exchanged smug looks. There was a moment of awkward silence until I slowly raised my hand.

“That would be me.”

The store employee’s eyebrows shot up. She looked me up and down.

“You? You did this?”

Swallowing, I nodded. Was I the first person to break a bottle return machine?

“You can’t be so rough,” she sighed, turning back to the machine, “You gotta be gentle with these things.”

I was confused because Dirty Beard had told me to use more force.

“I’m sorry,” I explained, “But this is my first time.”

First time? Well! That was the wrong thing to say. Everyone turned to look at me with their eyebrows raised. The store employee shook her head in disgust.

“Now I gotta call the vendor. This machine is broke.”

Audible groans were heard around the room. Fumbling with my bags, I leaned over and ripped the receipt from the machine.  I had returned a total of $1.35 cents worth of bottles.

“Here,” I said, handing my two remaining bags of bottles to Dirty Beard, “You can have these.”

I turned and fled. I ran to my car and climbed inside, grateful for its familiarity. There are a lot of things in life I know I’m not tough enough to handle.  Add returning bottles to that list.