Good Stuff

The little boy (hair, cut in a shiny bowl haircut, so dark it’s almost black. Eyes, glinty and intense: chocolate M&M’s. A long-sleeved striped shirt. Jeans, cuffs folded up once. Scuffed but fancy sneakers) and his grandpa (short and slim, shiny pate surrounded by gray fringe. Those same M&M eyes. A tan cloth zipper jacket with a knit waistband and cuffs. The hand that holds his grandson’s is gnarled from years of demanding factory work, with evidence of breaks and bruises and harsh encounters with hard metal) walk to the old Buick hand in hand. It is 1981, and they are going to the dump.

The dump! To the little guy, Matthew, Grandpa’s buddy, the dump is a magical place. People come to that place all week long, and at the edges—not in the middle, where dumped items have been bulldozed into great broken piles—they leave wonderful things. And every time, when Grandpa and Matthew go, there is something different to examine and explore.

There might be a table that needs just a little elbow grease; then it would be something a person could put in his bedroom and keep Legos on, and no one would ever know it wasn’t new.

Someone might have toted a sturdy wooden chair from their truck, settling it carefully on the dirt at the edge of the dump. It’s a good chair, but it’s missing one leg and a piece that holds the armrest. If you have a grandpa, though, with lathes and sanders and all kinds of magical tools that can shape a block of wood into something that looks JUST LIKE the other legs on this chair, and the spindle supports that hold up that armrest, this is not a problem.

That chair is something you bring home.

There might be a broken appliance, a toaster or blender, that just needs a Grandpa-style tweak. Lawn mowers, garden rakes, lady’s wobbly shoes, blankets, stinky old mattresses. Clothes.

Not everything, of course, is a treasure; you have to LOOK, which is part of the point, part of what makes the magic.

On good days Matthew and his grandpa find a piece of furniture, replacement parts for Grandpa’s stockpile, perfectly good tomato cages, a pretty little clock in a wooden casement.

On GREAT days, though, they find Tonka trucks.

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A 1981 Tonka truck (REAL metal); image from Ebay

Matthew has a dirt pile at Grandpa’s house. He drives his Tonkas there, sturdy metal vehicles that he and Grandpa rescued from the dump.

There is a workhorse dump truck, their first find. They brought it home and washed it with the garden hose. When it was dry, Grandpa brought out sandpaper, and together they rubbed at the rusty spots, smoothing them almost all the way down.

Then they painted that truck with shiny yellow Tonka paint.

Finally, Grandpa rummaged in his parts bin until he crowed triumphantly. He pulled out a fat little black tire—exactly the same size as the missing wheel on the dump truck.

Together, when the paint was dried hard, Matthew and Grandpa attached that wheel. The truck, pristine, beautiful, was ready to haul some dirt, and Matthew grabbed it and stomped up the broad stone steps from the old basement, out to the dirt pile next to the driveway. The truck careened and raced. Matthew tamped down roads and packed truck ramps, and he built up hills and mountains.

His Tonka truck fleet fleet was begun.

They add a red metal firetruck; Grandpa carefully winds string onto tiny winches after the sanding and painting is done. Parts move and the red siren-light sparkles.

There is a crane, and that was a complex job to restore. Things had to be unbent before they could wind and turn. Somebody, maybe, had driven right over the bucket; Grandpa patiently pulled and pried until it was opened back up, just like it should have been. Some of the crane’s parts were white, and others they painted shiny silver, and when that was all done, Grandpa could wind the string in this one too.

Another dump truck surfaced, and that was a good thing, because the dirt pile had enough hauling for two dump trucks and MORE.

“What do you think you’d have paid for those new?” Grandpa, proud and frugal, asks Matthew’s dad.

Matthew’s friend David, squinches up his chubby face when Matthew talks excitedly about going to the dump.

“The DUMP,” says David, “is full of junk.”

Matthew begs to differ.

“The DUMP,” he retorts, “has GOOD STUFF.”

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We are watching the new season of Escape to the Chateau, when the Strawbridges’—Dick and Angel’s—event season is sunk by the pandemic. And now they have time to concentrate on projects around their 45-room chateau, and the acres and acres that surround it, on the outbuildings, and on the grounds.

Dick and Angel are not deterred by dust, or bugs, mice or bats, not even by flies thick on a turret floor, requiring, even as they twitch with life, a thick heavy sweeping with a push broom. The detritus of another family’s long history in the chateau fills many loft-like spaces. And tonight they rummage in the loft of a building that will become Dick’s expanded workroom.

