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Monday, July 2, 2007 | A perfect first-week-of-summer afternoon finds sun-lovers toasting themselves on Pacific Beach. They’ve come prepared, toting cold beers and soda and water in coolers. With the sun beating down, the crisp popping of opening chilled beer cans punctuates the beach soundtrack.

For Tanya Hatch, that sound is especially sweet. She comes out here, five days a week, to collect empty cans. She’s far from a pessimist, but Hatch sees the can as half-empty, watching each sip bring the can closer to her goal. She picks them up by the hundreds and returns them to recycling centers, where she receives $1.50 per pound. With bright blue gloves, the 69-year-old Hatch reaches for those empty cans and tosses them in her plastic bag.

A typical afternoon’s collecting usually nets her about $10. The $150 to $200 she makes here each month supplements her meager Social Security allowance and small pension from 25 years as a saleswoman at Mervyn’s department store on Balboa Avenue. Hatch lives on a patch of land in a mobile home park in Linda Vista, and the rent for that spot consumes most of her official retirement income. So collecting cans is a means to buy groceries and gas and her weekly treat: a meal from fast-food restaurant El Pollo Loco. She eats half one day and saves the rest for dinner the next.

On this warm, breezy afternoon, Hatch arrives at the beach at noon. She spends a couple of hours napping under a beach umbrella in her lime green bikini, then steps into denim shorts, a pink tank top and a matching striped blouse. She wears white Champion brand socks and white tennis shoes with hearts on them. The sole of her right shoe flops open like a puppet’s mouth and gathers sand as she walks around the beach.

When one man hands over a can, he asks why she’s out collecting. He says there’s got to be a better, easier way for her to make the money she needs. Hatch stubbornly disagrees.

“But would I be meeting lots of people? Being by the ocean?” she says, one eyebrow raised as she delivers her rhetorical checkmate. The man laughs as she walks away.

She doesn’t drink alcohol but depends on the fact that others do. Her demeanor endears her to folks all over the beach. With nearly every can she picks up, Hatch asks questions, tells jokes, gathers pieces of the stories from the people she meets. She’s networking; some PB regulars save their cans just for her, refusing to surrender them to competitors. But her social entreaties are about much more than gathering a few cents. In a season in life — retirement — when many people withdraw, Hatch seeks the company of the thousands of people on the beach every afternoon.

The beaches of San Diego County are social outposts, gathering spots for visitors and locals alike. For most people, they’re places to go to forget about work and bills. But Hatch is part of the contingent finding business opportunities here among the folks whose chief concerns are deepening tans and keeping beers cold.

Under her blue gloves, Hatch has layered padded gardening gloves. She wears a wide-brimmed straw visor and sunglasses she found in the garbage outside one of the bungalow shops along the boardwalk. The patches of bronzed wrinkled skin still visible — her elbows, knees, neck — betray the years Hatch has spent in the sun. Her lips sparkle with coral lipstick.

“I liked to tan,” she tells a group of sunbathers on a blanket as they pass her their empties. “I was a beach girl, long time ago. I had long, long hair.”

The glint of aluminum sticking out of the sand — even from 20 feet away — magnetizes Hatch as she zigzags across the sand. She first started the can-collecting gig 30 years ago. She and her then-husband hoped to take their kids on a trip, and they started collecting cans to save for it. They were headed to New Jersey, where Hatch and her husband had met. The couple came to San Diego on their honeymoon and decided to stay, but their roots were still on the East Coast.

They saved enough for the trip, but the hobby stuck long after it was over. Now, seven years after retiring from Mervyn’s, the few dollars she manages per hour for her trouble covers the expenses her Social Security doesn’t.

Near Tower 23, Hatch posts a handmade recycling sign next to three boxes she brings out here every day. This is her home base, where she returns periodically with whatever cans she gathers. By 4:30, she’s gathered about three-quarters of a full, clear garbage bag. She’s had her stash stolen a few times, but that doesn’t deter her from leaving the boxes unattended.

