The lowest on the totem poll carry bags over their shoulders. If you’re lucky, you find a cart, and if you’re not, you steal one. Those with money race around the city in vans looking for blue plastic bags while the clever ones rent U-Hauls and wait for the others to come to them.
All in the pursuit of a nickel’s worth of aluminum or plastic or glass and the thousands of dollars those nickels add up to for whoever can move the most.
Austin “Guy” Butler has been working the streets of Manhattan for nearly 25 years, digging through bags of refuse, often through the night.
Like in any business, his is built on relationships, both with the other men who share his trade and the building superintendents who expect him to show up outside on trash day.
Many think he’s homeless. And he sometimes is.
The job beckons those who live on the margins, but it demands dedication to routine and security.
The life is a struggle lived off the books, where success still means getting your hands dirty on the occasional soiled diaper.
Butler waits outside a Manhattan apartment building for the maintenance man to bring out the recycling. Much of Butler's time is spent waiting, but if he's not there when the trash is brought out, someone else will claim it.
Butler shows up to Tudor City by 6am to beat the trucks that will arrive by 8 to remove everything.
Butler sorts through recycling as a maintenance man carries out more bags.
Butler looks inside a redemption machine at an uptown Manhattan grocery store.
After trading in bottles for their deposit, Butler leaves the store.
Butler warms his feet using a hand drier in a public bathroom near one of his regular pickups. On days when the temperature drops below freezing, he must take regular breaks to prevent frostbite.
Butler waits for a subway train to the Bronx to meet his girlfriend.
Butler finds a heating grate for his girlfriend while he works.
Butler warms up in between sorting jobs by sitting on a heated grate outside an apartment building near Central Park.
Butler rides the train back home to the Bronx.
Butler rests in his Bronx apartment after a long shift. Within the week, he will return to learn that the landlord has padlocked the apartment with his few possessions still inside.
On his "off days," Butler will search through trash cans around the city for anything that might be worth reselling.
After a shift that's lasted almost 15 hours, Butler pushes his cart up First Avenue towards a truck that will buy his haul.
Canners gather with their days' work at a truck that will buy the cans and bottle in bulk.
Butler delivers 13 bags of recycling to a truck on 60th Street in Manhattan.
After being locked out of his apartment and with nowhere else to go, Butler rests in a public atrium, grabbing what sleep he can while he waits for a soup van to arrive.
After selling his bags, Austin Butler pushes his cart back to a fence where he will lock it up for the day. He has often returned the next day to find his cart and whatever he had left in it gone.