Beanery Online Literary Magazine

February 2, 2008

TRASH OR TREASURE: COMMUNITY TRASH PICKUP DAY

When we lived in Atlanta, Georgia, we rented a third floor apartment. On trash day, we could see right into the collection bins. In so doing we discovered that on any collection day one could supply a modest home with pretty good furnishings, but these items were destined to land in a dump.

Most communities have special days set aside to collect items beyond just “garbage.” Connellsville, Pennsylvania, does this twice a year. This tradition provides an opportunity for residents to rid their homes of unneeded items.

It also gives them the opportunity to “go the extra mile.” They turn trash day into a community-wide give-away yard sale/recycling event by placing their items curbside early to allow persons who might need those items to pick them up.

Most people who don’t like to admit that they “trash hunt,” and who don’t participate secretly wish they could stop and pick up that bookcase that would fit so well into the corner nook, or the chair that looks better than what currently occupies their living room.

It’s interesting to people-watch the week prior to the collection. Preceding trash day, trucks, cars, and walkers examine the items, taking off with both plausible and questionable items. When I put a bunch of stuff out, I was amazed that some of the least desirable things were picked up first.

I convinced my editor this subject would make a good article. He agreed.

The next day I sat on my front porch, reading the newspaper. I saw my neighbor, Jeff, carting virtually brand-new unused children’s items to the edge of the road. I swallowed my pride (only a little) and asked if I could confiscate some of the items. My daughter had just had a baby, and they would be useful.

It took a while before I realized I could start my story next door to my own home.

Jeff agreed I could bring my pad, pen, and a camera to his home during the family’s “clean up.” They were disposing not only their own stuff, but items left by the former homeowner who had passed away.

I went to their attic with them. Today, an oval braided rug sits under my dining room table and an old-fashioned wood cabinet, with ivy stenciling, sits in a corner of my kitchen. It’s the perfect spot for it. Both items were compliments of the former homeowner, whom I’d like to believe would appreciate their new locations.

During the few days before the actual trash pick-up, I wandered the streets with my pen, pad and camera. I determined I was NOT out trash picking, but interviewing for a story.

The first thing I discovered was that it was a community tradition for some residents to put unneeded items out by the roadside up to a week preceding the collection day, enabling others who need them to claim them. They prefer the needy to take what they need, rather than having the items taken to a landfill.

“Scavengers” root through piles, “shopping,” filling their needs, and recycling goods.

One early shopper, George, collects old 33 rpm records. He found a gold-mine at my neighbor’s home, where a box filled with platters sat on a television set.

Jack is a war veteran whose knee was damaged when a 500 gallon water trailer fell on it. He circulates around town every clean-up day, checking curbsides for discarded vacuum cleaners.

“I try to get them working,” he said. “Then I sell them for a dollar or two. It’s the only way I can make an honest dollar above military compensation.”

While Jack shopped at Jeff’s “store,” Jeff’s wife Mary continued emptying her attic, basement and house of unneeded stuff. She set it out early because she “knows from past experience that what I’m discarding might prove valuable to others.” Still, she was amazed when fully 80% of what she discarded disappeared before her attic was empty. We watched a woman pick up a working television set left by the former owner while we talked.

“We’re poor,” said the older of two woman who were rummaging through discard piles. “It’s my first time out ever—we’re scared.” But they had their pride. Neither women, mother or daughter, provided their name. However, the daughter (I’ll call her Pat) wanted to talk about her experience to help others in her position.

After losing every sitter she had for her three school-age children, found herself shuffling them through three different day care situations each day. She finally quit her twelve-hour per day factory job.

“Child care is the issue,” said the veteran of two other trash days. “If you have children,” you’ll do what you have to do. Welfare only gives you enough to make it, and that’s it.
‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ That about sums it up.”

She found a pair of blue-jeans and stated: “But people feel they need to sneak or steal to get the stuff they need.”

Feelings of unworthiness are enhanced by the people Pat claims wait for trash-pickers to come, using them for entertainment purposes.

“These people even put out garbage to root through. They expect you to come, sitting on their porch or in their house, laughing at you. It’s us, also, thinking they may be looking. Then they come out and make you feel even worse.”

