‘The Bottle Saga’ by Jan de Bruyn

I begin by admitting that I was not your typical professor. In the first place, I owe my profession to the war and a beneficent government. That in itself is a paradox – that something as evil and destructive as war should have proved to be the source of the greatest gift I ever received, my education. Be that as it may, I earned it by serving His Majesty for five years in the Canadian Army. Fortunately, I was never called upon to fire a shot in anger, My war was largely spent in pay offices. I was not a happy soldier, and was glad to return to civilian life. I considered I had wasted five years of my life, but the reward was four years of university, of reading and learning, of intellectual emancipation and the acquisition of a profession. I did well enough to be welcomed into the world of academe with a lectureship paying the princely sum of $2500.00 per session (that is, September to April). That sum proved to be inadequate to supply the needs of my family, which at that time consisted of a wife and two children. I augmented the income by teaching night school, taking on extra marking, devising and teaching an English course for the CGA which was beginning its existence through the Faculty of Commerce at UBC. It took about thirty years for academic salaries to become reasonable return for effort expended. That, however, is another story.

As I said before, I was not your typical academic. I preferred hanging out with students rather than colleagues. I preferred teaching to research; I would rather lecture than write critical articles; I guess I was somewhat of a maverick, but had a splendid time, and I did my job well, enjoying all of it except the marking of essays. The consequences of being “different” were not serious. I was well up in the salary scale a decade before I retired, and never missed getting the annual bonus for extraordinary service to students and university. However, I never published a major scholarly book. Mind you, I had written one, and converted a couple of students to my point of view with respect to Paradise Lost, but my thesis was too much for the thick-headed prejudices of centuries, so the MS lies moribund in my filing cabinet to this very day. I never made it to full professor!

Perhaps it is just as well, because my behaviour, in the latter years of my career was hardly professorial. I was in the habit of taking long walks as the form of exercise I needed. I had stopped smoking and gathered some weight as a result of the change in metabolism, so I took up walking as a serious daily duty. I noticed in my travels afoot that the environment was littered with stuff that should not be there, and some of it was in the form of beer and pop cans and bottles which were worth money. One had to pay a deposit on these items when one purchased them, precisely to encourage people to return them and avoid this messing up of the roadsides. I decided to become actively green by picking up bottles and cans whenever I came across them. For this purpose I normally had a couple of plastic bags in my pocket. I never returned without some goods I could convert into money.

It soon became an obsession, and I became more and more eager to find bottles and cans. As my walks turned into searches, I became aware of good places to go for loot. Sunday morning, for example, would find me scouring the lawns and borders at the student residences at UBC, and the frat houses where the Saturday night student excesses had left empties all over the place. Often, after such forays, my two plastic bags were inadequate to contain all the loot, and I would have to take home what I could manage and come back in the car to pick up the rest. Every once in a while I would have to take a load to the liquor store to cash in and clear out my premises. I kept track of the money I acquired in this way and put it aside. I was astonished to discover, at the end of my first beer-bottle-collecting year, that I had made $900.00. I gave it to the University Scholarship Fund, where it would be put to good use. I put the donation in my Income Tax Return. The end result of all that was that I had contributed to a neater environment, helped to recycle a lot of glass and aluminum, assisted some student with his expenses, and gained a reduction in my income tax.

Collecting dirty old beer bottles can hardly be considered a dignified occupation for a scholar. I continued, however, being aware of the many benefits this activity brought to the world. One Saturday I was out walking; for some now forgotten reason, I had my briefcase with me. At any rate, I was on my way home from somewhere, and part of my route took me along Angus Drive. This street is a fancy boulevard that goes through a posh residential area of Vancouver known as Shaughnessy Heights. The street is divided by a wide strip of lawn with flower beds and large rhododendron bushes growing in the centre. I had discovered in past explorations that some people, kids probably, had made shelters of these large shrubs, in which to hide and drink. The interior of these plants was like a tent; one could sit in there and drink beer, hang out, make love, and no-one would be the wiser. Naturally they became the depositories for empty beer bottles. On this particular day, I decided to plunge in under a few of these living hideaways, to see what I could find. I found about a dozen bottles (worth $1.20), and since I had no plastic bags with me, I put them in my briefcase. I emerged from the last of these shrubs and proceeded on my way with the loot. Several minutes later a police car passed and swerved into the curb just ahead of me. The policeman got out and approached me.. In the polite fashion of cops about to make an arrest, he asked me (sir!) to please show him the inside of my briefcase. Oh, oh, I thought, someone saw me from a window, and phoned the cops about this suspicious character going into the bushes on Angus Drive. Looked like a gangster; was carrying a battered briefcase, had a beard!

I responded to the policeman’s request with elegant alacrity, taking care to keep my eyes on his face. I was rewarded by his gaping surprise when he saw what was there, my haul of empty, dirty beer bottles. Damn! Another false alarm. In spite of the fact that he had failed to find me guilty of any criminal activity, it all had to be noted in his little book: Name? Occupation? Professor? I could see his mind swirl with disbelief. However, our little encounter probably supplied him with a conversational gambit for decades to come, but I suspect he told his story without the delight it provides for me whenever I have the opportunity to recount it. Being an academic can be an exciting experience!