Looking at the examples below, you might think I spend my days prowling the alleys. Not true. It’s great exercise, but I also go for walks via the neighborhood streets. I hit the alleys maybe once every couple of months, adding an extra trip if I’m looking for something in particular. On those occasions I also visit thrift stores, yard sales, local buy-nothing listings, and the curbside mall. Alleys are great for the stuff I know I can find there: bricks, pipes, tables, chairs, tiles, shelves, desks, dressers, mops and brooms, foam and Styrofoam, rugs, couches, window shades, fencing, wood.
While writing about some of these items, I can hear you say Eeeew. But don’t be afraid! By the time something sits outdoors for a while, outside its host, most germs have departed. There’s nothing on this list I was afraid of handling. (That kind of stuff can usually be washed, anyway.)
But don’t the homeowners come out and say something? Well, it’s usually their dogs who come to the fence to say hello. Sometimes it looks like they might be able to get out, but so far they haven’t when I was there. (Though I do know two people who’ve recently been attacked by loose dogs on the streets.) Yeah, I do sometimes see or greet people in their yards while I’m checking out their discarded stuff. It’s always uneventful.
I know not everyone has access to urban alleyways. But most anyone can get at least 10 finds from the venues I mentioned above (yard or garage sales, neighborhood free-stuff groups, etc.). I’d love to hear about your favorite find! Write to me if you have something to share.
First, I’ll mention an alley find that started a controversy: this plastic wheelbarrow. Terry was sure the owner had thrown it out, while I was sure they were doing work in the alley and had accidentally left it there. Without helping him, I did let him wheel it home. Later, though, I did some penance. I came across the same plastic wheelbarrow, but this one had holes and a big crack down the side—unusable. Okay. I got out my tools and glues and fixed it. It took about three hours, but it was waterproof and entirely functional when I finished. I put it out by the curb, and someone soon took it. Good. Someone’s loss was someone else’s gain. It wasn’t equity, but it was something.
Usually, it’s quite clear what’s being thrown out and what’s still being used. When in doubt, I keep walking.
Without further ado, here’s a list of my top 10 favorite free finds.
10. Kitsch or kyoot?
Whether these are tacky or cool is in the eye of the beholder. The sunflower needed paint, but I thought it was worth a quick job, and had many colors of recycled paint to choose from. (See post 40.) I guess yard ornaments are best kept to a small number. But if you love them, and have them everywhere, that’s great. Be who you are; just don’t buy your kitsch new.
9. Reed coverings
My nearby alleys are always full of discarded fencing and window coverings. I had no idea there were so many kinds. On the left, reed fencing covers a plastic tub planter. On the right, a window shade conceals a severely cracked 55-gallon drum, also from an alley. The shade, with two ends securely joined, and black accordion hose sliced lengthwise, make the setup strong enough to hold many gallons of compost.
8. Tile piles
Ceramic tile is another thing I often find in alleys—sometimes broken, sometimes whole, and with varying amounts of hardened mortar clinging to them. The “rattlesnake bench” (the tail end, with rattle, shown at right) was my first mosaic. I learned that if I used tiles of the same thickness, it was easy and fun—but time consuming, so you have to enjoy it. It’s hard to find a mosaic anywhere that isn’t charming—or at least striking—if it’s handmade out of broken pieces. You’ll love looking at your creative work whenever you pass by.
To the left, above, is a work in progress—an entryway made of some large tiles I found in a gigantic pile. I could have done a complete, small room with the number of whole tiles in the stack, most of them with very little mortar, or mortar that tapped off easily. But I only took home eight of them. This tile was supposed to look like marble, but it was only thin ceramic. I looked at it closely: Yep, dots. Tile, I discovered, is often printed now, just like a newspaper. At first I thought, we’re being swindled—made to think we’re getting marble, or some other elegant rock with veins and colors. But I think it’s probably better to have the fake floor than be complicit in expanding and stripping a quarry somewhere.
7. Wooden chaise lounge
Really? Wood? Even the wheels are wood, with just a strip of rubber for going over bumps. In the back, a notched wood bar on each side offers different reclining angles, but one of them is broken. I can fix it anytime I want a different position. Like maybe never.
