Trash treasures

Having recently had to dispose of a vast amount of stuff (part of an effort to stop being sentimental about objects rather than people and ideas, and restore valence to actual memories and imagination — call it Project Spartan), I chose to leave it on the curb rather than take it to a thrift store. This was out of laziness rather than any particular scruple, but I felt better about it as much of the stuff — books and records and the odd piece of furniture — magically disappeared over the course of a humid afternoon. It surprised me what people were most interested in — travel books from the 1990s, not Oxford paperbacks of Dickens novels; 3m Bookshelf boardgames, not indie rock from the 1980s on vinyl. People had no shame in treating the sidewalk in front of the house as though it were the shoe aisle at Target, throwing things they didn’t want out into the street, turning boxes upside down and leaving piles of debris, and that sort of unruliness, which made me understand why the Sanitation Department is so vigilant in fining homeowners for putting out their trash early (I hope we didn’t get our landlord in trouble.)

But what I found most strange was the moments when I would come back to my place and become momentarily fascinated with my own garbage. An instinct for scavenging would kick in as I’d forget for an instant that I had put it out there and that I was trying to rid myself of things. I would feel almost jealous that I couldn’t root through my own things and be pleased about the stuff I was going to rescue from the landfill, the disposable items whose life I would extend, striking a small guerrilla blow against the consumer economy. My own junk, were it someone else’s, would become treasure to me — booty I was lucky enough to stumble upon. I had to admit to myself that had I come upon the same stuff I had placed on my curb in front of someone else’s place, I would have carted a good deal of it home.

Not buying things is probably a place to start disengaging from consumerism (or more precisely, the mentality that shopping and consuming is the purpose of life — it wouldn’t be possible to cease being a consumer, but one can take pains to assure that it is not one’s primary identity), but it doesn’t do me much good if I still feel a magnetic pull to stuff for its own sake, to be simply fascinated by trash — my own trash! — in the hope that there might be something momentarily diverting in it. Rescuing things is not bad, but indifference to things would be better. It would be nice to get myself to the point where I won’t feel obliged to peer into boxes of trash books and can instead rest assured with the fact that I already have in my apartment many volumes I’ll never actually read as it is.