The Joys of Picking Trash

by

01/24/2005

Clark St & Henry St, Brooklyn, NY 11201

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights

I imagine that grass-roots recycling for reuse and income must happen in every big city, but I’d never been aware of it at the constant and hyper-efficient level I’ve seen here in New York. In the university town where I used to live, students would discard their unwanted couches, lamps, microwaves and short-lived artifacts of college life every semester. And other students or college-town hangers-on would then collect them for their own use.

The provincial newspaper ran annual stories about guys with trucks who made a few hundred bucks a day cherry-picking the best furniture and reselling it at consignment shops.

My studio apartment in Brooklyn Heights, Apt. 1A, faces the street at ground level. I view my building’s trash cans as well as the brownstones across the street right out my two large windows.

I live in what might be Brooklyn’s wealthiest neighborhood, if not its oldest, one subway stop from Manhattan’s financial district. I can guess by the advertisements in the real estate brokers’ windows that my neighbors’ single-family brownstones are worth $2 to $3 million. My five-story walk-up and a few others on the block are disguised by respectable facades, concealing the dingy public areas, bad plumbing, bottom of the market repair jobs, cockroaches and my $950 a month home.

More often than not, when I hear the trash can lids moving, a trash picker stands right outside my window bending down to stick his head in the can, hoping to find something of value: returnable bottles, mostly, but maybe a slice of pizza, too. He wouldn’t really be hoping, though, because his kind of survival is purely a numbers game. Just doing the job. He must search hundreds of cans a night to collect enough value to survive or improve his standard of living over what public assistance provides. And he has competition. On warmer nights in the winter, maybe a dozen work the neighborhood, transporting their harvest in plastic bags and shopping carts. All items of value in the trash, as long as they’re easily retrieved, are scavenged.

The homeless trash picker collects literally from the bottom of the barrel. At my previous apartment in a transitional part of the Park Slope neighborhood, I first saw what might be called a more respectable type of recycling. Finding some pants and shoes hanging on the gate in front of the building, I wondered what kind of person would bring her clothes to my building to hang on the fence. But I later learned that the landlords, who lived upstairs, regularly used the fence as their own personal Goodwill drop-off. And not only them, but everyone, throughout the entire city, who lives in a neighborhood where trash is allowed to be seen from the street, saves trips to the Salvation Army by discarding old clothes, books, appliances and toys right in front of their homes. What ever remains unsold at weekend stoop sales is left out for the pickers. More often than not, the items are gone the next day.

Some of the things I’ve put out include a pair of nearly new but too tight dress shoes, a pot that housed my now dead Ficus and books. When my CD player failed, I even picked up one that I found on the street as a replacement. It worked, but not well enough to keep, so I put it out, and it disappeared instantly. I wonder how many times it’s been in and out of apartments?

I’ve come to realize that trash picking is an urban instinct, not just a survival instinct of the very poor and homeless. I catch myself peeking at trash areas for things I want. I’ve looked through boxes of books, considered taking bookshelves and lamps. My rich neighbors do it, too, I’ve seen, kicking at a box on the sidewalk to glance at its contents, leaning over the fence to investigate something shiny.

I’ve become mostly inured to the trash pickers outside my window, and I’ve lost my surprise at my own instinct to gather when I see something interesting in the trash. It’s another part of living anonymously among millions. I wouldn’t be able to recognize more than a few of my neighbors, and certainly none out of my building, though I recognize their dogs. Perhaps they know me as the only man on the block who sometimes wears a red coat, standing out in a crowd of black, gray and brown. No one cares or worries as we scan each other’s trash.

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