We all know the old adage, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” For some, it might refer to the sensational stories of a Monet found in an attic-to-dump clean out or the $5 yard sale painting that brings $50,000 at auction. Most of us will never have a hit that big, but you can score well in a different arena--a whole world of discarded doors, windows, appliances, furniture and accessories that might be collecting mold in an alley near you. With a little know-how, you too can navigate the shadowy world of strange people who skulk in alleys and dumpsters and enthusiastically sully their hands and cars, just because they see possibilities in everything.
My kitchen ceiling rack is a wonderful confection of curlicue iron. It holds dozens of pots and pans. Hung with chains and turnbuckles and adorned with plant hooks, it makes a real statement. I see similar items in magazines. You can even have ‘em custom made. Mine, however, has a more humble pedigree. It’s an old window grate I found in someone’s trash. There are examples all over my house.
If you’re not embarrassed by the idea, trash can be a wonderful source for things you need. But, before you set out on your back alley adventures, there are some things you need to know.
First, what are good trash bets? Look for things that might come in handy for a repair; small appliances like vacuums and Cusinarts might have the right parts when yours breaks down Picket fence sections that aren’t rotten can make great gates to keep the dogs out of the kitchen. Old wooden ladders make interesting towel bars. A discarded drawer may be the perfect size for your Empire table. An old bike may have just the retro-looking fender you need.
The perfectly good handle on a rusted out garden hoe can save you a trip to the hardware store. Old cupboard doors are perfect for making signs or paintings. Drawer pulls and hinges are an easy find (just make sure you always have a Phillips head and flat head screwdriver in the car). Even though your carpenter will probably beg for a brand-new, pre-hung, Home Depot door, stick to your guns. An old true divided light French door from the trash may cost you as much to modify as you’d spend on a new one, but the end result can be much more satisfying.
Second, believe it or not, the rules of etiquette do apply when collecting other people’s trash.
DO NOT TAKE ANYTHING FROM A PILE MARKED FOR CHARITY. Even though I’ve seen it happen, those items are destined to raise funds for a cause and the owner is getting a tax deduction. Ethically, it’s stealing. There is, however, no reason you can’t knock on the door and offer to hand over some cash for something you really want. Just suggest that the trash owner pass the money on to the charitable organization. You’ve done a good deed.
DO NOT GO INTO SOMEONE’S YARD. Respect people’s property. If you see something at curbside that seems destined for the dump, you can ask. The rules for bulk trash day don’t seem to require express permission (it’s pretty obvious what’s getting thrown out), but do not make a mess! If you take something out of a box, spill some styrofoam peanuts, or rifle through a pile of books, clean up. Impolite trash pickers make us all look bad.
ASK PERMISSION IF YOU’RE NOT SURE. I’ve asked contractors, homeowners and even clergymen if I could take something from a pile or dumpster (I’ve still got the great church windows, but haven’t found the right place just yet). I don’t think I’ve ever been refused and often they’ll even help load it into your car. Once, after spotting a great cupboard in the yard of an empty house for sale, I called the real estate agent listed on the sign. She checked with the owner, called me back 20 minutes later and told me to help myself. Everyone won. Less trash to the dump, fewer hauling dollars spent, better curb appeal for the house, and I already had the perfect place for it.
BE SELECTIVE. It probably sounds ridiculous, but unless you’re discriminating, you’ll end up where I was last spring–a huge pile of other people’s trash that I had to pay $300 to have hauled to the dump. Broken chairs are almost impossible to fix, so unless there are salvageable pieces (like a great piece of carving you can hang on your wall), leave them in the pile. Soggy bulletin boards will crumble and there’s probably good reason for the rotten old wood to be there (think termites). This doesn’t mean you have to ignore things with possibilities–it just means that you should be as thoughtful as if you were writing a check.
BE CAREFUL ABOUT YOUR REPUTATION. I have a wonderful neighbor who holds an annual yard sale of what he calls “scavenged items.” He loves to make a few dollars on a pair of andirons or an old bowl that he’s found in the alley. And he deserves it. After all, he found it, cleaned it, hauled it and spent money on the ad. But just like me, he’s getting a reputation and he might end up being the repository for others’ unwanted and useless stuff. If someone offers you their trash, make sure you don’t just haul it away and end up adding it to your own trash pile. A great rule of thumb: politely turn down the 20-volume set of 1970s Encyclopedia Britannica. You probably won’t use it; you certainly don’t have the bookshelf space, and most thrift shops don’t want it. This, however, doesn’t apply to someone who says, “you can have this, but you’ve gotta get the rest of the stuff outta here!” Try negotiating, but if that fails and there’s something you really want, quickly and efficiently sort out the real trash and throw it away!
Finally, feel good about what you do. There are lots of noble reasons people pick from the trash. Some find real treasures. Others are curious dabblers. Okay, I admit, some are just plain cheap. But visions of overflowing landfills and garbage barges floating aimlessly with no place to dump their cargo do contribute to this peculiar passion.
Some of us, like my own children, will always find it odd or distasteful to hoard the discarded remnants of someone else’s life. But look at it this way: who doesn’t want to crow when they get a pair of Ferragamos at 70% off? Outlet mall and off-price store shoppers aren’t ashamed. Plus, it puts a whole new spin on bragging about a bargain. If there were a market, I’d have my own bags printed a la Filene’s basement. Mine would read “I just got a bargain–in the trash!”