Outta My Yard

by Elizabeth Peavey
by Elizabeth Peavey

Pick of the litter

As a general rule, I don’t garbage pick. It’s not that I have anything against free stuff or the repurposing of objects deemed disposable by our culture. It’s just that I prefer another’s hand to do the plucking.

One reason is because I’m the type of person who can’t get away with anything. I know that as soon as I were to secure a trash-day find, the owner’s front door would swing open and out would walk a client/student/former classmate of mine. (You choose whichever would be most cringe-worthy to you.) “Hi,” I’d have to say. “Heh, heh, heh — this lava lamp fell out of your garbage bag. Just tidying up!” Then I’d slink off, my face burning with shame and my skin crawling with the thought said lamp had been contaminated by litter-box leavings or avian-flu-tinged poultry.

That’s the other reason this sport holds little appeal: I have cootie issues. Why, just the other day I wanted to change check-out lanes at the store when I saw the cashier touch his nose, but my husband wouldn’t let me. (For the record, the nose in question was red. And yes, I hosed down all our groceries when I got home, even though most were in sealed containers.) I’m not saying every discarded baking dish has been used to transport a diseased organ, or that a wayward bonnet is necessarily infested with lice, but why take a chance?

Still, I admire those who do. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, when Portland’s large-item pickup program was still an event, I had friends (mostly gay men) who outfitted their apartments in grand style from curbside castoffs, long before shabby was chic. People disgorged the entire contents of their attics and garages beside the street, creating a weeklong grabfest. My friends elevated a night of scavenging to high performance, dubbing the affair the Trash Ball. They donned eveningwear and mixed up a pitcher of something bracing before swooping through Portland’s neighborhoods on their campy marauding. They wheeled their way around those piles of garbage like Fred and Ginger (or, to be more precise, like Ginger and Ginger), gleefully procuring prize after prize, with which they turned their otherwise seedy domains into Deco trophy palaces and Empire altars. It was all very swank, albeit in an American Pickers-meets-The Birdcage kind of way.

I never joined in. Those were the years I was gadding about to Europe and bouncing cross-country from San Francisco to Boston. My parents’ barn loft was already stuffed with my splintering furniture and cases of books. I’m sure I would’ve received little encouragement from them to add anything to my “collection.”

Even when I settled back in Portland in my 30s, other people’s castoffs held little appeal. My mother still lived in our big family farmhouse, and if I wanted stuff, I could just dig around in one of the home’s many storage spaces. (Mom frequently redecorated and held onto all her castoffs.) I found no pleasure in flea markets or junk shops until I bought my first house, a 1920s bungalow, in my 40s and wanted to outfit it with period fixtures. But even then the objects I found were transported with a dainty hand that was sanitized the minute I got to the car.

So I must confess I was surprised when, on a morning in January, I found myself snooping around the contents of a spilled garbage bag on Beacon Hill. My friend Michie and I were having an overnight in Boston, and I was out for my morning constitutional when a flash of white caught my eye. For those not familiar with the city’s topography, Beacon Hill sits like a lump — or should I say dowager’s hump? — at the north end of the city, abutting The Commons. The massive brownstones crowd together along narrow streets, creating the impression of being within a great walled city. In this particular morning’s pre-dawn gloaming, with the branches of bare trees hemming me in, I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear the clip-clop of a horse-drawn milk wagon mounting one of those steep streets. Instead, it was just the soft padding of my sneakered feet dodging heaps of trash.

It was garbage day on Beacon Hill. Overstuffed black bags littered the sidewalk, creating an obstacle course. I held my breath as I passed them, sure that an inhalation would carry the fetid aromas of mongoose carcass, expired blowfish roe, rotted snails’ tongues — or whatever the wealthy eat. But as I summited the hill and finally had to draw a breath, I was relieved to smell only the fragrance of dried needles from off-cast Christmas trees, as well as — what was that? Bayberry? Frankincense? Old money? I stood for a moment and took a big whiff. Leave it to the haves to have garbage that smells like it was ordered from a Williams-Sonoma catalogue.

That’s when I spotted it, that flash of white. I knew instantly what it was: a wine-carry from Sea Bags, the Portland company that recycles used sails into yachty totes. I’ve long admired their bags but never wanted to spring for one. And now the universe had gifted one to me — OK, not one of the larger bags I truly coveted, but a Sea Bag nonetheless, free, free, free for the taking!

I scooped it up like a pro, barely slowing my steps as I sallied by. It was as though I had lowered my polo mallet for a brief knock of the ball and then kept on riding. The pick was clean, and I was off with only the quickest glance over my shoulder as I wondered what other spoils I was leaving behind. The only thing stopping me from further plunder was the image of some Brahman thundering out his front door and chasing me off with a rolled-up copy of the One-Percent Times. Instead, I casually slung my prize around my wrist like a lady’s fan and let it dangle there until I could get back to the room for a closer examination.

My friend agreed it was a pretty great find. The bag is decorated with a blue whale’s tail and has sewn on it an applique that reads: “Sailed around the world. Recycled in Maine. Cheers!” There are eight blank lines on which the name of the initial recipient and each subsequent one can be written under the printed heading: “Recycled to.” There’s also a stamp on the bag that says “Recycled in Maine” and a tag that touts recycling. That’s four references to recycling on one product, which prompted me to wonder, Just how dopey can these rich people be?

I mean, seriously. I can see chucking out a gift bag made of paper or organza. (Well, actually I can’t; I’ve been known to dive to rescue such items before they hit friends’ recycling bins.) But those materials seem temporary. These gift bags are made from sails, sails that have been around the world! They can clearly withstand a couple rounds of Cabernet carting. So what, then, could prompt such blatant disregard for a $35 (I checked) gift? Here are some possibilities. The recipient:

  • didn’t “get” the very complicated concept that the bag was intended to be passed on to another person, contents refreshed, name inscribed on the bag’s log.
  • was insulted the bag was not from Hermès and kicked it and its gifter to the curb.
  • was having Captain Ahab over for dinner that night and didn’t want to upset him.
  • is a documentary student from Emerson, who was using the bag as bait and was filming me.
  • was launching a January cleanse, and tossed the bag out, along with all the other reminders of the season’s excess.
  • used said bag to transport a diseased organ and was now improperly disposing of hazardous waste. (I checked. No bodily fluids contained therein. Just one lone spruce needle.)

Whatever the cause for such wanton waste, the toss was my windfall. The bag came home with me from Boston and now enjoys pride of place in my office, like a trophy from a hunt. No plague descended upon my house, nor was I caught like a thief with a lamb. So, who knows? Perhaps it’s time to launch a new pursuit?

Ladies and gentlemen, guard your garbage.


Elizabeth Peavey scrounges for material here each month. Learn more about her finds at elizabethpeavey.com.

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