Angel finds an old book with beautiful illustrations of birds, the colors still vivid and charming. She blows off dust. Delighted, she draws Dick in to look at it; to the camera she says, “This is so me!”

And it IS her…her love for birds (and taxidermy) reflected in the chateau’s quirky decorating, her love for repurposing and for honoring the history of her home evident everywhere the camera turns.

Angel is the decorator; Dick is the engineer. She is the spark, and he is the implementer. She envisions; he translates.

We watch Dick turn old doors into workbenches and shelves in his workshop domain. Meanwhile, Angel and the kids build him a workshop-warming gift—a tape dispenser crafted from Legos. Angel rummages in her workroom supplies and comes up with the blade of a saw; they glue that to the edge of the Lego dispenser, and now the tape cuts, quick and easy.

Angel finds a metal band that once held a barrel together; Dick shows her the copper hardware from an old light fixture. Between the two of them, they craft a chandelier for their family sitting room; Dick sands the barrel-band until it is clean and smooth; Angel uses one of Dick’s tools to create wooden beads…which she, finally bested by the sheer amount of work needed, supplements with store-bought. Together they create a worthy, weighty, wooden-beaded chandelier.

It is hung after Angel renews the ceiling with luster paint and brings the plaster pendant that anchors the light source back to life, and after Dick rewires the whole affair.

Angel and Dick Strawbridge live a life of renewing old things.

I watched their show, and I was reminded of Matthew and Grandpa and the good stuff they renewed.

The Strawbridges, from an article in House Beautiful about a new series they started about fixing and repurposing

(https://thechateau.tv/)

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It seemed to me the dump was almost a character in United States literature: a place where those people who, not having a lot, could find what they needed, until they worked hard to make life better.

I remember the narrator in a James Dickey poem crawling through the rump-sprung seats of old cars, dust motes dancing in harsh sunlight, as he looked for a place to be together with his love: with his love in the dump!

And was there a dump in SE Hinton’s The Outsider? Or in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls?

Maybe not. I can’t quite remember, so I go searching for dumps, for their history, their romance, their literature, on the internet.

I find only one hit that meshes with what I was searching for: the history of the dump in north Omaha, and the generations of people it supported, the pickers who gleaned its treasures (https://northomahahistory.com/2019/12/15/a-history-of-dumps-in-north-omaha/).

The rest of the hits are about landfills and data dumps and the “Dump Song” (ta da dump, ta da dump, ta da dump dump dump) on SpongeBob Squarepants.

The dump as a curious place of charity and delight and inspiration is not reflected here.

But maybe the idea of the dump has morphed into our culture, leeched into our lives, in other ways.

*******************************************

I have a friend who once lived in a college town. The college was a costly place, attended by students whose families, many of them, had considerable wealth. On the last day of the spring semester, before the students rioted off to wherever their summers led them, they would clear out their rooms and apartments and dump things by the garbage cans and dust bins.

So many perfectly good things, just too hard to transport, were left by the road. When the last of the wheels bearing those students away had crunched the dust of that small town, the folks who lived there would go ‘shopping.’ They salvaged furniture, appliances, and technology students had left behind.

I was at my friend’s house when her sons came home bearing a big screen TV. Flat screens had not yet emerged; this TV screen was mounted in front of a foot and a half or so of hard-black-plastic-covered mysterious innards that made it work.

It was an expensive throwaway. The boys plugged it in, and pictures, sharp and true, flared onto the screen with no hesitation.

Cutting edge entertainment technology of the day: theirs for the taking. An impersonal kind of donation—kind of like the dump.

Remember these monsters? This is the kind of large-screen TV left behind by college students heading home, back in the day…image from Thingsforsale.com

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Another friend lives in a town that holds “Big Trash Days” three or four times a year. Big Trash Days have almost a festival atmosphere: people walk the shady streets, browsing. Here’s a house with a full set of wicker outdoor furniture at the curb; the settee’s leg needs some attention, but the chairs will be fine with just a good scrub.

Around the corner, three boxes of brand-new laminate tiles nestle next to the detritus left from a remodel.

A homeowner sets out a brand new instapot in its packaging. She got two for Christmas; setting the extra out on Big Trash Day is easier than donating it.

After shopping the curbs, the walkers go home and get their vehicles; they drive back to the treasures they have pinpointed, and they take home the ones that are, gladly, still there when their SUV pulls up.

Good stuff: there’s good stuff on those curbs. Sometimes it’s new and sometimes it’s vintage; it is good stuff, all the same.

*******************************************************

We have a cabinet in the carport that our-across-the-street neighbor left out front when he moved. We dragged it across the street, cleaned it up and painted it. It fits perfectly in its little niche, and it holds garden tools, rope, and other outdoor things that need just a little protection. It’s good stuff.

