Urban Beachcombing

When I lived in Cincinnati in the early 1990s, the motif of my bachelor apartment in Clifton Heights would never have been in an Apartment Life photo shoot.  I think even the hosts of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy would have given up in disgust at any attempt to decorate my apartment in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

Were I to name the style I used to decorate, it would have been “Late 20th-Century Clifton Castoff.”  Clifton Heights is the neighborhood bordering the University of Cincinnati campus, so it featured a highly transient student population.  Most of the students were from U.C., but Hebrew Union College was also in Clifton, so some of its students lived in the area as well.

I had the good fortune to move to Clifton in early June 1990.  I was planning trips to St. Vincent de Paul and the Volunteers of America to pick up furniture, but this turned out not to be necessary.  The spring quarter was winding down at U.C., and most of the students were going home for the summer.  This also meant apartment leases were ending.  Rather than rent U-Hauls or go through the hassle of trying to transport unwieldy furniture, many people left totally functional, but bulky, furniture at curbside.

I am not sure where I first heard the term “urban beachcomber.”  It is not familiar enough to be in the Urban Dictionary, although I get some hits when I Googled it (it’s apparently the name of a band).  The closest direct experience I have had is with some loosely connected bands of Freegans here in Columbus, although I drew the line (mainly for health reasons) when they foraged for food.  I know that the United States heads the world in wasted food, but that is a gamble I am not willing to take, because the chances of getting food poisoning or bacterial infections are just too great.

My (re-) bachelor quarters in Olde North contains several pieces of furniture I salvaged from various alleys and sidewalks, all of them in excellent condition.  There are bookcases in my living room that are groaning under the weight of books (and my 78s, I admit).  I am not bringing home upholstered furniture, regardless of condition, mainly because I don’t want to risk introducing bedbugs into my house.

Rhonda Byrnes’ idiotic book The Secret led many people to believe that hard work be damned, you could have whatever you desired merely by sending out the right type of energy into the universe, and a benevolent universe would reciprocate in kind.  The only thing even close to that I have experienced was one evening just before the start of another graveyard shift at the Cincinnati post office.

It must have been about 1994.  I had been running an errand, and night was falling.  I just had time to take a quick bath and change clothes before a 13-hour shift of toting barge and lifting mail at the main post office.  I was hurrying into my apartment building, and in the foyer I nearly tripped over a brown paper bag.  This was in the pre-9/11 era (although the Unabomber was quite active at the time), so I didn’t immediately jump to the conclusion it was a bomb.  I looked inside, and lo and behold there was a small Yorx boom box, with brick-sized speakers, a cassette deck, and an AM/FM radio.  I kept it on my bedroom dresser, and played tapes and listened to the radio when I was in bed, or sick.  That being said, I have never been arrogant enough to think that if I need a new bookcase or chair, all I need to do is manifest it, and voilá it will be sitting on my front porch when I wake up tomorrow.

Attitudes about urban beachcombing seem to vary from the small city to the big city.  It may be a city mouse versus country mouse thing, but there are many evenings–especially weekends–when I am walking N. High St. and hear some drunken students ridiculing the shabbily dressed man who pushes a rickety shopping cart through the alleys that parallel the bars, stopping at every trash barrel and Dumpster to pull out aluminum beer cans and plastic pop bottles.  (I make it a point to give this guy the empty Diet Pepsi bottle I’m using, once I finish the beverage.)  The man is working.  He gets a paltry sum for the recyclable materials he collects–and he is wise to do the bulk of the collecting on weekends, when the empty bottles are piling up in the trash barrels and alleys around campus.

But he is not panhandling.  He is not one of the army of people who come up to you uninvited in the fast-food restaurants around campus with various elaborate tales of woe, in the hopes of getting money for their next fix or bottle from good-hearted people.  He is not mugging drunken pedestrians who are staggering, guard down, back to their apartments or dorms after too many draft beers and tequila shots.

The reaction to another can collector, a man whom I saw all over Marietta as I came of age, was quite the polar opposite.  In the fall of 2009, I was reading The Marietta Times online and learned the impossible had happened: Jim “Can Man” Heller had died, aged 85.  In addition to his obituary, which listed the time of his funeral and the site of his burial, another story ran the following day.  (I printed off both the obituary and the article, and pasted the hard copies on pages in my diary.)  Many Marietta natives shared their memories, all of them respectful and positive.  Six days a week for over 40 years, he pounded pavement in Marietta, retrieving aluminum cans and selling them by the pound at the recycling center.

He was memorable to me because he was the first adult I was allowed to address by first name, instead of Mr. or Mrs. somebody.  (The second was my aunt Mary Anne’s life partner, Lois.)  My parents hired him occasionally to do yard work when I was a child.  As I got older, I saw Jim in his well worn work boots, with bulging trash bags overloaded with cans slung over both shoulders, walking the streets and alleys of Marietta, or headed back to his dilapidated house on Muskingum Drive.

Jim “Can Man” Heller (1924-2009) on Putnam St. in Marietta.  This picture appeared in The Marietta Times soon after his death.

The only “handout” Jim ever accepted was the free coffee and banana bread in the lobby of the YMCA, which was a regular part of his beat.  He would socialize at the coffee urn while talking to whoever was nearby, and then go out on the swift completion of his appointed rounds.  For years, he resisted getting a TV, because he was afraid he would be tempted to stay up too late watching sports, and not be able to get his work done the next day.  (Compare that to me, who has often called in sick because of vision problems–I couldn’t see myself getting up and going to work.)  Grudgingly, as he aged, Jim accepted rides when he was struggling under the weight of his cans.

So, in no way could this particular forager be considered a bum.  The man who picks through the cans for beer bottles and cans is working.  He probably doesn’t earn enough to file an income tax return, but this may be the only type of work one with such limited resources can find.