FRIDAY MORNING. GREENWICH Village.
The industrial dumbwaiter, jam-packed with a two-day accumulation of tenants′ rubbish, made three trips from the basement of the elegant apartment block to the street.
A team of janitors removed a pile of dark plastic rubbish bags to a corner wall of a raised garden bed that ran along the north face of the building and shaped a mound from them there. The plastic glinted in the pale winter sun.
On the fourth trip, a different type of rubbish: a battered wooden wardrobe tied around the middle with thick yellow string, a stroller, a child′s car seat, a wooden chest of drawers covered with plaited white plastic and topped with a bright-blue lid, one double and two single bed bases, a single mattress, three crocheted cushions in perfect condition, a variety of wooden boxes, shoeboxes tied with string, and a turquoise vinyl golf bag trimmed with scarlet piping. And more plastic bags, these tied at the neck with strips of brightly coloured fabric.
The janitors balanced these leavings on top of the mound, piled them up around its edges.
More was to come. Two chairs with woven cane seats (one badly frayed), a styrofoam box filled with pots and pans, and four wooden trunks of the type once used by travellers embarking upon sea voyages: dark-green painted timber, with locks, decorative round studs laid in patterns and protective corners, all made of brass. Another, orange and of a size that would hold, say, two trombones side by side, was thrown on the top.
MINUTES AFTER THE rubbish was placed on the street, a young couple who had been walking by lunged at it. What treasures might they find here? How much of it might be worth selling?
Reams of documents and file cards tumbled out of the first green trunk, the smallest of the four. The man, after a cursory glance, flung the wads of papers in the air, careless of where they landed.
The second trunk held scores of books, hard-covered and soft. His body stiffened with excitement.
'Oh, man, look at this!′
'Don′t take those shitty trunks,′ the woman called to him. 'Leave them.′
He tried to argue with her, but she was resolute, so he filled his arms with books. When he could hold no more, he placed them in piles on the footpath. He looked around. How to carry all this?
He spied the chest of drawers. 'What about this?′ She looked up and nodded her assent.
Opening the chest was not as straightforward as he had anticipated. Perplexed, he tugged at each drawer handle in escalating frustration, until he discovered that the drawers opened when he raised the lid and turned it, like a key, thereby opening every alternate drawer – three in total – at right angles to the other three. Magic!
Frenzied, he dumped the books into drawers, then moved to examine the next trunk.
In the meantime, his girlfriend kicked and prodded, then rummaged through the fabric-tied bags.
'Books here!′ she cried out.
Each time she called 'books′, he would leave the trunks to fetch the bag of books down to the street.
'Whoa! Look at this,′ she whooped as she displayed a voluminous pair of white rayon bloomers against her chest. He was too preoccupied to look up but that didn′t dampen her delight.
Next, she found a multicoloured raffia beach bag with long red leather straps.
'This!′ She waved the bag in circles, lasso-style, high in the air.
Into the beach bag she stuffed a many-coloured skirt, a pair of shoes, two rayon singlets (dresses for her), two scarves, more bloomers. Discarded clothes lay scattered wherever she threw them, their colours gaudy against the dark rubbish bags.
BY NOW A crowd had gathered. Were these voracious first arrivals going to take everything? Would there be worthwhile second pickings?
A woman wearing a camera around her neck sauntered onto the scene. She spoke to the scavenging woman. They laughed; the young woman nodded, then climbed to the top of the mound, queen of all she surveyed. She stretched the bloomers against her chest, then modelled them: draped around her neck they became the finest silk shawl, a gleaming white turban wrapped around her head. The photographer shot away. Click. Click. Click.
Garbage bags, boxes and trunks lay open, their contents sprawled everywhere. A light breeze lifted sheets of paper and carried them off. A lemon-coloured chiffon scarf was blown down the street, a citrus tumbleweed.
'Hey!′ the young woman cried out. 'Grab it. Get-that-fucking-scarf, man!′
Her shout brought two women to their windows, one in an apartment block on the north side of the street, one on the south. They were aware of the other′s existence, these two women. Both writers (though neither knew this; they assumed it), each worked late into the night, sometimes peering into the other′s lit-up window across East 11th Street, which separated their buildings. Each woman threw open her window and perched on her sill. Each looked across at the other, hesitated a moment and, as if they′d made up their minds simultaneously, nodded hello.
They looked down to the street.
In time to see the photographer pick up a black cloth-covered book, possibly a diary, that lay on the ground, and riffle through the pages; nothing of interest there. She tossed it back, cast a desultory look around, waved goodbye and ambled off.
