One Person’s Trash is Another’s Treasure

Rag-and-bone man in Paris in 1899 (Photo Eugène Atget) from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rag-and-bone_man

Next week a cherished custom takes place in my town of Monmouth Illinois, as well as in many other towns, especially in the Midwest. It is Bulk Trash Week, a time when residents can leave out at the curb almost any trash or unwanted household item and the municipal waste trucks will haul it away. I grew up on the East Coast, in the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, where such a custom was unknown. I have also lived in two different towns in Maryland, neither of which had such a week either. So for me, at least, Bulk Trash Week is a Midwestern thing.

The weekend before Bulk Trash week, all the curbs around town become filled with piles of unwanted items. Broken toys and Christmas ornaments, worn-out barbecue grills, bits and pieces of lumber, chairs which have lost a leg or two, old sofas, you-name-it, it is probably discarded somewhere in town.

As soon as the trash starts to appear on the curb, folks start cruising around town in pick-ups and other vehicles to see what others have discarded. Following the principle that what is one person’s trash is another’s treasure, many items don’t make it to the landfill but disappear in one of those pick-ups, often within minutes of being discarded.

For this Bulk Trash week, I put out at the curb a number of items, including an old baby stroller we kept around for visits by grandchildren, a broken dehumidifier, a similarly defunct humidifier, some bits and pieces of house siding, a few leftover slats of hardwood flooring, an old lawn roller which I’d bought years ago to level some soil, used once and left in the garage to rust, and a lot of other trash. At least it was trash to me, but within no time at all, the baby stroller, the hardwood, the dehumidifier and the lawn roller all had disappeared. Whoever took them didn’t seem to care that the lawn roller was rusty and leaked and the dehumidifier was broken. Maybe they had the time and patience to repair the leaky roller or perhaps they planned to sell it to a metal recycler for a buck or two.

I have confession to make. While my hometown of Hoboken did not have a Bulk Trash Week, folks did occasionally leave some interesting stuff at their front gate in the hope that the garbage men, as they were called then, might haul it away. I vividly remember one time when I was walking along and noticed a large brass light fixture left out in a gate for the trash. It was so nice that I wasn’t sure it was really being discarded so I asked my Uncle Paul to check it out. He determined that the fixture was indeed being discarded, retrieved it, had it rewired, and it eventually wound up hanging in my parents’ dining room. I sometimes regret not taking that fixture when my father sold the house….

I asked my Uncle Paul to do this because he was an expert in such matters and had found many excellent finds in such circumstances over the years. He had no qualms about raiding someone’s trash. He probably inherited this talent from his immigrant Italian grandmother who started collecting and recycling rags when she came to the United States from southern Italy in the late nineteenth-century. , she made a living by collecting and recycling rags. While many rag-pickers or rag-gatherers, as they were called, lived in severe poverty both in Europe and in the United States in the ninteenth-century, my great-grandmother and her family built up a fairly successful rag recycling business over the years in Hoboken. My grandfather worked his whole life in that rag business, which he always called “The Shop.” He was still working there when I was a child in the 1950’s. By then all he did was answer the phone and I have vivid memories of him sitting at the loading dock and watching the world go by.

I suspect that I must have inherited some my ancestors’ scavaging genes because I originally acquired that old baby stroller under similar circumstances — I found it unwanted at someone’s curb and all three of my granddaughters got good use out of it during their visits. And there are several other items which came into our house as finds from somebody’s curb. So, I am a firm believer in the principle that one person’s trash can, indeed, be another’s treasure.

I taught Classics for 40+ years and am now Capron Professor Emeritus of Classics at Monmouth College in Illinois. Read more about me at www.tomsienkewicz.com.