(Published in the Globe and Mail, Facts and Arguments Essay, 2012)
We were clipping along one of our county’s great paved back roads when we saw it, green plastic gleaming in the setting sun. I braked, veered around where it lay in the middle of the road, and pulled over to the shoulder.
“What are you doing?” my husband asked from the passenger seat.
“It’s a colander,” I said, a bit excited. “I like the colour.”
Earlier in our relationship he might have expressed surprise or disgust at my scavenging habits, but after eleven years of marriage he chuckled and even volunteered to jump out and grab the prize.
He picked it up and held it gingerly with only his thumb and forefinger, examining it dubiously. “I think it smells like vomit.”
I leaned my head out the window. “No, it looks brand new. We’ll wash it.”
My husband deposited it in the back of our van. “It’ll go with our toaster,” he said, amused.
Our toaster is great. We’ve had it for about seven years and I’ve never had a problem with it, though if we have many guests and it’s used a lot it will complain with a clacking noise. We just give it a rest for a few minutes and it’s as good as new. Did I mention I retrieved it from the curb on trash day? When people find out they sometimes suggest we get a new one, but I cannot see why. The idea of replacing an item simply because it is no longer new makes absolutely no sense to me. As long as it does what it’s supposed to do, it’s still good in my eyes.
I acquired my brass magazine holder in the same way. It was dirty and covered in cobwebs, but after I cleaned it up, it looked fine. It even had a bit of a rustic shine. I might not use it as the centerpiece of my home, but for holding books beside the toilet, it’s perfect.
It is not only household items that I bring home with me. Ever since I was a child, my parents collected bricks. Living in the country, there were always lots of uses for bricks, and when I moved away from home and settled in cities, this habit stayed with me. I was able to collect enough bricks from the back alleys of North Toronto to make what I saw as a picturesque little path from my back door to our car pad. The bricks did not all match, but I think I arranged them in such a way that their overall effect was quaint, if not pretty.
Having a marine-loving father who seemed to find an element of romance in beachcombing and finding what he delightedly termed “Salvage!” perhaps left a lasting impression on me. Picking up discarded things off the side of the road was never considered disgusting or cheap in our household. On the contrary, leaving something lying in the gutter that might be perfectly usable would have been considered wasteful and even, perhaps, a tad snobbish.
Of course, there are extremes. I recall one day when I was quite small that my family was on the way to a friend’s place for dinner. The car directly in front of ours hit a pheasant and continued on. My father quickly pulled over, grabbed the pheasant, threw it in the trunk, and presented it to our friend as the evening’s main course. I can’t recall who was responsible for plucking and preparing the creature or if it ever made its way onto the dinner table.
Personally, I draw the line at road kill, but I despise the wastefulness I see in society. Though we may complain at garbage taxes and pay-as-you-throw policies, trash is cheap. As soon as it makes its way out our door and into a garbage truck, we don’t have to give it another thought. But that’s an attitude that works only on the individual level and only in the short term.
Growing up, the expression “Waste not, want not” was branded into my brain. My family certainly wasn’t poor – we had more means than most in the area – but the vice of wastefulness was still forefront in my home education. I’m not sure it is anymore. As a society, we are very good about recycling, but we don’t give a lot of thought to either reducing or reusing.
It’s very understandable. Why spend money repairing your television when it’s cheaper to buy a new one? Why pick up a discarded colander or toaster when you can get one at Walmart for a few measly dollars?
I don’t know how to change society’s attitude towards these things, but I hope that I can convey to my sons that wastefulness is bad and that there is no shame in adopting items no longer wanted, even those found in a ditch.
I was proud when my oldest son picked up a discarded plastic truck in our neighbourhood, insisting on finders-keepers. I said we should wait a while, just in case its rightful owner missed it. After a week, we figured the laws of salvage applied and it now belonged to us. My sons have collected quite a few abandoned items – mostly toy cars and figures, but a discarded license plate as well. Personally I don’t see a lot of use in the license plate, but little boys have a different set of priorities. I think their grandfather would be proud.
By the way, if anybody reading this has misplaced a shiny green colander, too bad. I think the laws of salvage apply only at sea, but I’m pretty sure the law of finders-keepers applies everywhere, or at least to abandoned items in the middle of the road.