Long before the the term "recycling" became part of every suburbanite's vocabulary, there was gold in them thar alleys. Once I was old enough to traipse out the gate by our garage, pulling a red Radio Flyer wagon behind me, I discovered a world of treasure.
To poke through the neighbors' cardboard boxes and trash cans set out for the weekly collection was to acquire the objects and resources of adults. The results lent an effectiveness to play beyond the reach of my toys. Here were real electronic appliances, interesting and exotically labeled crates and boxes, periodicals, books, a hat, old glasses, a tennis racquet, engine parts, and even the occasional power tool.
Scrounging junked everyday objects fired my imagination. It gave authenticity to fantasy. Imaginary deeds were amplified when accomplished with the use of real objects. Poet Marianne Moore would understand: Poetry, she wrote, should 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 was a ray gun or an 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, and venturing beyond the known universe. We came in peace. (It's not as if we were immature kids: After all, I was in second grade.)
National Geographic, Spiderman comics, Boys' Life, and an occasional, highly prized, Mad magazine (stuff Mom wouldn't buy) were good pickings and provided several days of collage-gluing work or bedroom redecoration. Orange crates and garden pots were even more pleasing finds. They were the props of so many of our favorite cartoons - good for re-creating the mail-order supplies of the Acme Corp., so crucial to Wile E. Coyote vs. Roadrunner reenactments.
Even the rather tame objects - lamps, extension cords, curtains, bath mats - added homey touches to the swing-set tents on our expeditions to Zambesi or Mars or the bottom of the sea. One could also become lost in space with a few fireplace screens, dryer-vent hoses, and galvanized buckets. We loved building Will Robinson's robot. ("Danger! Danger!")
The all-time mother lode of trash picking was a plastic, aqua-green Motorola radio, with cord intact. It was as big as a bread box, with gold knobs and chrome grill work, just like Dad's Ford Falcon station wagon.
We loaded it on the wagon and hurried home to install it in the cockpit of our two-seater X-15 (a dishwasher box). We strapped on space helmets (cracked football helmets) and proceeded to break the sound barrier, breach the extremes of Earth's atmosphere, and fly recon sorties over enemy airbases. We added a steering wheel and rearview mirrors and had us a Stingray. Then we got an extension cord and plugged it in.
It still worked! This was shocking ... and problematic. The radio came in the house. It wasn't trash anymore.
I distinctly recall its place of honor on the table beside my bed and my initiation to the spectrum of radio stations. To the left was the Top-40 station that our 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. I remember talk about some Navy ships sailing toward an island called Cuba.
Our spectacular find, for all of its authenticity and usefulness, had become limited: Now it could only be a radio. We resolved to avoid such waste in the future.
IT'S still hard for me to pass up a good pile of trash beckoning from the curb. Just yesterday evening, traveling home with an art teacher and my son, we spotted a cache of great stuff. Someone had thrown away some perfectly good cardboard tubes, styrofoam packing forms, books, and flower pots. What were they thinking?! While my son tried to look anonymous in the back seat, we loaded the tubes, rummaged through the books and flower pots. We declined the styrofoam, but those tubes will make a great marble chute or telescope or power generator for an intergalactic transporter.
Careful what you throw away. Too often, trash is the outcome of a failure of one's imagination. One could say that recycling is the triumph of imagination. Or, in other words, be alert to what you have but don't make use of. Make a habit of breaching the boundaries of the known universe.