Harold LaBrie came walking down Temple Street in Waterville, hauling a metal wagon piled high with crates and bags of beer bottles.

He swung a left into the parking lot of Damon’s Beverage on Front Street, parked the cart by the bottle redemption door and carried the crates and bags into the shop one-by-one.

“A lot of people do different things. I collect bottles and buy cat food for my cats,” he said. “I have two white ones.”

LaBrie, 69, stood at the counter while employee Bobby Frappier plucked the large empty brown bottles of Natural Ice beer out of the crates. LaBrie said he gets 5 cents apiece for them.

A wiry man with a gray beard and wearing dark tinted bifocals, a camouflage cap, blue work pants and a bright blaze-orange sweatshirt, LaBrie was friendly when I approached him to talk.

“If you get liquor bottles, it’s 15 cents,” he said. “I come here sometimes twice a month, sometimes once a month. I live in a room on Elm Street.”

He said a friend gives him the bottles and he uses the money to buy food for Rose, his 10-year-old pure white, part Siamese cat, and Rose’s 8-year-old son, Punk.

“I used to haul the cart with my bike, but somebody stole the bike last year,” he said. “I paid about $180 for it. I bought it at a pawn shop. A guy borrowed it and said he was going to put it back and he never did. It was yellow and gold and it had a rack in the back.”

LaBrie walked over to the liquor store side of Damon’s where he collected $17.25 for the bottles — a pretty good haul, he agreed.

We went outside and stood in the busy lot, where people were coming and going, and chatted some more about LaBrie’s life. He was born at the former Sisters Hospital, now Mount St. Joseph Nursing Home, on College Avenue, one of 10 children. They lived on Water Street in the South End early on. His father worked in the woods and his mother was a waitress at the Bob-In on Temple Street.

The family moved around the city when he was young and for a time lived at Head of Falls across Front Street from Damon’s, which formerly was called Jokas’ Discount Beverage.

“The Wyandotte mill was there and the toll bridge used to cost two cents and then it went to five cents. There were a lot of houses and we had a good time. I walked to school on Myrtle Street. Now everything’s changed.”

He worked at various places over the years, including in the laundry room at then-Thayer Hospital where he also did housekeeping and cleaned the operating room.

“Then I worked at the Bob-In. I was cleaning up and bouncing a little bit. I worked in a chicken barn in Winslow and at Ralston Purina. I’ve been moving around. Why sit in one place?”

LaBrie was employed at the former John Martin’s Manor as head dishwasher and did cleaning as well until the place closed a few years ago. He was married and divorced twice but never had any children.

He said he used to be drinker but stopped in 1997 when he was diagnosed with diabetes after blacking out and being hit by a car.

Now, he does odd jobs, cutting grass and weed-whacking for churches and other places. He used to haul his lawnmower on the wagon behind his bike, but when his bike was stolen, he had to haul the wagon by hand.

As we chatted, Frappier, the man who works the counter in the bottle redemption shop, came outside and approached LaBrie.

“Somebody stole your bike, you said? Can you use a mountain bike? Because I have a mountain bike at my house. We bought the house and there were two bikes there and nobody wanted them. I gave one to my sister and the other one needs a tire. I believe a 24-inch.”

With that, LaBrie perked up and said he sure could use the bike and he has tires, including one that would fit.

“I’ll bring it down then,” Frappier said. “It’ll be here tomorrow.”

LaBrie was happy and grateful for the offer and said it will make his job a lot easier.

“People say, ‘You’re always around,’ and I say, ‘I’m everywhere.’ That’s why I tell people walking and riding a bike is good and they ask why. Well, I say, you might lose a little weight. I’m not trying to criticize you. I walk and I’m 69 years old.”

LaBrie seems real happy and I ask why that is.

“I’m my own boss, I do what I want and I like my work,” he said. “I got no complaint. I like Waterville. I was born in Waterville and I know a lot of places. I used to go to the Boys Club when I was a young kid.”

We went inside the bottle shop to say good-bye to Frappier and get a photo of him with LaBrie.

Employee Dawn Braley, 55, said she was not surprised Frappier offered to give LaBrie a bike.

“That’s Bobby — that’s how he is,” she said. “He has a big heart, and customers come in short a few nickels and he gives it to them. He’s good to all the customers.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 30 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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