The flowered outdoor-grade cushions are from a thrift store, and the fake fur throw is from a former housemate who left it for me.
6. Door becomes gate
The week I started looking in alleys for something to replace my dilapidated wood gate, I found two metal doors. (I was happy to leave the other one for someone else.) I painted this one with a brush—not easy, but I’ve sworn off spray cans, and I hardly ever come across working ones, anyway. I had a bunch of cherry-red metal hearts from a yard sale and figured above the door would be a good place for them. Sadly, they darkened over time—the same color transition I watched happen to my coral-bean necklace. But burgundy is nice, too. Why not drink it in?
5. Vintage clothing rack
At one point I was specifically looking for a wheeled platform for a piece of furniture, and I thought this orange-wheeled thing might work (right) if I just cut off the vertical pole with a hacksaw. Then I noticed what the contraption was—a piece that unfolded to become a clothes-drying rack. Old-timey genius! it collapsed down to become super skinny and flat. As a girl who dries clothes outside (see post 20), there’s no way I could cut it up. Now, if it looks like rain, I hang my shirts on the sturdy horizontal piece, ready to roll it under a protective roof.
I found a much better platform later, at a used-building-materials store.
Years ago, I found some segments of this columnar cactus lying in a nearby alley. I didn’t know what they were, but figured they might root. They sure did. The tallest stalk is now about fifteen feet tall (left), and it has branched out as well (right). I found out it’s called a Peruvian apple and has the most delicious fruits. The seeds are nutty, and I thought I could describe the pulp as “mildly sweet” until a couple days ago. I had cut one in half but didn’t eat it right away. By the time I got out a spoon and scooped it out, it had doubled—maybe tripled—in sweetness. Did that really happen, or am I besotted by this year’s monsoons?
Above, left: This is elephant bush, not native here (it’s browsed by elephants) but closely related to purslane, a most delicious weed. (I haven’t seen much purslane this year—maybe it’s still coming.) I want to have it growing all over the yard so I can eat it.
Above, right: This plant has about a hundred names. I’ve picked “slipper plant.” I’d never seen it when we came upon it near an alley one night. (It’s a common landscape plant now—you’ve probably seen the birdlike, slipper-ish red flowers.) We dug up just three or four of the vertical spears, the small hole in the ground completely unnoticeable. We have three big clusters now and have been able to give some away.
The streets and alleys around here are chock-full of chairs in various states of disrepair. This one was metal, a chair I could leave outside, and had just one small break at the inside end of an arm. I wrapped it really well with a piece of baling twine and some strong tape, then painted the whole chair. The dyes in Mexican blankets are often quite resistant to fading, but eventually I’ll have to replace this one—though the chair doesn’t really need padding; the metal crosspieces are sturdy and comfortable.
This chair, which was bright red, caught my eye. I also liked that it was made of twigs (Twig furniture is the best!). It needed work, though. It had big, floppy arms, and I could see it would be hard to stabilize them. Then I realized they could just come off! Now with a pale green coat of paint, mixed by me, I love it.
2. Marble table base
One evening we found this marble pedestal lying on its side in the dirt. The top was broken and jagged, and it was heavy, but Terry volunteered to carry it home. I’d fix it somehow. The next day I remembered I had a marble coaster somewhere, and when I found it, it fit the top perfectly. I had to fill in the gap with grout (area above dotted line) but once in place it almost looked like it was from the same quarry. I thought, this is a crazy example of Nuffi Stuffi (post 9). The Goddess of Reuse had really smiled on me.
1. Art Deco floor radio
Early in this blog I mentioned this item was my favorite, and I’m not about to change my mind now! The beautiful wood finish on this piece was still in perfect condition when I found it, which meant it couldn’t have been in the alley under our harsh sun for more than a day or two. The tall, V-shaped element in front was partly broken off, but enough remained to tell me exactly what it had looked like, and since it was made of simple, straight pieces it was easy to rebuild. The radio guts were missing, but I didn’t want them; this was to be my linen closet. I hid the sheets and towels with a Japanese floor mat.