Treasure or not

`I PICKED up a little something for your birthday at the dump yesterday,'' the woman who helps me clean house announced last week. ``I'll bring it to you when I figure out how to put the head back on it.'' (Put the head back on it?)

I was apprehensive about what I'd do with a decapitated present, but I was flattered that Dora would share one of her hard-won acquisitions with me, because working the county landfill is time-consuming and not without a certain element of danger. Her ongoing feud with some of the militant scavengers over property rights sometimes reaches epic proportions.

Dora and her friend browse at the 45-acre dump like some people browse at shopping malls.

``Treasures of the dump, I call them,'' Dora declares.

On one memorable occasion the regulars enjoyed a real serendipity of values.

A young woman in a white Cadillac barreled onto the landfill, threw open the trunk of the car, and tossed out a set of designer luggage, a stack of cashmere sweaters, a pair of alligator shoes, a number of suits, and a VCR.

Before she drove away, she jumped up and down on the suits and kicked the VCR. This led the interested onlookers to surmise that a lover's quarrel of some magnitude had taken place.

These unexpected bargains were snatched up immediately, and Dora was fortunate enough to grab a blazer with the tags still on it.

``I was going to bring it to the mister if my son couldn't use it, but it fit him just fine,'' she stated. Too bad. The mister could certainly have used a fancy blazer.

Not all of the finds were that valuable, but my present from Dora was one of the real treasures. When she finally got the head back on it she brought it to me, and I was delighted to see that it was a beautiful piece of garden statuary - a graceful little boy holding a dolphin in his arms.

``Quality merchandise,'' Dora informed me proudly. ``Came from a garbage truck that picks up in the country club estates.''

The landfill, like any modern well-stocked shopping center, serves many needs. Carpeting is in great demand and nearly always available - though not always coordinated in patterns and colors. Baby beds are popular items, and reclining chairs are such hot merchandise that they are taken out as fast as they are brought in. In the sporting goods section boats, motors, and trailers are stocked in varying conditions of disrepair.

When we cleaned out our garage and storeroom I had the opportunity to see for myself the wonders of the dump.

``You're going to have to look in a hurry,'' my husband warned when I said I wanted to go with him to unload the trash. ``I need to get back and start straightening the garage.''

I assured him I was a quick study.

When we got there the gate attendant - the floor walker so to speak - showed us where to go, and as we drove through the area I noticed that the early morning shoppers were already at work sifting through all of the merchandise.

Near the entrance there was a semblance of a department store mannequin. A dressmaker's form of ample proportions - which some wag had dressed in a red plastic shower curtain and floppy brimmed straw hat - posed elegantly on a heap of plastic sacks.

The dump was teeming with activity. In the distance a bulldozer was covering up garbage. Children darted about collecting tin cans. Some women next to us were methodically going through a stack of books and magazines and across from them two men were arguing over a lawn mower.

A large truck drove onto the landfill with a load of tires and the crowd immediately gravitated toward it. It was almost as if a loudspeaker had announced, ``Attention, landfill customers! A shipment of tires is now on sale in our automotive department!'' I finally turned to see how my husband was progressing and was astonished to find that he had put back more into the station wagon than we had brought.

``I can use these things,'' he said defensively. He lifted a large broken barbecue grill and pushed it onto the tailgate. ``They just need a few repairs.''

This from a man who is not, even by the wildest stretch of the imagination, the neighborhood Mr. Fixit, and cannot, in fact, even set his digital watch.

``I'll be ready to leave in a few minutes,'' he said as he walked over to where the women were sorting out books. He stayed there for a while. He joined a group of men who were inspecting a fiberglass canoe, and from there he made his way through a stack of plastic sacks and wandered toward the load of tires.

His actions were not unlike those of a deep-sea diver who is suddenly seized with rapture-of-the-deep, becomes as one with the water and the fish, loses all sense of direction, and drifts into the depths of the ocean.

I just hope he doesn't decide to do his Christmas shopping there. He doesn't seem to have the unerring sense of taste that Dora has. The reclining chair he brought home suddenly reclined with my mother in it, and the barbecue grill collapsed with two dozen hamburgers which were ready to be served to our daughter's Girl Scout troop.

Dora seems to feel that in time he'll learn to distinguish between trash and treasure, but frankly I think she's overly optimistic.

There's talk that the landfill will be closed and relocated. I just hope he won't find out where it is.

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