Getting to know the neighborhood — through its trash
coldcolours via flickrIt’s Sunday on Bourne Street. I am weeding at the JP Green House, furious at the reappearance of the Dog Strangling Vine that we battled hard last summer. A pernicious creeping vine, it takes over any neglected area around here: East Coast kudzu. An abandoned house is not really vacant, but inhabited by slow destructive forces like rot and weeds. I tackle a few shoots and then, discouraged, turn to watering the melon and pumpkin patch, newly planted two weeks ago. Ken zips by, testing the bikes that he’s tuning up after the winter. The young African men at the halfway house next door are riding a pocket motorcycle up and down the street, noisily, over and over again. I contemplate telling them off but decide it’s not neighborly.
Our neighbor John has been cleaning out his wife’s uncle’s house. The uncle died at home around midwinter, ninety-something, and the task of cleaning out 70 years of accumulations fell to John, because he’d recently lost his job as a jewelry salesman. He is 55 and a bit grim about his prospects. Ken has been helping him sort through stuff, and has heard about the “changed balance of power in the marriage” and other predictable outcomes. Our neighborhood is quirky but mostly middle class. Still, you can’t swing a cat around here without knocking down somebody freshly unemployed.
John netted us some great trash finds: a Debbie Reynolds paper-doll set with complete outfits; old photographs of the graduating classes of St. Andrew’s School, including later-convicted pedophile priest. John wonders if we could sell the last of his uncle’s furniture and quaint games and toys at our upcoming yard sale.
I dump the fresh compost on the heap at the back of the garden and give it a few turns. I contemplate planting another bed of wildflowers, but decide to wait until next weekend. Tar-paper has been flying off the Green House since we had the asbestos shingles removed, and showing up all around the neighborhood. I decide it would be good to be seen marching around with a plastic bag, resolutely cleaning up, waving cheerily to neighbors in their yards. I do that for a while, until I’m distracted by a great-looking pile of trash on Catherine Street, a few yards down.
Closer inspection reveals that each bag of trash contains some treasures. In one there are two pairs of boys’ winter boots–good ones. In another, beach towels and swimming goggles. An ancient credenza reveals durable plastic cutlery, never used, along with the horror of tupperware containing ancient leftovers. Three wicker baskets in excellent condition reveal a plethora of children’s mittens and hats. There’s a great bronze planter, a speckled blue and white tin teakettle, and a pair of binoculars in perfect condition that somehow recall my childhood of hiking in the California hills. Someone left in a hurry here. Someone moving out, lease up? Another lost job, or home?
Ken WardI call Ken over and we pick through each bag. “It’s like Christmas in reverse!” I exclaim. We are joined by one of the Africans, who gives the picked-over trash a glance and then wanders off with his cell phone.
I remember what John said: “I’ve been unemployed for nine months now. I think people keep expecting this to end, but it seems like it could get worse.” He was baffled, worried. I pile all my newfound treasures in the car, dump them out on the front lawn, and sort. I pick up the girl’s size-7 snowsuit, a few pink hats, and a pair of pink swimming goggles and bring them down to Sue, who has girls.
We do a lot of trash picking. Ken, especially, will screech his decrepit Volvo to a halt beside any promising curbside pile. He loves old stuff, but recognizes the value of almost anything. Broken electronic equipment can be smashed or taken apart by the boys. Any wood can be kindling. Old photographs help us decipher our surroundings.
There is much joy in a good find, but also lots of opportunities for sarcasm and irritation. We all struggle under the burden of luxury turned to garbage. We lose our jobs and are left without a means of subsistence in the midst of all this excess. We rarely need what we find, and a lot of it gets redistributed to friends and neighbors, to Goodwill, or back to the trash.
Yet I dream of never needing to buy another thing, but just existing under the guidance of this strange trash-karma that brings us whatever we need.
A Sunday-night prayer:
May the Deity of Garbage and Abundance hold John Our Neighbor in his mercy
Along with the family who moved out so quickly
That they left those fabulous 1960s binoculars behind on Bourne Street
More stories in this series:
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Editor’s note: This month, Grist contributor Ken Ward and his partner Andrée Zaleska begin chronicling their conversion of a rundown, 100-year-old store into a green home that serves as both family living quarters and a public space for climate activism, …
In May of 2008, the property at 133 Bourne St., Boston, Massachusetts was purchased from HBHC Bank by myself and Ken Ward. Ninety-nine years old at the time, it had long served the neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain and Roslindale as …
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