Pat thinks there has to be a better way to redistribute goods than putting it out as “trash” for the needy to root through. She suggested a community yard-sale with goods offered for free or exchange, publishing items in the paper or posting them on a bulleton board.

“We don’t want to feel demeaned because we want something someone else is disposing of. That’s why we go out after dark.”

Her mother agreed. “I’m ashamed,” she said, hanging her head.

Other trash-rooters find scouting through trash piles enjoyable. A man who collects old toys, but who withheld his name, enjoys the task, and was rewarded with finding a bag of stuffed animals. The veteran trash-picker claims things have changed during his fifteen years of clean-up days.

“I look for old toys of any kind,” he said. “Especially different types of original cartoon characters. It’s cheaper than going to flea markets. I used to sell them at flea markets. Now they sit on shelves in my home. But they are harder to find today.”

The wife of an anonymous out-of-town bargain-hunter, who sat in their car with their three small children, said he’s been out every clean-up day for at least eleven years.

“The most interesting find we had was a couch with money—$10—in it. We just root through stuff.

“If we see something we can use, we pick it up,” her husband said, as he tied a carpet to his car roof. “We also pick up things other people need.”

“Ruth,” another anonymous novice trash-picker, discovered a bag of 33 rpm records for her collection. Her friend, “Jane,” a veteran trash-picker, said she found two fern plants with nothing wrong except “one pot was broken.”

“I go out every clean-up day,” she said, examining a child’s plastic tricycle. “We’re looking for a car seat for my grandson. We found an infant seat which was too small, and another that was too big. But we did find a pretty nice booster seat.”

Jane put out her own trash pile this year.

“It was out about 2 p.m. By 8 p.m. it was all gone, even a broken shovel!”

Trash-picker Ed, and his neighbor were checking a trash pile put at the curb by Sue, looking for basic household stuff for himself and items to share with others in need.

“We came ready, with the truck and ropes, The whole nine yards,” he said. “We found windows earlier. You never know when you or someone else might need them.”

“This is more or less like a yard sale without paying anything. It’s a steal!” his neighbor noted.

Sue’s trash had built up when “the sandstone wall in my basement collapsed, crushing everything. It happened at Easter, just after last spring’s clean-up day.”

She found it hard to believe people would take her stuff. “It’s crazy,” she said. “I put stuff out and it was gone before we got back to the basement.”

“People don’t let anything rest,” said her husband, Paul. “Two years ago I was passing stuff out a basement window, and strangers were reaching into the window to get it. Then they wanted to come into the basement to root.”

William isn’t the typical trash-picker. However, glancing at a pile outside a neighbor’s house he spotted an unexpected treasure, a photo of his former neighbors, deceased fifteen years. He will try to return it to the family.

Excited, William shared his find with Lynn, who wasn’t able to resist stopping to see what might be buried in the huge pile. Her treasure was a picture with a child and a sunflower.

The pile didn’t attract the interest of George, who was familiar with its content.

“My landlady contacted me last evening and asked me to move stuff from the basement to the roadside,” he said.

This pile was where my resolve broke down. On top of the pile was a child’s light box in perfect condition. The one I had at home (which I used to sort photograph negatives) was in much worse condition. I sheepishly grabbed it and stuck it under my arm.

As dusk descended, William and two of his friends decided to walk around town, seeking more treasure.

Unfortunately, some people are disturbed by at least one aspect of the activity. “People come all night long,” Dan said. “They almost keep you awake.”

CBF trash trucks spent the week picking up the trash-pile remnants. Employee Mike finds it interesting to watch people seeking treasures from neighboring trash piles as their own trash is picked up.

“Connellsville is the only contract we have that includes a clean-up day,” said Tracy, a company office worker recruited to help regular workers on this major pick-up project.

With CBF pick-up, Connellsville’s community-wide fall yard sale ended. I went home with my treasure and began writing my article.

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1 Comment »

  1. We just got back from a 5 hour away “Spring Clean Up Days” We went there for the sole purpose of trash picking and having fun! Found loads of stuff that otherwise would end up in a landfill It was a BLAST! My friend and I both needed some wicker furniture for summer retreats that we both have and, mission accomplished, We found some in great shape! You only go around once!

    Comment by Lisa — May 2, 2008 @ 7:58 pm | Reply


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