NORTHRUP FOOD CENTER sticks out like a sore thumb in Northwest Portland. Taking up a valuable half block in Portland's Nob Hill neighborhood, the old grocery store has been closed for nearly a decade. Stained pieces of cardboard block the windows and homeless people camp at the front door.
"We need that eyesore out of the way," says Vitaly Paley, owner of Paley's Place restaurant across the street, summing up a popular neighborhood opinion. "For 15 years, I've seen that ugly thing out of the corner of my eyes from the cutting board."
But stop by the back lot and you'll find Northrup Food Center owner Jeff Baldwin still puttering around, determined to work. Baldwin ran the store with his parents until 2001. Now he runs a one-man recycling operation from the valuable property, driving 35 miles round-trip to pick up cardboard, plastic, and shipping pallets from local businesses. All the work doesn't even cover his costs. Baldwin is spending his semi-retirement running the rogue recycling program out of a belief that he's saving the world one cardboard box at a time.
"If everybody had a more frugal attitude, the world could be a lot cleaner than it is," Baldwin tells me when I show up on a Friday morning to ride along in his old Dodge truck to make the recycling rounds. He looks to be in his 40s, with long stringy blond hair and eyes that squint like he's trying to figure you out. "I have all I ever need," he says. "This is almost like running a social experiment."
We unload piles of miscellaneous junk from the Dodge until there's enough space for me to fit my legs. Baldwin's dog JJ sits on the middle seat, shedding and panting. On the dashboard there's a library book soaked through with rainwater: How to Start a Small Business.
Our first stop is Cali Produce in inner Southeast, where we pick up big bundles of plastic wrap. "At first, the owners didn't trust me because they thought I wanted something in return," Baldwin tells me. He never accepts payment for his services.
At the Hollywood Bike Gallery, Baldwin pulls into the loading bay and greets all the employees by name. We stack about 80 big cardboard boxes, moving swiftly through the bike-building workshop and storage areas. It's hard work.
I watch Baldwin tie a preposterously high stack to his truck, and then we putter onward like a Depression-era photo of Okies headed west.
It's mid-afternoon when we arrive at the recycling company, Far West Fibers. We throw cardboard onto the floor of a giant warehouse, sifting out pieces Baldwin says he'll give to friends. A huge bulldozer roars by a few feet away, shuttling the product toward a compactor. I ask if they do the actual recycling here. Baldwin shakes his head no. "It'll be shipped off on barges. Fifty percent of American recycling is done in China."
It's nighttime when we get back to the shuttered store. Baldwin tells stories he knows about the neighborhood: The building housing Paley's Place was trucked down from its original location in the West Hills; when the nearby old folks' home was built, builders excavated loads of fine white sand that turned out to be discarded ballast from the South Seas, from when the whole neighborhood was riverside swampland.
I ask Baldwin if I can see inside the store, and he declines. "I have about 2,000 projects in my life," he says. "But I'm not looking for notoriety."