Unfolding the Map
This post is garbage! Or, more accurately, it's about garbage. I hope you don't think it is garbage! As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) makes his way back toward the end of his journey, he passes through Buckhannon and notices all the rusting cars and appliances in yards. It got me thinking about garbage in my life. What is garbage? How do we know it? I don't say I have any answers, but reflections. If you want to know where Buckhannon is located, this virtual map won't clutter your house!
"At Buckhannon, I drove southwest on state 4. Beautiful country despite hills clobbered with broken appliances and automobile fragments, which children turned into Jungle gyms. Should you ever go looking for some of the six hundred million tons of ferrous scrap rusting away in America, start with West Virginia."
Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 3
Buckhannon, West Virginia
This morning I had just sat down to eat breakfast, drink my cup of morning tea (Darjeeling) and read the paper when my wife said "Oh, today's garbage day." That meant that I had to trundle myself up, gather up the garbage from the kitchen and two bathrooms, drag it out to the trash can and wheel it out to the street, along with the recycling. Only after that could I sit down and enjoy my oatmeal and tea.
I write about that humdrum little detail because like most Americans, I have a complicated relationship with garbage. This relationship includes not only making sure that I have the garbage at the curb every Wednesday for the trucks to pick up, but also deciding what is garbage as opposed to things I want to keep. In my relationships with other people, I've found that garbage is a very subjective term.
We all know garbage, for the most part, when we see it. Wrappers discarded on the street are a good example of something we might label as garbage. Stuff that smells is garbage, such as old or spoiled food. But occasionally, we see something that someone has set on the curb as garbage and find it desirable. As a college student needing a couch for his dorm room, when I saw a halfway decent one sitting out on a curb, I took it. Lamps, old televisions or computers, things that in our increasingly throwaway society people discard because it is easier to buy something new than fix the old, often are put out as garbage by some but then taken by others.
Sometimes, things we have that we consider beautiful are considered garbage by others. I don't know how many times I've been in houses that have what I consider hideous art on the walls. Why would anyone buy that, I wonder? What I think would look better adorning a trash can than someone's home might well have special meaning to the person who owns it.
My uncle, a hoarder, gave me a new insight into the junk versus treasure conundrum. He collected things that he thought would be valuable someday. His house was literally untidy pathways between piles of stuff. Most of it was trash. He collected newspapers because he thought the headlines would be worth something someday. He collected cheap memorabilia for the same reason. He had piles of books, usually bad novels or biographies. I suppose that he thought that someday some of these cheap things would not be readily available, leaving him the sole proprietor of a moment of time and history that people would want to reconnect with, and would want to pay lots of money for that experience.
I'm not saying that he didn't have valuable things. He had a practically priceless collection of vintage, excellent condition 78 RPM records comprising classical, jazz and pop music dating from the early 1900s up through the 1940s and 50s (someone actually put some on the web, that you can see here). I desperately wanted to own this collection and make it available to others, but unfortunately he didn't leave the records to me and the family of his surviving brother (my other uncle) took possession of them on my uncle's death. I can only hope that they made their way into the hands of collectors who will appreciate them, or to a museum or some music foundation that will preserve them, rather than getting thrown in the trash. He also had some collectible baseball action figures from the 1960s and 70s that were still in their original packaging that might be worth something someday.
My uncle helped me understand the mentality of a next-door neighbor, many miles and many years later. This neighbor was gay, but in appearances was the antithesis of the stereotypes of gay men. He dressed like a slob, and lived in a house that was eventually condemned for code violations. He had been the owner, with a life partner, of an antique store. When his partner died of AIDS, he closed the store and brought all of the stuff home. Some of it was very nice, such as costume jewelry, vintage clothing, and other material antiques that might fetch a bit money if sold. Yet it was piled all around his place - with trails between the piles - and not put to any use whatsoever. Eventually, the city condemned his house and bulldozed it. My neighbor had managed to liberate most of his stuff from the home, and went to live elsewhere - hopefully somewhere in the country - where he could keep his stuff with less attention from authorities. What became an empty lot was eventually sold to an Asian immigrant, who built a house that he rents to a Navajo family.
My own house is filling up with stuff. I'm not a hoarder, but trying to decide what is garbage and what isn't is difficult. Most of the stuff I have has a memory attached to it that for some reason I am reluctant to part with. It keeps accumulating, making keeping an uncluttered house difficult. But I have trouble classifying it as either garbage or someone else's treasure.
In the country, one can drive in rural areas and see rusting hulks of autos, trucks, buses and tractors sitting out in yards on blocks, weeds growing up through the engine, and missing windows because they have been busted in by mischievious kids or elements. Appliances also sit rusting, unused and unwanted. Most people associate this type of yard with a "trashy" element. After all, how can someone not care about the appearance of their home with all that trash around it? Yet, if you talk to people, you'll find that often they scavenge these items for parts. That's what I suspect that people in West Virginia, with "some of the six hundred million tons of ferrous scrap rusting away in America," are doing with it.
Lately, trash is making a comeback in the form of "found art." Enterprising artists take bottlecaps, sea glass, old dominoes and ScrabbleTM tiles, old photos, broken ceramic and crockery, and dated magazine pages and turn them into jewelry or put them into other types of art. I have bought my wife brightly colored jewelry made in Africa from tightly rolled magazine pages. I have seen handbags woven from the straps of old seatbelts. Discarded wire is used to make brightly colored baskets. I've always heard that "one man's trash is another man's treasure," and these found art objects are making a believer out of me.
I believe that if I see garbage in my life, that's what it is. If something is cluttering your life, or smelling bad, and hampering your style or causing anxiety, then get rid of it. Perhaps it's time for me to loosen my bonds to my accumulating stuff, let it go, and hope that my treasure can also be someone else's treasure too.
If you want to know more about Buckhannon
Buckhannon-Upshur Chamber of Commerce
City of Buckhannon
The Record Delta (newspaper)
Smithsonian Magazine: Buckhannon: The Perfect Birthplace
Upshur County Convention and Visitors Bureau
West Virginia Wesleyan College
Next up: Sutton, West Virginia