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Trashheaps of New York

Pawing through the world of dumpster divers



Mongo: Adventures in Trash
By Ted Botha
Bloomsbury, 243 pp., $23.95
Last month, two French photographers unveiled a collection of their trashiest work at a much ballyhooed show in SoHo. Their exhibit, Star Trash, features 15 years worth of--you guessed it--the contents of celebrities' garbage, which ranges from the mundane to the mysterious. (I suppose that'd be true for most of us, if anyone bothered to poke through our refuse.) A dirty theme, to be sure, but a picture of CNN host Larry King's trash proved too touchy for even this show; it was pulled from display when the tabloids started snickering at the presence of a package for adult diapers. King's people have since denied that the undergarments were his.

It can be messy business, digging through other people's trash. But it can also be practical, profitable and downright addictive. So explains writer Ted Botha, the globetrotting son of South African diplomats who, a few years ago, furnished his New York City apartment with items left on the curb for the sanitation department. As he explains in the introduction to Mongo, he'd learned to do so from both his thrifty, bargain-seeking parents and the impoverished slum residents of Soweto, who found ways to convert the detritus of more affluent folks into "toys, ornaments, houses and even entire suburbs."

In some parts of the world, Botha notes, recycling and reusing aren't high-minded ideals, they're a way of life. And one of those parts of the world is the Big Apple, where going through the garbage before sunrise--when the sanitation trucks lumber in to clean the slate--is something like a city tradition, it's been going on so long. In fact, Botha takes his title from a bit of slang coined in New York. Among scavengers there, "mongo" is defined, as it is in a recently published dictionary, as "any discarded object that is retrieved."

Botha notes that, according to city statutes, trash becomes city property the moment it hits the curb or the receptacle--and consequently, it's illegal to go rifling through it or to extract items. It's one among many bad laws that New Yorkers almost uniformly ignore.

To find out what is discarded and what is retrieved, Botha enters the netherworld of New York's mongo-chasers. It is these characters, as much as the stuff they pull out of boxes, bags and dumpsters, that makes this book a treasure trove of stories about trash. In each of the 10 chapters, Botha profiles a unique type of second-hand aficionado.

He begins, appropriately enough, with "the pack rats." This breed of trash collector seems to collect simply for the sake of it. Some love of litter--or, perhaps, the goodies that find their way into the litter--must drive them. Botha's portrait of "Nelson," a sanitation worker who has built a remarkable shrine out of found objects, makes it easy to understand how collecting discarded "junk" can become an obsession, even for a garbage man.

Consider "the survivalists" among the trash set. Here, Botha refers to the city's legions of professional recyclers, those meticulous souls who comb through the trash, day and night, for cans and bottles to redeem for cash at the rate of five cents per item. They call themselves "canners," and their world is, in its way, as structured and systematized as many a corporate office. There are hierarchies, contracts, amateurs and professionals. But there's little camaraderie; "canning" is largely the domain of fiercely independent types, Botha finds. Some are junkies who sustain their habit by collecting a few hundred cans per day. Others are breadwinners who support a wife and two kids by collecting drink containers on a grander scale.

Other varieties of trash plunderers include "the anarchists," who pull many a meal from curbside cans; "the visionaries," who have formed a new aesthetic of living stylishly by gleaning from their neighbors' garbage; "the archaeologists," who find history lurking beneath a few layers of New York City's much-moved landscape, and so on. For every type of trash, Botha finds people who live to find and obtain it.

And mostly, he lets them do the talking, which is one of Mongo's many pleasures. Why would someone fill their house with things that others deemed worthless? By walking up to Dumpster-divers at four in the morning and asking them just that question, Botha has turned up the trade secrets of the trash trade.

After a while, a realization sets in, one that Botha doesn't have to state explicitly: that Americans enjoy such a surplus of material goods, the stuff we throw away is sufficient to supply an entire other society. We all know that consumption and disposal are central tenets of American life. The people in Botha's book alert us to the fact that, in our disposable society, we are wasting many a useful thing. Our saving grace, perhaps, is that our trash sometimes finds new life in other hands.

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