I have a sweet little side table, base of black metal with nicely crafted metal leaves, that was discovered curbside, too. A good scrubbing, some sanding, patient applications of Rustoleum black lacquer… That’s good stuff, too.

Back in the day, “Hey, look at THAT,” I might say, driving by One Person’s Trash, and slowing down.

Noooooooo! MOM!” Jim would plead, slouching low in his seat, covering his face with one hand. “Isn’t this STEALING?”

“It’s recycling,” I’d say. “We’re saving the Earth, one treasure at a time.”

And sometimes, the ‘treasure’ would find its way into my trunk, and sometimes it would stay, for a while at least, at the curbside.

But I had to say, there was stuff there for the taking—good stuff, too.

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One person’s trash, right? In our basement, there was a set of old cabinets, moved down from the kitchen, no doubt, when renovations that preceded us happened. The doors stuck, the old wood molded, and Mark wanted the whole thing gone. He pried off the cabinet top, prized out the heavy old sink, and chopped everything else up.

We made trips upstairs, carrying chopped up cupboard pieces and a countertop reduced to two-foot chunks.

Then Mark started calling around about the sink. To his surprise, no one wanted it—not scrap metal folks, or Re-Stores, or charities–none of the usual places that can make good use of household artifacts.

We already have one herb garden thriving in an old kitchen sink; we didn’t think we could be too creative with another.

We had a few other things that needed to go, too—a tired lounge chair, a vacuum cleaner that wasn’t pretty, though it still worked.

“Well,” said Mark,” we’ll drag them to the curb and hope the sanitation guys will take them.”

Just before supper one Monday night, he wrestled the sink, then the bulky chair, down the driveway to the curb. I followed, rolling the old vacuum.

Then we went inside and washed up; we dished up dinner and sat down at the table. Mark was facing the bay window.

He hadn’t put a forkful of food to his lips when, “No way,” he said. And he was up and out the front door. He ran to the curb, which was empty.

In the time it took us to get back in the house, wash up, and serve our food, someone had come and taken the sink, the vacuum, and the chair.

To someone, that was a Big Trash Day score.

To someone, the things we couldn’t wait to get rid of were good stuff.

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COVID has robbed me of a little of the excitement of uncovering perfectly good old things that can fill a perfectly new role. We have loved, in the past, watching Salvage Dawgs, those masters of gleaning and repurposing (https://blackdogsalvage.com/). They’ve inspired us to see ‘junk’ with a contemplative new eye.

There was one day, deep into quarantine, when we saw the cutest cabinet relegated to the curb. I knew a place where that little pleaser would have worked perfectly…but we drove on by.

“We can’t,” I said to Mark, “bring unknown people’s stuff into our house.”

We did not know, then, that surface contact wasn’t a spreader. We stopped eying treasures left at the curb. We stopped mooching through fascinating secondhand shops. We did not visit Columbus Salvage for repurposing inspiration.

It was not, we believed, a good time to trifle with used or vintage goods.

And so we learned the art of internet shopping, the ease of Amazon, the wonders of Wayfair.

I forgot, for a long time, the pleasure of repurposing.

And then the Strawbridges reminded me of Matt and Grandpa and the Tonkas from the dump. And then, the gates creaking open, memories of the pleasure of bringing something back to its purpose, of re-making an aged thing and giving it new life, came flooding back in.

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The bowl-haired boy is forty-something now, a man with his own basement workshop. His eyes still snap and glow, and he still practices the lessons his grandpa taught him.

Matthew can take an aging dresser and turn it into a showpiece; he can re-imagine a purpose for a curious chunk of metal. He can build what he needs from a store of repurposed wood. He can make a tired old canned-ham trailer into an exciting holiday adventure vehicle.

He can see the potential in a diamond in the rough.

“It’s good stuff,” he’ll tell you.

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And I should think more about that, about saving worthy things, about reviving good stuff.

4 thoughts on “Good Stuff

  1. Patty Roker

    When I was a kid and lived on a farm in Pompey, New York, we had our own dump several fields down on the property. That was a boring dump compared to the one we went to when we spent weeks in the Adirondacks. THAT dump used to draw crowds on the weekend evenings in the summer. Everyone would park around the edge of the dump, which was in a pit, and watch the bears, big and small, come to find their good stuff.

    1. Bears at the dump! In high school, our youth group would camp at Allegheny State Park, and one of the highlights was parking at the dump to watch for bears. I had forgotten about that; thanks for the memory-jog, Patty!!!

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