One man's junk haul is another's shopping mall

I had never visited a town dump until I moved to Maine. When I was growing up in urban New Jersey, trash was picked up curbside twice a week and carted off to parts unknown - out of sight, out of mind. I had no idea where the dump was. For all I knew it existed in a kind of ether where the myriad refuse of a city disappeared into thin air.

One of the first things I learned upon moving to Maine was the value of having ready personal access to a municipal refuse heap, especially for bulk items like engine blocks and tree stumps. I remember once harboring a truly decrepit wheelbarrow on my property, wondering what to do with it. I turned to my sagacious neighbor Earl, born and bred in these parts. His directive: "Take it to the dump."

The dump. To me, as an urbanite, the very idea was vaguely unpleasant. Did sovereign citizens actually go to a dump as free agents with their irredeemable wastes? I ruminated over the concept for a good two weeks before, MacArthur-like, I made my proclamation, to wit: "I will go to the dump."

In short order I loaded the wheelbarrow into my pickup and headed to the outskirts of town, where I hooked up with a forlorn-looking dirt road. I drove at a crawl, maneuvering around potholes and muddy ruts until, before me, there rose a knot of smoke from a massive hill of assorted debris.

I was instantly captured by the postapocalyptic sight of a glowing, smoldering core surrounded by a planetary array of junk: refrigerators, bicycles, radiators, chairs, bicycles, garden tools, shopping carts, tires, bicycles - on ran the list.

A middle-aged man in a ball cap was quietly tending the heap, maintaining a rough symmetry as he pushed certain items toward the fire and pulled others away. "Why so many bikes? I asked him.

He shrugged. "What else can you do with a used bike?"

I knew the answer immediately. "Do you mind?" I asked as I laid hold of a perfectly serviceable Huffy. The man shrugged again.

That was the seed. I had read article upon article in the newspapers and magazines about how we Americans are the greatest wasters on the planet. Now I was face to face with this reality. So much of the dump heap seemed still useful. After putting the bike in my truck bed, I hung around and watched as other residents of the town hauled their refuse to the fiery maw of the sacrificial mountain.

A college student pulled a 10-foot toboggan out of his pickup - and tossed it onto the heap, where it split in two. (My heart leapt.) A man in a Honda hopped out and sent a microwave oven flying into the side of the hill. "Did it (sigh) still work?" I asked him. "Oh, yes," he assured me, "but we got a bigger one."

While I was mourning the loss of both toboggan and microwave, a station wagon drove around to the other side of the dump site. I staggered through the clutter, holding onto washing machines and a basketball backboard for support, until I reached them. I was aghast. The couple from the station wagon was heaving hardwood flooring onto the fire. "Wait!" I called out.

They looked at me, but kept heaving. "Is that flooring still good?" I asked.

The man nodded. "Solid oak," he assured me. "In she goes!"

I watched helplessly as the fire ate up the oak, the flames licking their chops at the haute cuisine.

That was my inaugural visit to the town dump. In the ensuing years it became my first resource for the potpourri of items that cropped up from time to time on my "needs" list. Rakes, windows, hinges, fencing, doors, and, yes, bicycle parts - there in endless abundance. Best of all, they were all free. Whenever I rescued a hubcap I felt as if I were giving humankind a little more elbow room.

And then - tragedy. A few years back - it was a brilliant summer day, with clear sky and twittering robins - I went to the dump and found the steel gate closed and locked. Beyond, I could see that the dump had grown to Everest-like proportions, with freshly brought in items shimmering in the sun. What did all this mean? I rattled the gate. The dump tender came out. And there we stood, on either side of the divide, like old friends separated by a Berlin Wall of dumpdom. "Horace," I said, "what gives?"

He was sympathetic, but the news still hit me hard. "It's over," he said with a wave of his hand. "The town says no more dump picking. You can still bring things in, but ya gotta have a permit."

"A permit?" I echoed.

"Yes," he said. "It costs $25 for the year."

"Twenty-five dollars!" And then, indignantly, "This is an outrage! I'll go to the town council."

Before he could reply, a pickup pulled in, flashed its permit, and Horace unlocked the gate. In the truck bed was a perfectly good bookcase. "Hey!" I yelled out after the truck as Horace closed the gate against me. "Stop! I'll take it! I'll take it!"

They never heard me.

As I took my umbrage home I considered the saying that you can't get something for nothing. But you can, you can, if only for a little while. After that you've got to get a permit.

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