Objects: #4—Thrown-Out Stuff
by Andrew Tibbetts
My friend Judy (not her real name) knows the garbage nights of the rich neighbourhoods. She will often cruise over in a borrowed minivan and come back with great stuff. She has a Mr. Fix-it boyfriend, so even thrown-out speakers and radios and such, she’ll take a chance on. The worse case scenario: they’ll end up out front on her garbage night a few days later.
There was a short story by Laurie Moore that got edited at the New Yorker and they wanted her to take out the phrase ‘garbage night’. I couldn’t believe that. “Garbage night” is big news in the suburbs. It has its own rituals. It may not be particularly evocative for apartment dwellers but it calls up lots for me. Arguments with my sister about who’s turn it was. Lovely stop and start conversations with neighbours as you come back to the curb with each load. The yucky time I worked for a group home with a giant garbage bin outside that collected the bags until garbage night and how in the summer they were sure to be covered in a slime of maggots so that you had to take one bag at a time, wearing gloves, holding it the full length of your over-extended arms so that it wouldn’t drip onto you. Fun times!
And of course: thrown-out stuff. Sometimes it’s hilarious. Neighbours put out furniture that reminds you of your own living room in the seventies! Exercise equipment that looks dusty. Good looking stuff that makes you ponder your own sneaky recovery mission, but then what if, months later, you have those neighbours over! And they see it. And say, “Hey, we have that…. Oh….” And then there’s that awkward silence.
Garbage picker! That was a terrible insult in my elementary school. Nothing worse. Not even having cooties. Okay, maybe being a fag was worse. But garbage picker was about your deep character as reflected in your disgusting behavioural habits. I can’t scoop up thrown-out stuff as a result. I’m perma-scarred, on perma-guard against the accusation. So if my neighbours were throwing out Fabergé eggs I’d walk right by. Okay, maybe I’d rush right by, run to my phone and call Judy! Get over here now! And then I’d go back and guard the garbage from folks less damaged by school yard hierarchy experiences.
Garage sales are different. Those are cool. I like when entire neighbourhoods co-ordinate their garage sales and the streets become a bazaar some Saturday summer afternoon. The town of Manheim in Ontario has a great one. One year, I took my kids. I parked and a police officer noticed my expired validation sticker and gave me lecture in front of the town of Manheim. A lecture and a ticket. There were so many people gathered around, perfectly content to watch the show. My mortified children hovered by the car. I tried not to cry. He asked me, “so why haven’t you renewed it?” Folks leaned in to hear. I said, “lack of funds.” He said, “And yet you’re here at the Manheim garage sale? Doesn’t sound right to me.” I thought to say, much later when once the flight-defense response had lifted and my brain came back on-line, “Well, officer, I only have these two dollars, I thought I might get a used jigsaw puzzle for the kid’s birthday. It’s not much but it’s the best I can do since the wife died and I lost my job.” If you’re going to put on a show, put on a good one! Instead I hung my head, took the ticket, packed the kids up and left.
Why is it okay to buy someone’s old blender in a garage sale, but not pick the exact same blender off the front of the same lawn if it were a garbage night? Garage sale/ Garbage night. There’s not even that much difference to the phrases. Linguistic cousins? That little ‘b’ that wanders into the garage spoils everything.
We get to declare whether the stuff we don’t want is garbage or not. And if so declared, it’s only the very brave Judies of the world who defy that designation.
I had coffee at Judy’s house one morning when she first told me of her scavenging adventures. She gave me a quick tour of her home. “This came from R. street; this I got last summer, from, I can’t remember, maybe E. avenue; oh, this, this I love! It was poking out of a pile of old shoes, giant pile of old shoes, and this chest of drawers underneath, can you believe, walnut, perfect condition…” Her entire, beautiful home, furnished in other people’s garbage. A part of me was awestruck and envious. Another part of me felt sick and wanted to run.
*Photo from Maitland Street Garbage Night sometime in October 2008