Monday, April 11, 2005

Is it Garbage, Junk, or Trash?

(This column originally ran in the Daily Review Atlas in the summer of 2002, but since Monmouth is having its annual Heap-It-By-The-Curb Week, I though it appropriate to bring it, too, out of the mothballs)


I really love that one time of year when everybody puts stuff on the curb that might otherwise sit in attics and basements until kingdom come. That’s when I do my best shopping. When I lived in the big, big city, I loved the end of the school year near the universities, because I was always guaranteed to find a perfectly good stereo, television, microwave oven, coffee maker, or other small appliance in the dumpster, alongside the occasional chairs, tables, desks, hats, towels, blankets, and other sundry items. I refurnished my entire apartment for free, each summer.

In Monmouth, the event is not connected with the students, at all, really. The whole town gets to pile the curb high with its chaff, and those who are not too proud drive block after block in their vans, pickup trucks, and cars, all in search of the grain of golden wheat amidst that chaff. This year, I actually found one thing I really needed – a five-dollar lawn chair – and all I spent was about twenty dollars on the gas to drive around town to find it. My neighbor had a spectacular haul of a full van-load, and I heard talk of one family who planned to sell their take at the flea market and buy St. Croix for their early retirement.

For those of you who have not done this sort of thing before, I wish to give you a few basic hints as to how the stuff is laid out for the refuse collectors. The most important question you need to ask is, “Is it Garbage, Junk, or Trash?” Question number two, from the uninitiated, is, “What the aytch is the difference?”

The difference, I know, is subtle, and can be applied to almost anything in life.

Garbage is something everybody hears about. Mothers nationwide tell us, “I won’t have you watching that garbage on television!” Garbage has no redeeming qualities at all. It’s non-recyclable, non- educational, non-compostable, and generally, aesthetically, gives you the same sensation you have when you see the person who wants to date your young daughter (for those of you who have no adolescent children, picture the kid who just trampled your carefully groomed garden). Garbage is, in fact, the sort of thing that not even a kid is interested in, and most kids, given half a chance, will bring home just about anything, as we all well recall. Garbage is an accident of time and rational thought gone awry.

Junk has potential. It’s the stuff that everybody else sees at Garbage, but you know you could probably make something perfectly useful with it, if you only took a little time and effort. I’m a little offended that during the past decade they attached the word to “bond,” making something something very ugly of people’s hard-earned money and trust. Junk can be quite lovely, if you look at it with rose-tinted lenses. Think of all those bakelite bracelets, of old hot rods, of sea glass. Archaeologists must love junk as much as the rest of us, or they wouldn’t spend so much time digging up old, broken pottery and bones. Junk is, for all of us, a piece of ourselves.

Trash is the guilty pleasure sublime. It’s the bodice-ripper novel, the action movie, the date in tight leather pants, the thing you know you shouldn’t really admit to knowing anything about, but can’t resist when it passes under your nose. You know it has no real value, and yet you keep spending your time and money on it, anyway, because it makes you happy to do so. Oscar the Grouch sang it best on Sesame Street. I love Trash. If I could live in the back woods somewhere with a half-dozen washing machines on the front porch and an equal number of cars on blocks in the back yard, I could be on my way toward bliss. I’d like for my house to be so full of Trash that you’d have to dance the Hora to get from one end to the other. I would invite people to come over to admire my Trash, and, since it’s Trash and not Garbage, admire it they would. Trash is the cream of the crap.

As it stands, however, I have no room to pile all the Trash I see and have longings for. The red velvet camel-backed sofa with the gold tassels and the ill-clad ladies carved into its legs will not find its way into my parlor, if I ever get a parlor. Leather-pants can stay home tonight, and Dad can breathe a sigh of relief. I will restrict my collection of Trash to merely books and videos, and the occasional audio disk. I will leave the truly great Trash on the curb, where you all leave it, so that somebody else can show it off, next year. It will sit right next to the Garbage, and on top of the Junk.

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