guide to garbage picking


There is no shame in garbage picking. After all, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Some of my favorite pieces of furniture are items I plucked straight off the street on garbage day. For example, I recently picked up a great yellow table in Tarrytown, NY. And years ago, I found the above retro chair late one night on the streets of White Plains, NY. I squinted, blinked my eyes then pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Then I put my car in reverse and threw it in the backseat. It has since served as the perfect pop of color (and place to perch whilst tying shoes) in several apartments and now fits nicely in the corner of our guest bedroom.

Though some might shudder at the thought of procuring things in this manner, I couldn’t be more proud of this habit. Garbage picking is cost effective and only slightly disgusting. But there is a science to it. Here are my recommendations:

Keep your eyes open on garbage day. And by this I mean troll around in a large creepy van in the early hours of the morning while wearing a pair of rubber gloves and a lifting belt. Actually: most of my pickin’s have been spotted on the fly, when least expected, at a moment when staking claim and transport is most inconvenient.  So, yeah, just keep your eyes open.

Make sure it is not in use. For example, if you stumble upon an awesome chair like the one above at 3 AM, make sure to look in all directions – north, south, east, west – to confirm that it is not currently in use. Even if it’s tipped sideways beside garbage bins at the end of a long driveway it’s always possible that someone just stepped away, briefly.  Your demeanor should clearly say, “Anyone sitting here?”

Act with great stealth. Even if you are clearly the only person around for miles, be quick about it. You don’t want to get involved in a tug-o-war with someone who has equally good taste.

Stand sentry if necessary. If the item is too large to stuff into your pocket, your backpack, or to balance on your head, you will have to call in reinforcements and possibly a large vehicle. Waiting for assistance could take a while, so be prepared to guard your treasure Buckingham Palace style, minus the fluffy black Q-tip hat. This is what happened when I found an incredible desk/vanity on the sidewalk outside my apartment on 75th Street in Manhattan. The full story on that find can be found here as part of a previous blogging venture.

Beware of Bed Bugs. Obviously soft products like couches, mattresses, and bed sheets should be avoided. I have managed to avoid these nasty little intruders, (knock on wood!) but I know they can ruin your whole day life.

Wash, wash again, and wash one more time to be safe.  According to the DSM-IV (a fascinating mental disorders handbook), you can only be diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder after the 100th washing of found objects.  I warn against performing a sniff test before engaging in multiple washings – you will probably not like what you find. And whatever you do, I highly recommend that you discover your pickin’s before the neighborhood dogs do, if you know what I mean.

Respect your pickin’s. In other words, if you have to put your belongings in storage for a while, don’t discard your garbage pickin’s just because it feels strange to pay good money to store free things. I was separated from my pickin’s for a long time – when we re-united, emotions ran so high that the Hallmark Channel asked if they could film a reenactment. I declined – nobody exploits my pickin’s but me.

Finally, I leave you with a very important warning: It is possible to take this practice too far. Nothing could demonstrate this better than the following skit that aired on the hilarious show, Portlandia, on IFC, this year. If you resemble this couple in any way, abandon your street savvy ways immediately, and seek refuge at the nearest Pottery Barn!

4 replies

  1. These are very very good suggestions. I seem to be the only one in my family who is open to the idea of garbage picking though. If my kids see me get “that look” in my eye on garbage day they say ‘move along, mom, NOW”. They are afraid of becoming like that kid in the video.

    That orange chair is an excellent find!

  2. I love it!!! Wish we lived closer together…..

    I have a picture of chair I just picked up – let me send it to you – how do I attach a picture???

    Stacy

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