Sunday, October 23, 2011

Waste not, want not

Technically we shouldn't have been there.

DropOff SwapOff is a semi-annual event for the community of Concord, Massachusetts, wherein residents drop off piles of hard to recycle recyclables as well as carloads of serviceable items, such as grandma's old sewing machine, and exchange them for things they could use, like a bookcase or a stroller or a big basket. You never know what treasure awaits.

But there we were in in this historic Boston suburb, visiting elderly relatives, smack dab in the middle of the social (and environmental) event of October. How could we miss it?

The idea is pretty self-explanatory: Some people haul their unwanted stuff to the department of public works, and a veritable army of volunteers sort the goods according to destination: Rags here. Lightbulbs there. Hmmm. … What's this? Working telescope? Walk it over to the swap yard.

It is trash and treasure hunting at its finest: A giant yard sale without the hassle of pricing or paying or keeping watch over the shop.

Since dumps have closed in cities and towns across the country, household waste days have by necessity gotten more creative. Most communities have opportunities for residents to pile their unwanted junk at the ends of their driveways so, in the early morning hours, a municipal truck can spirit it away … never to be seen again.

Not all of our seen-better-days stuff winds up in the trash, of course. But that's a conscious decision made by the few, the proud, the willing to dumpster dive. College students, and even first-time apartment dwellers, have long engaged in this brand of midnight curbside shopping.

Scavenger hunts ahead of the garbage trucks, however, aren't the meat as much as the byproduct. Concord, by contrast, puts reuse ahead of refuse.

Waste not, want not has special meaning for this community.

After midday, the SwapOff was still refreshing its second-hand inventory, though now in a trickling stream. One man hauled in a basketball hoop while another schlepped out a pile of lacrosse sticks.

A woman pushes in a tiny tricycle and rolls out with a spiffy, new-to-her two-wheeler.

As I watched the controlled chaos of the exchange it occurred to me that what I was witnessing was so much more than an ordinary clean-up day. It was more like a challenge-your-imagination day.

Smack dab in front of the DPW building, a man wearing a bright orange vest was building an elaborate sculpture out of the junk that no one wanted. His nametag read “Bill.”

“Today I'm really just an editor,” he said as we were walking by. “You can make suggestions. You can even help,” he told the children as they showed some interest.

It was my husband, though, who couldn't resist. He's the real junk-art-aholic.

As they positioned cross-country skis this way and screwed ping-pong paddles to bird feeders that way, I meandered through the SwapOff. I looked back to see the men upending a battered old Dog Igloo onto a floating basketball hoop, and imagined them discussing the finer points of screw guns and duct tape.

I continued browsing, thinking truly there was nothing I needed. That's when I nearly tripped over the wooden two-room doll house sitting alone and unwanted. I picked it up, my mind whirring: the roof drooped from a broken hinge, a window bulged out, the wallpaper was water stained and faded. It was perfect. The toy I always wanted but, as a self-declared tomboy, had never asked for.

I hauled the prize back to my family and our new friend, Bill.

“Is that for ME?” my daughter asked a little nervously. She already has a dollhouse that suits her fine.

“No. It's for me. I always wanted to make a haunted dollhouse. Now I have my chance.”

The look on her face told me I never really had to worry about my tomboy status.

The only thing I have to worry about now is what occasion will bring us back to Concord in May.

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