Almost unattended, that is. A group of 20-something guys hangs out in a circle near her station. They’re taller than her, but the petite senior citizen waltzes into the center of the group of shirtless, tattooed young men and strikes up a conversation. They’re the unofficial guardians of her stash; she’s like their mom, or grandma, they say.

But Hatch works hard to bridge the generation gap. She marvels at the long boardshorts in style for guys at the beach. When she was a saleswoman at Mervyn’s, she says, men used to ask her opinion of the skimpy Speedo bathing suits they were trying on. They were looking for attention, she chuckles, and she learned how to lavish it on them. Now, young or old, Hatch shows interest in everyone she runs into on the sand.

She’s a regular, and her friends are regulars, too. Despite the competitive nature of can collecting, Hatch has a rapport with a few of her rivals. And she chats often with Slow Mo, the roller-blading fixture on the PB boardwalk who seems to skate in slow motion. Once, he gave her $20 when he found out her bags had been stolen — a gesture she gushes over.

Collecting cans is hardly just a means to an end for Hatch. She attributes to her daily beach-walking a near-complete recovery from a back injury she sustained a few years ago. This is her exercise, her social life and her supplemental income. And the afternoons spent in the beach sun are bright contrasts to the early years of her life.

Hatch was born in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the same year Germany invaded the Sudetenland. Her mother left when Hatch was 6 years old. The apartment Hatch shared with her dad and brother would have been obliterated by an American bomb if it hadn’t failed to detonate in the railroad station close by. Then they were sent to displaced-person camps.

“Seven years, from one camp to another,” she says. “It was dreadful food.”

But the experience shows up in her work. She learned to never be wasteful; now, she’s abhorred by a can worth a few cents sitting in a trash can. And she philosophizes with the vibrancy of someone who’s been given the chance to live.

“There’s always a better time tomorrow and there’s always people that are worse off than you are,” she says.

Her father brought them to Lakewood, N.J., when Hatch was 12. She took opera and ballet lessons, finished high school, got married, and moved west. A few years into her marriage, it ended in 1979, after they’d had two kids together. Hatch remains close with her grown son and daughter. He lives in Las Vegas; she manages a photo gallery in La Jolla and went with her mom on a whim to the Czech Republic to find Hatch’s long-lost half-sister. They accomplished their mission, Hatch says proudly.

One day before his 90th birthday, Hatch’s father — otherwise in strong health — was hit by a drunk driver. Her mom, who’d eventually also come to the United States, died 10 years later, also near her 90th birthday. Hatch is confident her genes will give her a long life, despite an immune system condition she says keeps her from sleeping well.

A few years after her divorce, Hatch fell in love again. He was Irish; they dated for 25 years; he died last year. Her grief yields little more than staccato sentences of description. But her tone brightens when she speaks of his sister, with whom she still visits Sea World and the zoo every so often. And her laugh returns when she remembers a group of Irish tourists who led her to a home in Point Loma, where they’d stored a vacation week’s worth of empty cans and bottles. It took a few loads in her boyfriend’s station wagon to unload all the cans, she chuckles.

Hatch won’t work this Independence Day. Like a surfer who resents the hordes of novices warm waves bring, Hatch shudders to imagine spending July 4 competing with the entrepreneurial force of wannabe can collectors.

“On the Fourth of July, it’s a mess,” she said of the beach. “People are so close together; there are so many people out here (collecting). It’s not worth it”

The sun, while still warm, is sinking quickly. Hatch makes a last round to collect cans as people roll up their towels and brush the sand from their feet. She returns to her station and combines all of the bags into one. She uncaps a red Thermos and takes a drink of hot water; she can’t stand it cold, she says. Tucking the folded boxes under her arm and hoisting the bag over her shoulder, Hatch heads for the parking lot. She’ll be back tomorrow.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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