Now the couple approached the wardrobe. Unable to break the yellow string, they carried the wardrobe – from the ease with which they hoisted it, it seemed empty – to the footpath, stood it upright and rolled down the string. As the door swung open, a hibachi tumbled out. It looked new. He went to claim it.
'No,′ she shouted. 'No! I don′t want that. I don′t want any junk in the apartment.′
He hesitated, but only for an instant; defiant, he claimed it.
A teenager cruised up on rollerblades. He spied the trunks and twirled to a stop.
A middle-aged man was examining the golf bag as if he were considering whether to spend his last penny on it. He turned the golf bag this way and that, fondled it tenderly, held it at arm′s length. The rich dark brown of his skin and the brilliant turquoise of the vinyl made glorious harmony. For this alone he should have whisked the golf bag away.
A woman dressed in a business suit and sneakers inspected what remained of the underwear. It would have fit but perhaps it wasn′t her style.
A modish grey-haired woman in her sixties poked an elegantly shod toe into the single mattress. Too hard? Too spongy? She wrinkled her nose, rummaged around, and inspected and claimed a saucepan and an omelette pan, and departed.
There was a bonus for the couple: the chest of drawers was furnished with a set of wheels. That would take some weight off. She closed the book-filled drawers; he secured them with the yellow string. They stacked bags filled with clothes and books on top of the chest. Each slung a bag over one shoulder, hoisted another under their arms, clutched others in their fingers. Packed to the gills, they departed briskly, the sound of metal wheels on concrete clacking in their wake.
Two English tourists, who had been watching, disgusted, turned to each other.
'What do you think they do with it?′
'I can′t imagine.′
He shuddered, offered his companion his arm and they walked off in the direction of 5th Avenue, heads shaking in wonder at the likes of what goes on in New York.
The middle-aged man, as oblivious to the scavengers′ departure as he was to their presence, continued to contemplate the golf bag, a small smile lighting his face.
THE ROLLERBLADER WAS more decisive. He removed his skates and strode straight to the green trunk in best condition. After he′d dragged it onto the street, he gathered up the orange trunk, tipped out the remaining contents from both of them, and pulled them onto the road where, at the command of his pointed finger, a shiny yellow cab pulled into the kerb.
The cab driver′s shouts of indignation resonated up the sides of the surrounding buildings.
'No way, man. They won′t fit. You′ll wreck my cab. Uh-uh. No way!′
'They will fit. They will, I tell you.′
More windows opened; faces peered out from both sides of the street. Passersby, more interested in the potential brawl than in the rubbish, slowed their pace, stood and watched. The two writers grinned at each other.
Still yelling about his new cab and the damage that the trunks might wreak upon it, the cab drove off, leaving the hapless rollerblader to try again. In quick succession, three more cabs pulled up, spied the trunks and slipped back into the traffic. An older cab, more battered, came to a stop. When its driver saw the trunks he too began to drive away.
'They′ll fit,′ shrieked the young man, holding the cab captive by gripping the rim of the roof. He softened. 'Columbia, man. I wanna go to Columbia. They′ll fit. Trust me, man. Columbia.′
A handsome fare from the Village.
Onlookers discussed it among themselves. Would the trunks fit? Some nodded their agreement with the rollerblader; others thought not. Standing on the sidelines, the crowd called out their opinions.
'Five bucks says they fit,′ said a man in a fluoro-pink beanie and matching mittens, but there were no takers.
The driver stepped out of his car. Sceptical, he eyed the green trunk, then the boot of his vehicle.
'See? They will,′ the rollerblader said, prancing between cab and trunks.
'Yeah, well, maybe this green one.′ The driver pointed accusingly. 'But what about that other one?′
'It′s okay, man. I′ll take it on the back seat. Come on.′
'Okay,′ the driver relented. 'You take one end.′
'Yesss!′ The rollerblader punched the air.
Several onlookers applauded, then went about their business. Wood slammed against wood, metal against metal, as apartment windows closed in front of disappearing faces. The two women waved goodbye and returned, smiling, to their work.
The middle-aged man hugged the golf bag to his chest and wandered off into the afternoon.
AS SUDDENLY AS it had begun, the febrile scavenging was over. Almost over. An elderly woman stopped. The black cloth-covered diary, rejected by the photographer, caught her eye. She picked it up from the footpath, slipped it under her arm and walked off, a proprietary look on her face.
The janitors re-emerged from the basement to set the rubbish in order once more. When they finished, they lit cigarettes; each stamped his feet and hugged his upper body against the cold. Smoke and warm breath rose in clouds in front of their faces. When the last of them had finished his cigarette, they boarded the dumbwaiter and rode it back down to the basement.
On the street, the pile of dark plastic bags glinted in the pale winter sun.