Dumpster Diving Dusted Off and Fondled

By Lise Funderburg

Fall 2002

Mrs. Winterbottom, my neighbor, was a nurse, doting grandmother, and perfume enthusiast. She had a passion for hats. Also for lingerie, which she amassed over decades—1930s peignoirs, 1940s bed jackets, and some unfortunate slithery caftans circa 1963. I think of her as someone who attached great emotional freight to objects, who didn’t take them for granted—someone who understood that bounty was never far removed from deprivation. She kept her hats in their round cardboard boxes; the lingerie she stored in satin envelopes and white tissue, pristinely folded. Dresses hung in garment bags and dry cleaner plastic, matching belts still connected by thread-thin loops. Nothing, not even death, upset her fastidious preservation.

Mr. Winterbottom, her widower, collected books about Native Americans, timetables from the American railway system (his career-long employer), and World War II pulp novels. Also, scads of semifunctional radios, televisions, toasters, and space heaters—more of each item than there were rooms in the couple’s modest row house. He spent time in the army and developed a fondness for Switzerland, a country from which he received wall calendars annually, replete with alpine panoramas. Many of the calendars remained unopened two and three decades beyond their usefulness. But he never threw them out, just as he refused to relinquish his wife’s wardrobe and knickknacks even after she died. Until recently.

I never met the Winterbottoms, never even saw them. What I know about them is from ransacking the Dumpster parked in front of their house, filled twice earlier this year by professional haulers.

I am obsessed with other people’s trash. I pull over for garbage cans and Dumpsters and yard sales (which sometimes turn out to be nothing more than messy lawns). I thrill at the hunt, the discovery, the freeness of it all. If I see a curbside pile of castoffs, I can’t help myself. I have to look. As much as I like to find reusable appliances and furniture with potential (upholstery can be replaced, but good bones are forever), I am also diving into a fantasy world pegged, object by object, to reality and actual lives.

It’s easy to feed my trash-related addiction in Philadelphia, a city with a disproportionately high home-owning population. Not to mention a city people rarely leave, despite its postindustrial economic decline. This may be a dying municipality, but the people who live here stay, and they stay long enough to amass households full of life’s touchstones and detritus. I am the beneficiary of all this thanks to death and nursing homes and adult children who live too far away.

As for the Winterbottoms, my next-door neighbor and fellow spelunker Claudia telephoned with the news one morning: “Workmen are emptying out a house and filling a Dumpster five streets away.”

My pulse quickened. I drove by the site and felt a surge of jumpy anxiety. What if the junk was carted off before I got to it? What would I miss? When would those men leave and the coast be clear? I circled back home to wait for the end of the workday and to prepare. When it was almost five o’clock, I changed into old pants and a long-sleeved shirt, both of which could be thrown away if I had a run-in with noxious insecticides or caustic paint removers. Before driving off, I inspected the supplies I keep in the back of my station wagon: work gloves (check); bungee cords and lashes (check); tarps (check); flashlight (check); and screwdrivers, Phillips and flathead (check, check).

I arrived at the site, stomach in knots, to find the workers gone and the Dumpster overflowing. I spent hours in the Winterbottoms’ trash, climbing and digging and looking for ways to leverage the water heater out of my way. I learned they liked to garden from the quantity and condition of their garden tools; how hard she studied for her nursing exam from the careful margin notes in her textbooks; and his affinity for the military from the random paraphernalia culled from at least three wars. Neighbors stopped to chat; other trash pickers passed by with felicitous greetings and envious glances. Claudia got tired and went home.

When the last bit of daylight stole away and my flashlight proved no match for the dark, I packed it in. Literally. My car brimmed with ancient appliances, tools, clothes, kitchenware, and a bubble-glass bathroom scale. I had filled my lungs with dust and my imagination with the Winterbottoms’ lives.

Surely the act of writing entails breathing a similarly idea-laden air. We writers piece together lives and narratives from scattered, random prompts. There is always what we can see before us and then what is only hinted at, what might lie underneath if we dug past one more box or asked our subjects one more question. Possibility sweeps both activities along—the same promise of pleasure beckons as the words selected or objects scavenged begin to reveal a life, a world.

The harbinger of spring, in my neck of the woods, is handwritten posters tacked onto telephone poles: Estate Sale. Porch Sale. Multi-Family Yard Sale. I can only go with experienced shoppers—Claudia or my two sisters—people who know how to move through a sale like sharks, never stopping. Aside from price tags, there’s not much difference between sales and Dumpsters. Maybe at sales there’s a relative on hand to fill in a missing piece here and there, but just as often, the puzzle of disparate objects remains to be solved.

In recent history, there were two notable estate sales, ones we periodically relive and by which we measure all others: the complete contents of the houses of Verna Stein and Edna Winters.

Verna Stein never used her World War II sugar rationing cards. She was a keeper of things—Limoges china; postcards from extensive travels; disintegrating patchwork quilts; anodized aluminum buckets in perfect condition. The ration stamps sat in their original envelope for fifty years, until I came along and bought them. Verna Stein died shortly before I came into possession of her glove collection, her wedding dress and veil (too small, unless I have a rib removed, but only twelve dollars!), and many of her gardening tools. The estate sale was held with her washcloth still draped over the edge of the tub.

Mrs. Winters, a former schoolteacher and the widow of a dentist, loved photographs and gardening and ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. She was a weekend artist (a portraitist), and she painted her neighbors and friends and her one child, a developmentally delayed boy who is now sixty-four and still lives in a group home. Her paintings center on anatomically wonky faces—eyes far too uneven and heads too big for shoulders, and all set against a shocking green background. I look at four of her paintings every day, on the wall across from my kitchen sink. Mrs. Winters, who lived right around the corner from me in a stately Victorian home along a heavily trafficked boulevard, had no one but great-nieces and -nephews to sell her possessions for her when she was moved, at ninety-four, into a nursing home.

If dumpster diving and thrift shopping and yard saling were simply good-natured altruism—the dedicated recycler saving the planet, one perfectly functional toaster at a time—that would make it a fine, benign pastime. Of course it is (I am) more selfish than that: that old wood-slatted fruit basket looks good on my porch. And it’s more compulsive, too: the anxiety of what I might miss or step on inadvertently or never get to isn’t just good sport—it’s angst and edginess and the anticipation of despair.

What drives, then, can also hobble. I am not portable: I have too much stuff, most of it in need of rewiring or reupholstering. And I do this trash picking because I need to—it’s low-grade speed, salvaging is—as well as for any greater, higher purpose.

My attraction to trash picking has many sources—a desire not to waste, a desire to have cool stuff—but it also stems from a deeply felt regard for the totemic power of other people’s objects. Dumpster diving and writing, both, are the world dusted off and fondled, gathered in, reinterpreted and redistributed, all with a passion. I find the past, mine and others’, in the egg beater just like my grandmother had, in the sugar ration stamps allotted but never used. That contact—with strangers, my neighbors, history—bridges mortality and skips across time. It is the unstoppable, irrepressible hum of life and hope and love and loss, there for anyone to see, anyone who’ll just take a moment to dig down and look inside.