I spent a lot of time in my backyard this weekend and on Saturday I heard a rumble coming down the lane. I looked looked over the back fence to see an battered pick-up truck glide by with its bed full of castaway children’s toys, rusty lawn furniture, old vacuum cleaners and a tangle of other unidentified junk.
Today I walked through the lane on my way to the aluminum and newspaper recycling bins at Savannah Arts Academy. Along the way I glanced around and saw shoes, at least half of a croquet set, a piece of garden trellis (with a windchime attached), a framed poster and two plantation shutters. Such a scene must of been unimaginable to someone who lived in the 1800s. In her book, “Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash,” Susan Strasser explains:
Most Americans produced little trash before the twentieth century. Durable items were passed on to people of other classes or generations or stored in attics or basements for later use. Objects of no use for adults became play-things for children. Broken or worn out things could be brought back to their makers, fixed by someone handy, or taken to people who specialized in repairs. And items beyond repair might be dismantled, their parts reused or sold to junk men who sold them to manufacturers.
While the bounty of unwanted objects present in the lanes behind Savannah’s homes is certainly a contemporary scene, the guy steering the old truck is not a new development. He can trace his line of work back to the 1700s when traveling peddlers not only sold their wares, but also collected scrap of all kinds from their customers.
But is the “junk man” I saw on Saturday breaking the law? Don’t city ordinances forbid nonresidents from traveling through the lanes? I know my neighborhood e-mail list lights up from time to time with reports of “suspicious characters” cruising the lanes and loading up their trucks with other people’s trash. Are these guys a liability to the community? Or are they performing a valuable service by intercepting things we no longer want before they are buried in the landfill? As a person who’s scavenged a thing or two out of the trash, I know where I stand.