Post 28: The Curbside Mall

This week’s post is a short photo essay, with notes.

Lately I’ve been noticing an increasing number of people taking pictures of discarded stuff, both curbside and in alleyways. I suppose it’s because most of us are carrying a camera around in our phones these days, and it’s an easy way to record things—for later reference, or for someone else.

Just a few weeks earlier, I’d come across four handsome, immaculate dining room chairs being offered at the mouth of an alley. Well, I still get something that feels like an instant shot of caffeine when I come across something especially beautiful. But if I don’t need it, I’ve learned to walk away. (Haven’t I?) As I become more aware that I’m not the only scrounger in town, I’m more able to leave things for those sure-to-come others. I walked on without looking back—until I heard the gravel crunch behind me. It was the tread of a woman positioning herself for a good photo of the chairs. On my way home, walking down the same alley, the chairs were gone.

Last week was Brush and Bulky pickup on my street. The day before I was out in the front yard planting spinach in a new window box, and noticed that the piles of branches and debris seemed higher and more numerous than ever. In fact, a few houses down, a man was taking pictures of one of the curbside piles. Watching him, I felt that the camera gave him a bit of distance from the scene. He might have been taking photos for someone else, even viewers at an art gallery, so it seemed to me he was acting on a loftier plane—not just looking through a pile of junk.

What a useful tool he had! And I had one, too. Later in the day, I went out with my own camera. There were sixteen piles on my block, counting my own, out of 34 houses. What are your thoughts and feelings when you look at this composite? (I’ll tell you mine when you’re done looking, at the end of this post. There are caption-like comments in between.

Top two photos: When those one-piece plastic chairs first came out, years ago, I knew it wouldn’t be long before they’d split and hit the dump. But you know it’s bad when I’m grouping photos by shape, and there happens to be a trashed chair in two out of three photos.

Top left: the bent-wood oval frame would be a perfect shade or protective structure for a small garden of tender shoots. No one took it.

Top right: I grabbed the blue poles. I never have enough poles for garden stakes, umbrella mounts, etc., and to have three alike is sometimes especially good.

Bottom: I like seeing bike tires in the piles. Their construction and materials are no more “environmentally friendly” than car tires, but they’re so much smaller! Since rubber comes from trees, I can hope there will be a compostable tire someday—with no damage to the rainforest or its people. (The excellent fictional film, Embrace of the Serpent, addresses the era of rubber discovery, and there also are documentaries on this theme, if you can stomach the killing and human cruelty that go with it.)

Bottom left: It’s surprising how much wood fencing is thrown out—whole panels sometimes, free. A lot of it just needs to be put back together with nails, screws, maybe a new crosspiece where one has gotten eaten by termites. The wood is usually on the soft side, so pounding nails into it is satisfying. But if that sounds like too much work, I’m sure there’s a carpenter or handyman who would enjoy the job. If it’s not cheaper to pay the person than to buy new wood fencing, something’s wrong with our economy.

Bottom right: From the evidence (numerous trucks out front, mounds of wood chips with a “free” sign) I think this neighbor has a landscaping business. My theory is that he’s back in business now, after a covid break, with this pile of aromatic eucalyptus branches and bright red, milky-edged tree sections. If he has piled up the trunks and branches he hauled away from a job, it shouldn’t be a Brush and Bulky pickup. But maybe it’s his own tree. I’m only sad that someone didn’t grab the whole lot of sections and circles to make a kiddie yard studded with little chairs and stools and wood-circle walkways.

Top left: Ouch. That really hurts. New bags for your garbage? You couldn’t find any empty boxes, grocery bags, or even some old newspapers and a bit of string?  New bags suck. New plastic bags really suck. I’m embarrassed for you.

Top right: If it were me, those chunks of concrete would not have made their way to the curb. I save my rubble—broken pots, cement pieces, bits of bricks and glass. You never know when you’re gonna need a little hill, or to fill in a hole. (But I seem to have enough of this sort of scrap; haven’t needed to raid another person’s pile thus far.)

Bottom: I took two planks from here, to hide a compost bin next to our bike enclosure. They were the same color as the bike enclosure; I didn’t have to paint them. Nuffi stuffi.

Middle, left. I know what the pallets striped in red, orange, and pink used to be. I watched the neighbor set up an L-shaped wall with them, at the corner edge of the patio square in his front yard. He painted it red, orange, and pink. But never got the pallets quite straight. And didn’t spend much time there beyond the building. Still, it was nice to see something different in a front yard.

Well, a new neighbor bought the place, and took down the funky wall. I didn’t blame him. But I’m glad it wasn’t a new wall, just a couple of pallets. Already used for transporting something, before the wall. It made me wonder, though, if Brush and Bulky recycled pallets. There are pallet recyclers in Tucson.

Middle, right: A favorite neighbor put just a few things on the curb—biological material and two plastic containers which might have made 1.) a compost bin (needs a few holes) and 2.) a worm bin. Too bad nobody took them.

