Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Trash Angels

Tuesday nights are the pick of the week for scavengers in my hood. Trash collection night. Townhoused streets are for a few rich hours lined with appliances, furniture, computers, TVs.. most of them not only usable but saleable for those who survive on the proceeds of their sidewalk stores. Sometimes you get libraries… because the new-age interior designers advise their clients to minimalize clutter. Clutter makes you look poor. Dated. Over is the day of glass menageries and china cabinets. These things are now hidden. Television screens are set into walls, lighting recessed, storage built-in to maximize the greatest symbol of status on Manhattan— space.

Ask any agent: really nothing presents as well as an empty loft, fitted only with finely sanded floors, stainless steel built-ins and polished glass. For the right to occupy a few thousand square feet of what is technically air-space, the rich and famous are bidding without reserve. A place to display their massive curious paintings, a place in which to entertain, to parade their fashion-forward suits for friends, to serve expensive wine, perhaps allow their children and expensive pets to run like young colts. A place in which to dream… or not.

In my place, the blank screen is the ceiling. Even there, my clever son has managed to leave his prints in the form of ballmarks. This took work. Anyway, I don’t spend a lot of time on my back these days. And I’ve noticed my neighbors with the huge open spaces feel just as claustrophobic on weekends as I do.

My garbage consists of cereal boxes and cans. A few empty milk containers. I don’t get many packages these days and I haven’t had a delivery in years—not in the budget. I’ve reduced my life to a level of little waste because there’s not much excess consumption. We reuse metrocards. We keep books. I rarely even change guitar strings lately…seems useless and I like the sound of vintage brass…it’s round and predictable. I no longer trust brand new things. I’m careful about my garbage.

What fascinates me is the endless supply of trash.. not just from the poor, which is of course plentiful….look on any ghetto street on a Tuesday night--- Kentucky Fried tubs and takeout containers alone make it look like the sidewalk of a mall. This is the treasure of rats. Not that they discriminate. But in my hood, the rats don’t waste time with private trash… they know the best restaurants. They ignore the nutrition-poor magical volume from these rich people whose enormous spaces betray little sign of life. I think this is what really keeps the homeless in New York City. Like a free perpetual lotto ticket. Sidewalk change and dropped bills have become scarce with the near-universal use of debit-cards. Hence the coveted treasure-chests for these modern street pirates who rip into black bags with the eagerness of children at Christmas wrapping, especially on these warm nights when time can bring unpleasant reactions. And the generosity of these rich people… Apple G-4s, 19-inch Trinitrons—in near-perfect order…because there is always a thinner and flatter version—even for the bedroom, which used to have slightly lower standards. Now even these are magazine-ready. Clutterless.

Do they worry about their identities? Of course their brokers and advisors shred and protect their financial information with the burden of liability. Their doormen and house-servants, as well. But there is a certain insouciance about waste which betrays the true ‘security’ of the rich. Who really gives a shit? Their bathrooms safely flush away anything truly embarrassing, their mistresses and assistants are hopefully paid to be silent about lumps and bumps. Things, however... are a nuisance...and dispensable. Plenty of money to buy new and better… Besides the massive space they occupy, their possessions and appliances are assuming more and more the preferred silhouette of the rich— powerful and thin.

So what fuels this… their insatiable secret consumption? Shopping bulimia? Multi-subscriptions of magazines which could burn and heat a large tenement for a week— and of course the auction catalogues which could fill a small library within months. And gifts, endless gifts—from benefits—thank-you presents, party favors, birthdays…. So many unopened because, really—it would be humiliating to be caught actually returning things. Or using them. It is of course politically correct to give clothing to Housing Works and other thrift shops. And the tax deduction is useful. But there again, one might be judged by one’s donations… so these must be only top quality. Things you actually bought--at retail. It would be-- well, petty-- to receive a deduction from something which was already a deduction...wouldn't it? Some of these people have husbands in public work; their every move is scrutinized. Private discretion is imperative. This of course includes what we discard.

So for us, so many ‘finds’ in the trash. I often eye these busy burrowing guys with a bit of envy. A Henry James novel calls out to me. A set of bentwood chairs —near-perfect. A vacuum. Clean. Expensive. Some things I cannot do, like annoy the local homeless by competing. They know me by my clothing, they know not to ask —that occasionally I give, and they see me carrying my bags of cheap generic groceries after midnight. They let me pass. They silently despise me.

Still, I like to walk, these steamy nights, among the trash-lined posh streets and scan the garbage, interpolate about the inhabitants of the summer-vacant houses that are still managing to produce, produce…like accrued interest. I think of the garbage as a sort of halo of their lives… a shining…something that remains, like a light from some kind of event that might have mattered. A token of unintended charity, maybe the only real charity in their lives, which resonates. So do not raise an eyebrow if a pungent fellow on a park bench is sporting a Rolex. In these days when some of us are struggling to afford eggs, there are slightly-used ipods for those who can disguise their pride on Tuesday nights. As for me, I’ll listen to my old cds, convince myself I pick up dimes and scorned pennies for luck, and fear the day dollar bills are likewise no longer worth retrieving.

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