Garbage Scavengers: Finding Treasure in Other People’s Trash

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Lack talks about the art of trashmongering and scavenging at Baltimore County Sanitary Landfill.

This past week I’ve been semiconsciously assisting in the organic debourgeoistification of two city kids (ages 4 and 8) who’ve been trying out the wild life in Heathcote’s moors and woods. I’d noticed that whenever we went into stores they asked mommy to purchase the entire stock, naming off one item at a time. They were well conditioned to the prime value of the American system–the sweet buy and buy and buy–and often they drove everyone around them to distraction with demands that “mommy buy this” and “mommy buy that”. And then, yesterday, the mommy and I happened to pass by the Baltimore County Sanitary Landfill. We decided to look it over.

It was past closing time, so we had to squeeze by the gate on foot. No dump personnel were present. Two fellow garbage scavengers joined us presently; otherwise we were alone in the vast and brooding silence and aroma of the surrealistic dump dunes. Incidentally, those dunes were overgrown with raspberries, milkweed and other wild delicacies.

Dumps and garbage routes are better stocked, naturally, in high income areas and from the looks of things Baltimore County folks are generally pretty well off. The dozers had been at work and nearly everything was covered with sand, so as garbage scavengers we were limited in our shopping to the odds and ends that remained unburied. Nevertheless we found a lot of useful stuff in about a half-hour of leisurely strolling. There follows an inventory of our plunder:

1. An elegant and durable stuffed lion, intact but for one eye and needing only the washing machine to be like new.
2. An almost full bottle of oil of citronella, a mosquito repellent, carrying the original “discount” price–54 cents.
3. Three serviceable, soft paintbrushes, readily reconditioned.
4. Eight large bulbs, probably gladiolas. They’re getting planted, so we shall see.
5. The paperback edition of Tom Chautard’s treatise, The Soul of The Apostolate, in good condition.
6. A two-gallon gas can, slightly dented.
7. A fine grey washbasin, in almost new condition.
8. A terrycloth notion bag, sandy but in otherwise good shape.
9. A pair and a spare of woolen footmittens, like new.
10. One third of a bottle of silicone waterproofing compound.
11. An “approved pet brush”, in good shape and bearing a pricemark–59 cents.
12. A toy ferryboat about two feet long and missing nothing essential.
13. About 20 wooden barrels of the type carried on flatcars in model train sets.
14. A stop sign, also from a toy train set.
15. A Frito Bandito pencil.
16. A toy watering can, new condition.
17. A small boy’s blue blazer, nearly new condition and emblazoned with the words “College Bound”, which we removed.
18. Seventy dollars in play money.
19. A pair of child’s paper cutting scissors, perfect condition.
20. A small wooden plaque, featuring a stylized sun.

The Heathcote gang, when we got back, were unimpressed with what we’d got. And not without reason, given the big league trashpicking that some Heathcoters have pulled off in the past. When the redoubtable Pasquale Giuseppe Giovanni Valenziano lived here he routinely performed incredible feats of virtuoso trashmongering, frequently and without apparent effort. He found his lady an elegant fur coat, and once brought home some plastic wastes that looked a psychedelic blend of entrails and cowpiles and were the object of considerable ridicule until he unloaded two of them at an artsy Baltimore fleamarket for a cool $30 each.

But if our take yesterday was unspectacular by comparison, its effect upon the aforementioned two kids was not. When we distributed the childrens’ portion of our modest treasure trove between them the older commenced to wail, “mommy, can we go to the dump tomorrow?” Progress. Her head had been turned by the bounty of the Wasteland Free Store, and brother’s too. We’ll try to take them back next week. They’ll make good gypsies one day.

A few additional notes now from one who’s only a novice picker, but enthused:

On trash cans the night before pickup: A couple of months ago in York, Pennsylvania two of us killed an hour among the cans. Outside the AAA office we stocked up on their helpful tour guides without benefit of membership and for a bonus got a wondrous National Geographic map of the Indian Ocean with all the water drained out (it now graces my wall here in the Shanti). A few cans down the line we picked up on fine costume jewelry, three or four ladies’ hats circa 1940, a finely bound volume of Poe’s collected works, lace and a bunch of other stuff I can’t recall, all courtesy of a maiden schoolmarm who’d departed this world that week. The neighbors had already culled through the lot and taken the best, but even the leftovers were worthwhile. The guy next door obligingly assisted and advised us.

Obviously you should observe pickup schedules in advance whenever possible so you’ll know which neighborhoods to hit on which nights. In Los Angeles I knew people who more than once hauled home hundreds of dollars worth of elegant furniture in a single night’s work from the alleys of Bel Air and Beverly Hills.

In New York, (and some other cities as well) a small apartment can almost always be furnished very commodiously at no cost other than the labor involved in locating and retrieving the needed items from the selection arrayed on sidewalks and in gutters nearby.

Mattresses and most other basic furniture can very often be located at dumps. Sunshine, airing, fumigation, lysol, and repairs are frequently required, but all of those are free or dirt cheap when stacked up against monthly payments.

Children, I came to realize through yesterday’s small expedition, are those who stand to gain the most from waste. Adventure, first of all, if they’re in on the work. And then, while only two or three percent of dump stuff holds any interest for us jaded adults, kids can find a use for a much broader range of junk.

I’ve found brand new toys almost every time I’ve gone to a dump. The purchase of toys, apparently, is something to which parents easily become addicted, for lots of expensive playthings reach the trash heaps untouched by little hands. At least to me this seems to indicate that many parents are out to buy affection from their kids or to substitute gadgets for the love they couldn’t give. In any case, the landfills are especially rich in toys, very often including the most lavish and fancy kind.

So much for the merely material rewards of scavenging. Profounder benefits await those who wander down the golden path of trash. The stuff Americans discard can tell us more about the society in which we live than a hundred social science courses. A wonderment that constantly recurs is why so many people seem incapable of finding anyone to whom they might donate the useful things of which they have grown tired. Who knows? In any case, the inventory in your better class of dumps is oftentimes beyond belief. Reactions on the part of tenderfoot pickers vary from hysterical laughter to vile cursing, from tears of rage to prayer.

And finally, the spiritual rewards: Trashmongering imparts a deep understanding of why Solomon, in all his glory and with all his money could never quite match the wardrobe of the lilies of the field. The Lord helps those, they say, who help themselves.

So do it. The cans and dumps are kind to those with the keen eyes and sharpened instincts of the experienced scavenger. He can clothe himself and his family, furnish and decorate his home, stock his library, bestow lavish gifts upon his loved ones, all for free. And in the process he can conquer false pride, widen his horizons, and get a lot of healthy outdoor exercise to boot.

Happy shopping, non-customers.