Recently, on the same day a bomb exploded under a dumpster on West 23rd Street in Chelsea, two men were seen on a security camera picking up a discarded bag on West 27th Street; finding a pressure cooker inside, they removed it, left it on the street, and went off with the bag. In light of the bombing that same day in Chelsea, the authorities wanted to find the men and question them. It turned out that they were two Egyptian visitors who simply liked the bag and scavenged it, but in so doing they may have defused a second bomb.
Reporting this incident, the New York Times observes that the two Egyptians were simply following an age-old New York tradition of scavenging, of finding and appropriating something discarded on the street. In a densely populated city where people are moving in or out all the time, books, furniture, appliances, luggage, and even paintings are all fair game for scavengers. According to the city’s administrative code, discarded items on the street should be left for the Sanitation Department and other professional trash carters to collect, but just try telling that to New Yorkers, who routinely – out of need or curiosity or the sheer fun of it – grab stuff left on the street.
The Times article mentions some of the items that citizens have scavenged: a Persian lamb jacket, a cat-scratching post, and a salad bowl from Ikea, all found by one woman in Brooklyn; and discarded computers that a maintenance worker, also a Brooklynite, delights to find, since he can repair them and restore them to use. Clearly, one person’s junk is another’s treasure. And one veteran New Yorker has boasted of completely furnishing his small apartment with the spoils reclaimed, with a friend’s help, in a single day of strenuous scavenging on the first of the month, when people move out or move in, and discarded furniture can be found on the street.
I confess to having, in my time, scavenged. Only a year ago, en route to a restaurant on Seventh Avenue, I saw a small piece of nicely finished blond wood lying on the curb. Picking it up, I detected a slight crack that probably explains why it had been thrown out, but the crack was barely noticeable, blending in with the grain of the wood. So I grabbed it and took it with me to the restaurant, having not the slightest idea what I would do with it. It now sits on the windowsill near my desk, where I can simply enjoy the sight of it; recently I placed a potted cactus on top of it, but I really prefer leaving it bare, so I can see it unadorned. And this at a time when I am trying to get rid of things, not acquire more.
Yes, New Yorkers don’t just scavenge; they also put things out on the street, hoping a passerby will take them. When I convinced my partner Bob that we had to get rid of some of things accumulated over the years, he agreed. Finding whole shelves of unused glassware in the kitchen cabinets, I showed them to him item by item, and he, being the presumed owner (we didn’t even know where they came from), decided which should be kept and which should go. I then put a few downstairs beside the steps at the entrance to our building, with a sign urging passersby to help themselves, and in every instance they disappeared within a day. Someone somewhere – or more likely several someones – can now enjoy a shelf of glistening glasses and goblets that cost them not a cent. And when, recently, having insisted that Bob get rid of books hidden behind other books on his bookshelves, I found some hidden books of my own in a bookcase beside my desk, I vowed to get rid of them. They were French and Spanish textbooks that I had once edited but that I had no need of, so out they went downstairs. Within hours, they were gone. Hopefully, someone somewhere is brushing up on their languages, exercising their mouth muscles in an attempt to pronounce French, or puzzling over the difference between the prepositions para and por in Spanish. I wish them well.
I’m more of a scavenger than Bob is. Just the other day I was tempted by a large square mirror near the curb downstairs, but wisely forbore, having no real need of it. But the prize of our scavenging over the years was Bob’s, for years ago he came home one day lugging a small bookcase that we could clearly use. Why would anyone discard a perfectly fine little bookcase? The explanation was soon forthcoming, when roaches began to emerge from tiny gaps between the shelves and the case. Quickly I deposited the bookcase in the bathroom, shut the door, grabbed a can of disinfectant, and began spraying the intruders as they came out of their hiding places. This went on for at least twenty minutes, until forty little corpses lay in heaps on the floor. I then flushed the corpses away, scrubbed the bookcase clean, and announced to Bob that we had a new, very serviceable bookcase. It filled up quickly and stands in our hallway to this day.
What else have I scavenged over the years? Books, always on an impulse and never in numbers, since we lack space for them. Folders that a law student had discarded, each labeled with the name of course he had taken; from then on, instead of his vanished class notes, they housed manuscripts of mine. A small rainbow flag that I found in a trash can the day after a Gay Pride parade, its splintered shaft easily repaired. Two very usable wine glasses that someone had left in our trash area downstairs. Two plump little throw pillows abandoned in a neighbor’s apartment when he moved out and invited other tenants to enter and help themselves. Besides the pillows, I grabbed a corkscrew, but couldn’t use other items on display, including furniture that someone furnishing an apartment would have loved to acquire.
It can even happen that an item doesn’t just sit on the curb, awaiting a new owner, but goes in search of one. Once, on a very windy day, a huge black umbrella came flying toward me, carried along by gusts of wind. I grabbed it, found it intact except for a missing handle, and waited for the owner, handle in hand, to come chasing after it, but when no one appeared, I took it home. It served us as a spare umbrella for years.
But my specialty is pens: push-point pens or ordinary pens, blue-ink pens or black-ink pens, fine-point pens or medium-point pens – any kind of pen. Over the years I have found them on the sidewalk while doing errands in my neighborhood, or in parks, or even along trails in upstate wilderness areas where I used to hike on weekdays alone. And if half of them didn’t work, the other half did. Result: for years I never had to buy a new pen. Only recently, in the throes of advancing maturity, have I hesitated to claim them, since they are way down there, and I am way up here. But if the item looks interesting, I’ll make the effort. My presumed epitaph:
THE GUY WHO FOUND PENS
Obviously, a stellar claim to fame.
Of course nothing is simple in New York. Lone scavengers and organized teams of scavengers are compromising the city’s efforts at recycling. How so? Before the Sanitation workers can get to the discarded items separated out for recycling – paper, plastic, glass, and metal – the scavengers get them and tote them off to be recycled. That rusty old air conditioner can be sold for scrap metal; those cans from last night’s boozing can be turned in for a nickel apiece. Some homeless people depend on what they get from scavenging to buy a little food. And why does the city object, if the stuff still gets recycled? Because it makes it difficult for the city to meet its recycling goals. The city, not the scavengers, must get the credit for recycling. What the scavengers are doing, says the city, is just plain theft. To which the homeless reply indignantly that they are simply trying to get by, while at the same time helping clean up the city.
Am I myself a thief? No, because I have never taken stuff meant for recycling; my spoils are simply stray items found here or there, often put out in hopes that someone will scavenge them. To grab a pen on the sidewalk, or a rainbow flag in a trash can, or an escaped umbrella flying by on a windy day, is not to compromise the city’s recycling campaign; it simply reduces the clutter on the streets, even if, in the process, I’m feathering my nest as well. And these days I’m out to reduce my feathers, not add to them; my nest is overfull. Anyone want some dusty old French books, or an illustrated book on the gods of India? Or The New York Walk Book, or The Dream of the Red Chamber, a classic Chinese novel? If so, speak up, and fast, because that’s what I’m currently tossing out. And if, in the process, I see a homeless person taking a few discarded bottles out of a trash can, I’m not going to have them arrested.
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My poems: For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down. To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here. For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.
My books: No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016. For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here. As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: A reprint of a post on Halloween, followed by one on profanity – especially mine -- that will reveal my dark heart and foul tongue, and raise the question, Do we have a right to swear?
© 2016 Clifford Browder