Seasoned recycling handler befriends eager college students
Editor’s note: The author just completed her education at Middlebury College and a months-long internship at the Independent.
“I’m gonna miss you, Kiddo,” Billy murmured one day this past summer, wrapping his weathered ebony arms around me.
It was the tightest hug I received before leaving campus, all the warmer and more meaningful and memorable because of its unexpected conviction. I was not sure when I would see this 75-year-old Jamaican man again after departing for my environmental writing class in Alaska, so our goodbye was tinged with a bittersweet feeling of family and finality.
Cliveland Pottinger, known universally as “Billy,” works at the Middlebury College recycling center. He has done a bit of traveling, talks with a thick Jamaican accent and lots of gestures, and is a favorite of the students who work there.
I initially met Billy three winter terms ago during my sophomore year, when I decided to work my first job ever at the recycling facility, where he has been a waste and recycling handler for going on a decade. Back then he struck me as a gruff, bossy old man who did not particularly care for the students helping sort and bale the truckloads of rubbish coming in every couple of hours from trash cans around campus.
A week or two into the job, I had begun mastering the ins and outs of identifying plastics one through seven and glass containers that could be hurled into the nonreturnables bin. I had sorted my way through unopened packages; new clothes; sticky, crumpled pieces of rubber; soda bottles filled with frothy pee; tins crammed with chewed tobacco; and enough beer cans, wine jugs, and liquor bottles to put Two Brothers Tavern to shame.
Although I was thankful for the work gloves and latex liners protecting my hands, I soon fled to the cleaner, less stinky cardboard and paper station, which Billy oversaw. Working with him into sophomore spring and again last June, I realized that beyond his few words and rough commands, he was a softie with a sense of humor and had an interesting story to tell.
Born and raised in Port Antonio, Jamaica, Billy grew up in a family of nine kids, and now has three children of his own plus five grandchildren. He has a varied work history, with an important period spent on boats. After six years as a supervisor at the Jamaica Public Service power company in his small hometown he came to Middlebury with his wife, Myrlene, in 1996.
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE FRESHMEN Julia Silva, left, and Jenne Meneses work with Billy Pottinger in the Middlebury College recycling center last week. Pottinger has been having a positive influence on student workers in the center for nine years.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
They were on vacation visiting their son, Paul, who works at the college heating plant and is raising his family here. Billy and Myrlene settled in Middlebury after Paul suggested they stay.
Apart from his great difficulty adjusting to the cold, dark Vermont winter (60-degree weather is considered cold in the sunny West Indies) and his missing everything about Jamaica, especially the food, Billy is content.
“It’s like an old country town to me,” he says of Middlebury, Vt. “I don’t like big cities. Too much confusion. Middlebury, you know, quite a place, right?”
When I ask him to describe himself, Billy immediately responds with “awful” and gives one of his signature long chortles.
“A reasonable person,” he says, striking a more serious note. “I can take a lot of horsefly. I’m the last one to start a fight. You talking to me to make me get excited, you talking to yourself. My greatest problem is my not having a problem.”
It makes sense then that his catchphrase is “no problem,” and that he likes to quote Gandhi.
“An eye for an eye, but if that was so, you’d have a lot of one-eyed people,” he says.
To keep himself “formally” occupied, he says, Billy began working at the recycling center nine years ago. He enjoys collaborating with students on the monumental task of diverting over 60 percent of college waste from the landfill.
“It’s fun all the way. Every day is something new. They are very excited,” he says of his student colleagues, many of them a third his age. “Only they haven’t a clue about recycling or handling any sort of waste, you know. Probably the way they have been brought up.”
With his slow, staccato “eh eh eh eh eh” chuckle and matter-of-fact “mmm,” Billy reminds me that I, like many other student recyclers, did not know how to use a broom until he schooled me.
“If I say we’re gonna sweep up, they don’t know what I’m talking about,” he says. “Never seen a broom or used a broom. You couldn’t sweep either. Ya ya. I have to teach them a little bit.”
Billy and I worked side by side, tearing up discarded notebooks, gathering piles of cardboard boxes, tossing the frequent missorted item into the correct bin and salvaging readable books and other useable finds. He would switch the radio on to 94.5-FM and lightly rock on his heels as the trash passed through his hands.
A man with diverse musical tastes — primarily for rhythm and blues, but also an avid listener of jazz, Spanish music and calypso — he would often croon with his gravelly voice to snippets of the classic hits playing beneath the drone of the balers. Sometimes, when I started singing along to a recent pop hit blasting through my earphones, Billy would playfully hush my inner Beyoncé.
“What you sayin’?” he’d tease, dark eyes twinkling. “It’s OK. I can’t sing either. Someday.”
WORDS OF WISDOM
During breaks at the recycling center last summer, student and staff workers chattered over coffee, baked goods or ice cream in the supervisor’s office. The other students and I listened eagerly as Billy shared decades of memories and words of wisdom while indulging his sweet tooth on a cookie or snack bar.
Billy is a seaman at heart,and he nostalgically remembers smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of tea on deck while observing the moonrise and pondering the meaning and beauty of life. His fondest recollection is working aboard a cruise ship at about 18 years old, visiting various ports throughout the Caribbean islands and beyond, with ports of call in Cuba, Panama, Aruba, Venezuela, the U.S. and England.
One of his most exciting experiences, he tells his student workers, was being caught in a hurricane in the Azores for five days. He recalls the ship bobbing violently, waves as high as 100 feet making day-to-day actions such as walking and cooking a challenge, and driving even the impious on board to pray for their lives.
Billy told us his favorite thing was a boat named Ime that he had purchased in Miami (years before moving to America) and sailed to Jamaica. You can tell he really loved that boat. Like a Parisian remembering the death of a canine companion, he turns somber when recounting how the absence of the watchman on duty allowed the anchored boat to break loose in rough waves, crash into a reef and sink.
Conversations with Billy are particularly interesting because his hands are more expressive than his mouth and supplement his drawling, accented sentences. A fan of Jamaican Appleton 35cl rum, he would make a drinking motion by turning a right hand, thumbs up, down toward his lips when unabashedly referring to his daily dose of liquor. In this manner, he would tell us about weekly visits to the American Legion, a veterans’ social club where he spends his free time sharing drinks, playing cards and chatting with elderly friends as an associate member.
The relationships Billy develops with his student colleagues continue even after they stop working at the recycling facility.
“If they come here anytime, they always pop in for a brief second saying, you know, ‘What up, man?’” he says. “I’m surprised to know they actually come look for us, you know. Yes. Very, very nice seeing you.”
As circumstance would have it, I have returned to Middlebury and met Billy twice since September. This week that I move from Vermont, however, will probably mark our last time together, especially because he plans to retire at the end of this year and spend winters in Jamaica with Myrlene.
Sitting on the couch perpendicular to the one I occupy in his dim little house on Rogers Road decorated with a potted banana tree — stunted by the Vermont climate — he tells me I must do well as a professional journalist post-college.
“You have to so that you won’t let me down, you know,” he says.
The care softening his words takes me by pleasant surprise. It makes me realize that although we are not biologically related, I will always think about him with the same fondness I have for my own grandparents back in India.
This time, it is goodbye for real. But Billy’s support strengthens my faith in human connections and their ability to transcend limits of time, race, class and age. I know I have yet another loved one at Middlebury, yet another member in my family away from home.