Long before Marie Kondo challenged us to test our possessions to see if they “spark joy” before offloading them, I was finding joy in suburban back alleys on trash collection days.
Once I was old enough to traipse out the back gate, pulling my red Radio Flyer wagon behind me, I discovered a world of treasure. Poking through the cardboard boxes and trash cans set out by our neighbors for the weekly trash collection was to acquire the objects and resources of adulthood. Here were real electronic appliances, interesting and exotically labeled crates and boxes; periodicals, books, hats, old glasses, tennis racquets, engine parts — even the occasional Holy Grail: an old power tool.
Junk fired the imagination. It gave authenticity to fantasy. Imaginary deeds were amplified with the use of real objects. Marianne Moore would understand. Poetry, she wrote, might just give us “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” A large wooden crate or cardboard box was the stuff of which supersonic jet cockpits were made; a defunct power drill had a new avatar as ray gun or alien mutant ion vaporizer. Yes, my brother and I loved weaponry, but more than senseless carnage, it was “about” ingenuity, science, imitating adventurous situations from television cartoons, and venturing beyond the known universe. We came in peace. It’s not like we were immature kids. After all, I was in second grade.
National Geographic, Spiderman comics, Boy’s Life and an occasional, highly prized Mad magazine (stuff mom refused to buy) were considered good pickings and provided several days of collage gluing work or bedroom redecoration. Orange crates and garden pots were props of so many of our favorite cartoons — good for recreating the mail order supplies of the Acme Corp., so crucial to Coyote v. Roadrunner re-enactments. Even tame objects — lamps, extension cords, curtains, bath mats — added homey touches to our swing set tents on expeditions to Zambesi or Mars or “voyage to the bottom of the sea.” One could also become lost in space with a few semi-serviceable fireplace screens, dryer vent hoses and galvanized buckets. We loved building Will Robinson’s robot. “Danger, Danger!”
Our mother lode of trash picking was a plastic, aqua green Motorola radio, with cord intact, perched atop a trashcan. It was as big as a breadbox; with gold knobs and chrome grill work reminiscent of dad’s Ford Falcon station wagon. We loaded it on the wagon, hurried home and installed it in the cockpit of our two-seater X-15 (a dishwasher box). We strapped on space helmets (cracked football helmets) and broke the sound barrier, breached the stratosphere and flew recon sorties over enemy territory. Adding a steering wheel and rear view mirrors and we had a Stingray. This was the right stuff.
Then we got an extension cord and plugged it in. It actually worked! Shocking … and problematic. The radio came in the house. It was now too good to be left in the backyard with the rest of the alley trove. It was no longer trash. It had a place of honor on the table beside my bed and initiated me into the spectrum of radio, after the addition of a wire hanger for antenna. To the left were the top 40 stations that our high school babysitter listened to while he did the twist. This was fun. To the right was the music my parents liked to listen to. Tolerable. In the middle was the talky stuff. Something to pass over, though I can recall a particular bit of talk about some Navy ships sailing toward an island called Cuba. Our spectacular find, for all its authenticity and usefulness, had become limited: now it could only be a radio. We resolved to avoid such waste in the future.
It remains hard for me to pass by a good pile of other people’s joy. I must avoid yard sales. But once, traveling home with an art teacher, we spotted a cache of great stuff. Someone had thrown away some perfectly good cardboard tubes, Styrofoam packing forms, books and flowerpots. What were they thinking? While my son tried to look anonymous in the back seat, we loaded the tubes, rummaged through the books and flowerpots. We envisioned a great marble chute or telescope or power generator for an intergalactic transporter in art class.
Careful what you throw away. Trash is a failure of one’s own imagination, literally and figuratively. Check your inventory. Be alert to what you have and don’t use. Lack of imagination is the only truly wasted resource. It creates clutter. One should make a habit of exceeding the boundaries of the known universe — inner and outer.
Todd R. Nelson is a former educator. He lives in Penobscot.