Bottom: Ahhh . . . I always feel sad when I see busted-up, thrown-out playground equipment. Childhood is so short, and plastic so enduring. I know kids can’t use a metal slide when recess is as hot as Death Valley. But maybe we could make something fun out of cut-down trees—chairs and stools and pathway circles, maybe even a big, anchored branch for climbing. My fantasy, above, an elfin space. Isn’t the plastic-playground generation the one that will grow up to find the last of the ocean creatures dead, stomachs full of plasticware?

Top: I think this is a spectacular pile! It looks like someone is starting completely over, and not ashamed to announce it. I only wish I’d had the couch and chair and bed when I first moved here. This couch was in good shape and had a classy weave to it. I don’t know about the cushions; they were buried. But couches often have a large back panel that can be used to re-cover the cushions. That would take some work, of course. But less than what I actually did back then, which was reupholster an entire couch. So this one might have been saved fairly easily. But I couldn’t entertain the thought, or thoughts of saving anything, in any of the piles. Projects were already backed up at my house.

Bottom: This is our offering of twigs and cactus. That’s what we have these days—trees reaching out into neighboring properties, trees with dead branches, cactus growing into pathways hoping to draw blood, spikey agave babies conquering territory around their spikey mother plants. We try not to dispose of all this in the weekly trash, because that goes to the landfill, whereas Brush and Bulky makes useful mulch out of such things.

So yes, I do have a few thoughts and feelings about the Curbside Mall. They’re mixed. To explain:

I’m terribly grateful for the Brush and Bulky service. What if all that trash on my block were piled up and not hauled away? Year after year? The city might be a very different place. Trashed. Also, I’ve called B and B—and been assured more than once—that what’s called “brush” really does go into the chipper and made into mulch. Mulch is a botanical booster, insulating tree and plant roots, protecting them from extremes of weather—and if we have anything these days, it’s increasing extremes of weather. I’ve spoken to neighbors about purchasing a chipper for our street, but the cost soon became clear—not just in bucks but in management time.

I get painful twinges when I see still-useful items in a trash heap. It used to excite me. It still does when I need a particular thing, and find it. But I don’t need much now. I look for other people.

Nevertheless, I find I’m still curious,. (What’s this? Can I learn something?) And there’s always the chance of finding something that anyone would love to have—a diamond bracelet, an ancient Chinese statue, an original painting by someone famous. (It happens. Not often.)

But even if I don’t need much, I still (unfortunately?) have the knowledge and ideas about the ways items could be used, the ways people could save money, the ways new resource-mining could be avoided—and our planetary future protected. Yeah, I sometimes want to cry at the sight of these things headed toward the garbage dump—fences, couches, headboards, shelves, new plastic bags, pipes, foam (it’s washable), trash cans and bins, two-by-fours and four-by-fours, hinges and drawer pulls and other hardware, planks, tree trunks,—and on and on and on. Most of the time I’m proud of my resourcefulness, happy to draw on it. But when I see the potential in piles like these it seems to be a curse.

There are other alternatives to Brush and Bulky—other ways to find homes for things. Notifying friends. Using list serves like Freecycle, Craig’s List and local Buy Nothing groups. Having a yard sale. Selling to used building supply stores. Donating (though thrift store donations can end up as pollution.). Even putting still-good belongings on the curb between Brush and Bulky weeks, giving it time to be picked up by someone who wants it instead of the garbage truck. The real Curbside Mall is year-round. (Keep it neat.)

My blog software has no easy way to put all these photos together, which might provide a way to get a broader, more impressionistic look at six month’s worth of oversized trash produced by my street. But I can imagine it: these sixteen piles all smooshed together into one big one. I’d like to imagine the organic matter subtracted from the aggregation, because that’s gonna be mulch, a positive.  But the remaining mountain of trash is still big. And its size doesn’t include my street’s weekly garbage. Compared to that, these mounds are small.

But small is beautiful. Small is a place to start.

I really want a good, long future for my kid. She had a milestone birthday this week—I won’t say which one—but I still have hope she can make it to old age without too much suffering. Babies being born now . . . Well, I’m not as optimistic for them. They really need us. We seem to be able to put away college funds, inheritances, money we worked many years to save. So maybe we can spare a few minutes or hours to find homes for our discards. For every “good home,” new stuff is avoided. The chain of destruction is circumvented.

I learned a new word this week: “eco-responsibility.” Good word, I think.

2 thoughts on “Post 28: The Curbside Mall

  1. My Uncle George used to drive around Bronxville (a wealthy village nearby our hometown) to pick up stuff that was put out for the assigned big pick-up day. He’d fill his car and haul it home, fix things that were broken and store what he couldn’t use until he had enough excess to have a yard sale. My favorite of his finds (and I think one of his too) was a beautifully painted ceramic Buddha. I loved his resourcefulness.


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