The Dump Pickers--Me and My Dad, Or a Funny Thing Happened To Me On The Way To Marden's

By Rhea Côté Robbins

 My father, in his youth, lived in the lower end of Waterville known as the Plains, or South End, as I later did--the last house on Water St.  The city dump was located further down the road directly on the river bank (which caved in and created a land slide when I was a girl and the dump had long been moved to a part of town off the Sydney Rd., West River Rd. as it is called now.)  From the advantageous location of their house on Water St., my mémère could see what was being hauled to the town dump and would send her children after a particular load if something savory could be salvaged and put to use.  Things were tight in the 1920s and 1930s.  Necessity and poverty were the impetus to invention; dump picking was the direct effect of the cause that others can waste in excess--throwing out perfectly good things because they have worn out their usefulness.
 My father was a dump picker--by force, or suggestion, and then by habit because dump picking, once established, is a habit difficult to break.  I know this because I used to accompany my father dump picking in my youth.  (I anticipate that I have lost about half my reading audience thus far, and by the article's end, I will be left with one reader, myself.)
 I picked dump with my father until I was a certain age--nine or ten--against my mother's protests (she had not grown up a dump picker).  W never stayed too long--a half-hour, forty-five minutes, or five minutes.  We would scan the heap before the bulldozer covered it and buried for future archeologist to discover "secrets" of our civilization.  While at the dump, always noticed the other "types" of people picking the dump.  The people I saw were predictable and not so predictable.  There were those who drove in, heaved their stuff, looked the pickers with disgust and left.  Then there were those who stayed--the regulars--some by force of habit, my father, no longer poor or forced, some by trade, junk men, some by dint of poverty, and some by choice (all dump pickers were not poverty-driven)--which all boiled down to the same thing--the heap:  those who made the heap and those who picked it.
 Eventually I sided with my mother and refused to go dump picking with my father.  I was the last child so that meant he had to go alone.  Dump picking has become civilized and a good part of the populace are now able to participate without the stigma of gaining a reputation as a dump picker, without having to learn how to walk the heap so they will not step on garbage and swills while picking up savories, without stepping in the mud of the dump yard, and especially not coming home with the smell of the dump on their clothes. 

 Today's dump picker goes to lawn, garage, yard, and tag sales.  Or, Marden's.  Whenever I go to Marden's, I tell my husband, "I'm going to pick the dump."  (Marden's for the uninitiated is a retail store that specializes in buying out bankrupt stores, burned-up merchandise (which could be reminiscent to a former dump picker of the burning dumps), or "seconds stuff" and selling to the consumer at bargain prices.  Merchandising rituals not unlike dump picking.  Caveat emptor.
 My father's ritual of dump picking evolved through several states.  He would haul some stuff in and then he'd bring it all back.  In the later years, he would not pick the dump at all, but ask someone to have something even before they would throw it on the heap.  The transference of things went from truck to car trunk.  Some of the local industries would throw whole bolts of cloth away.  My father would ask them for the bolts before they threw them on the pile.  He loved to tinker and build.  My first bike came from the dump and some of the building materials that went into his camp at Belgrade Lakes came from the dump--paint in unopened cans, nails, wood.  The company he worked for had a junkyard that he almost picked clean single-handedly.  He bought several thousand feet of pipe to use in his project of piping water underground to a pond he made on our land.  He had plans to build things and he would do this in the most economical way possible.  Or, articles he found would inspire projects.  He built our house starting with an old building, a former store, and adding to it with found materials.  He was always appalled at what people would throw away.
 On his return from the dump, another one of my father's rituals was to report on whom he had seen there.  Chuckling when he "caught" someone else at it, envious of their finds.
 And then the rules changed.  Less and less of the dump was available to pickers until eventually the whole thing was shut down, and the trash was hauled to incinerator plants or buried in landfills.  No one was allowed to carry off even good, clean junk, or if they did, they had to pay for it.  Now, there are transfer stations that allow trading of good junk with special areas set up for this activity.
 That is why places like Marden's came into being--the trash is clean, all walks of life eventually go there, and the conversation flows.  When Marden's first opened in Waterville, really Fairfield, my father would go there every night.  It was the dump picker's dream fulfilled.  He would inevitably find something he could use--especially tools--check out if the owner was in the store because his second, most favorite thing to do was bartering over the price of something.  If the owner was not in, he left the item (hid it) and would return to buy it when he could argue with Marden over the price.  A bargain store to him meant he was going to get a bargain.  He always reported on whom he saw there and what they bought.  The ritual of dump picking had become fashionable. 
 I no longer go dump picking, but I still have yards and yards of pink ribbon he picked up for me twenty years ago--and the experience--I have the experience.

First published in Le F.A.R.O.G. Forum, "Mes Collages," mai 1988

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