Taking In the Trash

By Lise Funderburg

The New York Times Magazine
December 8, 2002

Driving home one night, I saw two women struggling to carry a boxy, unwieldy object out of their house. Even in the dark, I could see the silhouettes of furniture lining the curb–large, serious, examination-worthy furniture. I got my new boyfriend to go back with me for an impromptu bargain aptitude test, and after momentarily considering a steel bed frame, we ended up helping the women, a mother and daughter, carry a desk.

“The house is being sold tomorrow, and we have to get everything out,” said the daughter, holding two drawers.

“I was here 34 years,” said the mother. “I’ve been crying all day:” It was after l0 p.m., and not one room was empty. They weren’t bickering, just setting to scraping out the last vestiges of their life. I spotted a wooden table with a white ceramic top. “Does this go out, too?” I asked, hopeful. “It’s so nice.”

I was suggesting that they keep it, but they were beyond holding on. They gave it to us in appreciation, but I still can’t look at it, a year later, without seeing our gain as part of their loss.

My salvaging pays homage even as I wage war against wasteful consumption. Then again, maybe I’m just cheap. And prurient. And a little too enthusiastic about appropriating other people’s belongings.

In fact, I once stole a kiddie pool. A store clerk had used the plastic pool from a sidewalk display to cover the recycling from rain. I drove home triumphant, then made the mistake of bragging to my oldest sister about my big score.

“Where did you get it?” she asked. On the curb across from the hardware store. “Hmm,” she considered. “Was it windy?”

In sisterly fashion, I refused to consider that the pool hadn’t been left for trash. Once we hung up, though, I called the store.

“Yes,” the woman at the other end of the line answered when I asked if they sold pools, “but we’re currently out of stock.”

“Actually,” I corrected her, “I stole your last one.” Before she could say anything, I told her I’d return it and hung up. Come Monday, a clerk met me outside the store. I told him I’d inadvertently taken the pool. “So you’re the one,” he said. We both laughed; I felt exonerated.

But my most recent haul, only a few weeks old, has made me wonder about who has rights to what has been thrown away: The booty included two lamps (a ginger-jar monstrosity my mother might like and a jolie-laide metallic Sputnik-goes-floral-number); one unused bird feeder; one sewing-machine accessory box containing miscellaneous bobbins and a buttonhole-maker; and one Holy Bible in Vietnamese.

I tried to make sense of the clues piled before me. Nondescript black pumps suggested an older woman; Vietnamese celebrity magazines suggested a teenager; a how-to book on importing and exporting suggested an entrepreneur; and the Lucky Brand jeans, torn beyond usefulness, suggested young, female, fashion-conscious.

A white man in his late 30’s (the landlord?) came out of the house as I struggled to free the Sputnik’s cord from under a box. “Hi,” I called out. “Do you mind?”

He didn’t. “There’s more,” he offered on his way back in.

The man next appeared in the side yard. He put one arm around the shoulder of a life-size cement boy wearing a conical cement straw hat. I eyed the weighty garden ornament. “He’ll fit in my car,” I called out.

The man replied, cheerily enough, “He’s going with me.” Instantly I was embarrassed at my bald gluttony.

Moments later, a woman came out of the house. She was Asian and about the same age as the man, who may well have been her husband. She seemed as likely as not to want to start a business and wear Lucky jeans. We exchanged hellos; hers was smileless. She dumped a garbage bag and turned back inside. I replaced one jumble of presumptions with another. Bankruptcy? Divorce? It could be the opposite–a bigger house, time to start a family–but she had looked so grim. Or was that look for me?

These piles are always fraught; they are hurried and put off until the last minute because they contain the stuff no one wants to acknowledge or deal with or let go. And maybe no one truly lets go; maybe the woman’s vision of their destiny was disrupted by my pawing through. Perhaps she didn’t see the public thoroughfare of the street as automatic license to dig through her life, even those pieces she had rejected.

Two days later, I’m scouting the neighborhood again. I don’t harbor much hope; there’s no trash pickup for another week. But I drive past the house anyway. The sidewalk is clean; the cement boy is gone. People always tell me (gently, as if on the brink of an intervention) that my house is full of stuff. It is full, I agree, but of life and the pulse of histories murmuring all around me. Stolen, perhaps, but cherished nonetheless.