Scrapper Otis Corbett makes a living turning trash into cash.
Otis Corbett’s eyes light up as he jumps out of his Ford pickup and peels back the lid of a garbage can in an Englewood alley.
“Oh, that’s nice,” he chirps, his voice muffled as he goes in head first. Inside, the 74-year-old discovers several dresser drawers. “These handles are brass!” he says, eyeing one closely. Corbett (who is featured in Scrappers, a locally produced documentary set for release in early 2009) spends the next five minutes stripping off each handle with a crowbar he retrieves from his glove compartment. As he tosses his finds into the truck bed and putters off to the next alley, you can almost hear the Sanford and Son theme song. Such is the sleepy rhythm of the scrap-metal hunter, Corbett’s chosen occupation. Some call it scrapping. Others call it junking. Corbett prefers hustlin’—his catchall term for “odd jobs” the Mississippi native’s done ever since his first hustle shining shoes at 8 years old.
It’s just after 8am, and Corbett’s already made $200. As often happens, thoughts of the metallic treasures that could be waiting nudged him out of bed at 3:30am. “When I go to bed, all I think about is making money when I get up…those alleys, that metal,” Corbett says. Today, he gave in to the early-morning urge, hopped in his truck and went on the prowl. Several hours and $10 worth of gas later, he was hauling two metal-frame bunk beds, a washing machine and an old stove to his go-to scrap yard, South Chicago Iron and Metal (1313 W 74th St, 773-488-1313), where he gets ten cents per pound. (The yard crushes and sells the scrap to another company that melts and refines it to make new products.)
“The good thing about this is that one minute you’re broke and the next minute you could have money,” he says. “You could be dead broke, drive through the alley and by the end you might have $100 or $200. You never know what’s around the next corner.”
A metal trader since the late-’70s with a preternatural ability to find scrap (“I can almost smell it,” he says), Corbett is perhaps the most experienced scrapper on the South Side. For more than two decades, he was the only scrapper for ten miles, supporting his first wife and their 13 children by running an unofficial flea market in an empty lot at 101st Street and Vincennes Avenue. “People would throw stuff out, and I would pick it up, fix it up and sell it. I taught myself to fix refrigerators, stoves, washing machines,” he says. “All the stuff I couldn’t fix, I would take it to the scrap yard and get money for it.” A bank even gave him a loan for his first house at 101st and Western Avenue based on scrap-metal receipts as evidence of income.
But with the recent economic slump and drastic spike in gas prices, Corbett says scrap-metal trading has become more time-consuming and less profitable, even as prices for raw materials have gone up. Lending-wary banks now reject his scrap receipts as proof of income, making it impossible for him and his wife, Loretta, to get a loan to buy the house they’re renting. His monopoly on the South Side is gone, and a new breed of competition has entered the game: underemployed construction workers struggling during lagging development and an increasing number of Latin American immigrants looking for a first job.