The lasting pleasure of curbside treasure

At the moment, it's spring-cleaning in my small Maine town.The streets are lined with all manner of refuse from the recesses of basements, garages, and attics - a temporary eyesore for some, but for me a prod to a fond remembrance.

As a child in urban New Jersey, it was the most satisfying euphemism I knew."spring-cleaning" - pleasant poetry for "garbage week," when one could place the big mamas of household trash by the curb for pickup by the city's public works department.

Stoves, sofas, refrigerators, sinks, carpets. You name it, and you could find it idling curbside, waiting to be evacuated by men in dump trucks. They would haul it off to some massive Jersey pit, to be unceremoniously plowed under in anticipation of the ensuing year's cleanup.

Of course, the game for me and my friends was to get to the trash before the city could.We would set out as a pack, roving, identifying, and examining anything that might prove of value in our play.

Some of the highlights included old baseball bats (slightly splintered), a basketball hoop sans net (perfect for nailing to a tree), a serviceable Ping-Pong paddle, and a collection of world stamps sitting snug in their album.How could anyone call this stuff "garbage"?

One year (I must have been 10 or so), Garbage week was unusually productive; or perhaps we were unusually creative.But we decided to set up an entire outdoor household in my backyard.And so the gleaning began.

About eight of us - all boys - caught sight of a Formica-topped kitchen table, missing only one leg.Arranging ourselves like worker ants around the find, we shuffled it to my house and down my narrow driveway, eventually installing it as the centerpiece of my small backyard.

The missing leg?No problem.That's where the trashed baseball bat from the year before came in handy.

We returned to the street, and in no time came up with four unmatched chairs in various states of collapse.Then came an old cupboard, a hassock with the stuffing hanging out of it, a bathroom sink that we propped upon a garbage can, a sofa, and a small, doorless enamel stove.

The real prize was an old wringer washer - on wheels!We pushed the monstrosity down the street, turned left at my driveway, and set it up in our "kitchen."

It was the only thing with working parts. We took our socks off, soaked them with the garden hose, and took turns winding them through the rollers.

When my parents came home late that afternoon, they found the lot of us lounging around the "house."The whole point of garbage week, of course, was to keep the garbage by the curb, not distribute it around the yard - and certainly not to collect other people's garbage and bring it home.

But much to my surprise, my parents seemed fairly unconcerned by the collection of junk we had assembled.After no more than a passing head shake, they went inside, content, perhaps, to know that a kid who collects junk has little time to get into trouble.

All these years later, my pulse still quickens during garbage week.The sight of household purgings by a curb is nothing less than a call to exploration, and I have no qualms about stopping my car and leaping out for a thorough look-see.The key, I've learned, is to cruise the more affluent neighborhoods during garbage week. Often, real treasure will appear in front of colonnaded homes with expansive lawns.

The other day, I detoured into one of these recently constructed, make-believe neighborhoods where the streets are named after nonexistent trees.Within 15 minutes, I had acquired a blue enamel plant table, a garden spreader, and a replacement for my wobbly stepladder.There was no room for a lawnmower that couldn't have been more than a couple of years old.

As I was unloading these items at my house, my teenage son came out and watched me with restrained disgust.

"More junk, Dad?" he inquired with the disapproval my parents might have shown but never did.

"Yeah," I sighed. "Look at this stuff. Isn't it great?"

He shook his head."I'm glad I wasn't with you.I would have been embarrassed."

Then he wandered off.

Too bad.With his extra set of hands, I'll bet we could have muscled that lawnmower into the car.

There's always next year.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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