He was an old man, shuffling slowly through the parking lot, making his way from garbage can to garbage can, filling up his bags with aluminum cans, to recycle later for a buck or two.
He was only a shell of his former self, short and weak. His facial expression was that of a man proudly earning his keep.
I tried to imagine what he looked like when he was young. Much taller than now, and probably quite strong. As most Northern Wisconsin men of his generation, he was most likely either a lumberjack or worked in a paper mill. Either way, he was used to working hard, never asking for handouts. Not even in his old age.
He was working in a systematic way. He knew exactly where the garbage cans were, which ones he had processed already, which ones were still loaded with treasure. Clearly, he had done it before. Many times.
Finally, he was heading for his grand prize: The garbage can at the entrance of the grocery store. But this time he did not dig in, he did not extract aluminum. He recycled something else: Cigarette butts.
The can was covered with a lid, which was filled with sand in which smoking customers extinguished their cigarettes before entering the grocery store. Apparently, most of them did not stop to finish their cigarettes before entering, so some of the butts were almost full-length cigarettes.
The old man extracted the butts with the care of a professional. He cleared off the sand, placed the butts in parallel on a piece of plastic wrap, then put them carefully into his pocket. He had the happy smile of the victorious Caesar.
And I? Well, I almost fainted. As a certified nursing assistant, all I could think of was all the germs people had left on the filter ends of each and every butt, the germs this poor but proud old man was about to put in his own mouth in the next 24 hours or so.
And suddenly I was angry, very angry. Not at the old man. No, I certainly would not expect him to change his life long habits. It was the politicians I was angry at. I was angry at them for coming up with quick and popular solutions to problems, while causing more problems.
Within the last year or so, US politicians, both on federal and state levels, both Democrats and Republicans, have increased the price of cigarettes by about two dollars a pack, raising it from about one dollar to about three dollars. All this in an effort to prevent teen-agers from starting smoking.
Guess what? Teen-agers still do. But the exorbitant prices are hurting many, many people. We all know that most smokers will not quit smoking, because most smokers cannot. They are addicted. They will rather stop eating than smoking. They will rather not buy their child a new toy or computer game than give up cigarettes. And people like this old man will rather take in all those germs than not take in his nicotine.
My dear politicians, decades ago, moved by the same holy rage, you tried to ban alcohol in the US. That was the source of a major embarassment for you. What makes you think this is going to be any different?