Cleaning house, and cleaning up

As goods accumulated by the road each day, people began visiting these piles to TAKE a look.

My alarm clock didn't wake me the other morning.

Before it had a chance, I was roused by the steady clang-clang of aluminum tubing landing on a metal surface. I knew it was aluminum tubing because there was a cache of it outside my house that morning, stuffed into a trash barrel like so many unruly stalks of celery.

My husband and our neighbor had dragged these and other objects, most from the dark recesses of our basement, to the curbside the night before.

After the sound woke me, I went to the window and saw two men outside. One was methodically examining the goods stockpiled at the curb. The other was responsible for the clanging sound as he tossed those mostly bent aluminum tubes into the bed of a well-used pickup truck.

When they drove away, our pile of discards was a little bit smaller. It had been some time since I'd felt ownership of that stuff, which had loitered in the limbo of our basement. But seeing those guys find something they could use was a real jump-start to my day.

Throughout the week, collections like ours appeared outside homes all over town, in anticipation of the big seasonal trash pickup. It's that time when folks make a concerted effort to dig out those things they have no use for, no matter how long they've been hanging around, and get them out in time for the trash truck to haul them away. You only get two chances like this a year.

As goods accumulated by the road each day, people began visiting these piles to have a look-see. I noticed some of them when I took a walk, and nobody seemed self-conscious about it. They were friendly, curious, even downright helpful.

One woman was just tickled with her find, and another was kind enough to ask whether I had any use for a perfectly good sandbox toy. Unfortunately, the invitation came about a decade too late.

Nobody organized this flurry of activity. Instead, the exchange seemed to spring up by itself, as if folks had just been waiting for some critical mass to be reached. Which made me wonder: Why don't we do this with our stuff more often?

My husband and I bang our heads against the wall trying to figure out how to steer our kids through a rising sea of materialism, but there have been islands of options around us all along.

As the piles continued to grow, I discovered one day that our son was going to look like a trumpet-playing sausage at the school concert if he wore the only white shirt he had. And wouldn't you know, we'd just bought that shirt two months ago. My wallet yawned empty when I looked inside.

Desperate, I phoned a 14-year-old friend of the family for help.

"Sure," he said, stretching the telephone cord as he searched his closet.

"I've got three - one of them should fit him. And say," he asked, "could I catch a ride downtown with you? My friend says there's some really good stuff out now, and we'd like to check it out."

As we crawled through the local rush hour, he apprised me of his recent curbside find: "A 20-watt-per-channel receiver with a really nice turntable," he enthused, incredulous. "And all it needs is the needle cartridge replaced!"

I nodded in appreciation of his good fortune.

The neighborhood where I dropped him off had a pile at every house. He looked kind of delirious as he raced away, but not before I thanked him for saving me - and my wallet - a trip to the store.

My son is at the stage where you can't get him to try on anything when we go clothes shopping anyway, so I figured we had as good odds that the shirt would fit as we usually do.

He normally disdains new clothes, but he treated this borrowed (and admittedly softer) shirt like some sort of grail.

"I'd better be careful not to spill on Seth's shirt," he said as he tucked a napkin in his neck at dinnertime (a level of concern he has never demonstrated before).

And later, as we drove to the concert, he suddenly realized, "Hey Mom! You didn't even have to spend money to get me this shirt! I bet there are lots of ways not to spend money." I'm actively encouraging his new hobby of seeing how many ways he can find.

As I contemplated how helpful all this swapping and sharing was, I remembered the story a friend had told recently after a visit to Canada. The Cowichan band of native people in British Columbia had shared a long-established tradition with visitors, inviting them to a "potlatch."

In this event, everyone brings belongings they wish to share, or for which they no longer have a need. She described it as a very convivial affair, with lots of music and food.

Everyone went home with something useful, and few had to cart many of their old belongings home. They don't have curbside trash pickup.

But they do get together like this every once in a while, to pool and circulate their resources, as well as have a fine time.

Sounds awfully good to me.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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