Garbage Picker!

Taken from my book in progress:

As the mother of two young children in the early 1980’s I was convinced I was saving money by using cloth diapers. But by the time baby number three was born in 1987, I’d discovered a reward to using disposables. Besides the obvious convenience, the manufacturers of several brands were offering generous coupons as well as on-package points and proofs that could be mailed in for free toys, coupons, cash, and even savings bonds. I began taking walks with my children on trash day just to collect the extra proofs of purchase. We’d roam the alleys together, stopping at each diaper box. I learned to swiftly tear the proof of purchase off in a stealth maneuver I’d refined with practice; pushing the stroller up close to the box, bending down as if tying my shoe, and ripping off the qualifier, all in less than thirty seconds. The kids were eager to help, picking up candy bar wrappers or carrying the grocery bag we brought with us everywhere. They knew that picking up trash resulted in more Christmas gifts or checks Mom could cash in at the grocery store for the special treat I bought them if they behaved while I shopped. Not only that, but our walks often netted immediate satisfaction in the form of books, magazines, rolls of wrapping paper and occasionally even toys that had been discarded. My two oldest collected pop cans for the cash deposit they’d spend at the local candy store. Sometimes we even took a wagon with us to help haul our bounty from our treks through the alleys.

One hot summer day when I was heavily pregnant with my fourth child, we hit the mother lode. As I peeled off the proofs of purchase from a group of several diaper boxes sitting in the alley I heard a squeal of delight from two-year-old Michael. He’d peeked inside one of the boxes and discovered it was packed to the brim with toys! We looked inside the others and realized every single one was filled with Fisher Price Little People, Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles, Lego pieces and odds and ends of toys that suggested someone had cleaned out an entire playroom! We didn’t have our wagon that day so we carried what we could the few blocks home, then rushed back to get the remaining boxes. Just as we were about to pick them up, a woman appeared from around the corner of the garage, her arms crossed on her chest, her eyes narrowed to an angry slit.

“Get away from my garbage! That’s my garbage.”

Busted. I felt a hot blush spreading up to the roots of my hair. “My son saw the toys…” I started to say, but my voice trailed off at her cold stare. We hastily retreated, our excitement sobered at her extreme reaction. That afternoon the kids played with the selection of nearly new toys while I filed all the diaper proofs in my file cabinet. Back then I had an entire room devoted to my hobby, with a desk, a huge shelf, and two file cabinets. The shelf displayed a dozen empty detergent boxes with the lids removed. Those held flattened boxes and larger labels. Some of the boxes could be used several times for different offers; one offer might require the net weight statement, another the box top flap, and yet another, the box bottom, so the savvy refunder kept the entire box. The two file cabinets held the smaller labels and flattened medicine boxes. Whenever an offer came out, I could just go to my files and pull out the proofs of purchase I needed. Back then, there was no end to the offers. One of my 1991 refund magazines listed 800 new offers that month alone.

As I work on this book I find myself wondering if there is a type of person who is attracted to all the free stuff one can get with the wise use of coupons. (borderline hoarders? ADD adults? obsessive compulsive? or just smart?) In the 1980’s and 1990’s my mailbox was full of refund checks and free item coupons, thanks to the refunds companies offered back then. The mailman would come up to our porch at least twice a week with packages containing free t-shirts, stuffed animals and other company premiums.  Something else I participated in then, that I don’t so much now: trash-picking, dumpster diving…call it what you will~ the bottom line was we were recycling long before it was the green thing to do.  Our family regularly visited the recycling center for extra coupon inserts and proofs of purchase and labels for future refund offers. I also walked the alleys with my kids, looking for treasures like brand new rolls of wrapping paper, books, or toys.  We lived in a college town and there was no end to the pickings, especially when college students were moving out and throwing out perfectly good furniture and boxes of things they just didn’t want to bother with. In my refund magazines I read about people finding new shoes, beauty products and jewelry behind stores. I was never quite that lucky though I did once pick up a hideous cat cookie jar that I sold for over $130.

One of my favorite books is Mongo:Adventures in Trash by Ted Botha, a fascinating book about people who make a living off discarded items in New York.

The whole concept behind the freecycle movement throughout the United States is that most “junk” is a treasure to someone else.  (check for a group near you) A bag of old men’s ties becomes a handmade pillow in the hands of the right person. An old rusty bike can be used to decorate a landscape.  Since moving to town we have not had any trouble at all getting rid of things we don’t want.  We set the item next to our tree out front, slap a free sign on it and post if on freecycle.

I always check the free boxes at garage sales.  You never know what you might find. On Wednesday a woman had a stack of these brick landscaping stones free for the taking.  I took, and this is what my husband did with them:

This afternoon my daughter called to tell me she’s seen the most adorable watermelon shaped mailbox and a table full of items for free on a nearby street.  Of course, after she took her groceries home and went back for them, they were all gone. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to swing by that direction when I went to the grocery store for my cucumbers and these are the items I picked up:

Missing from the picture is an angel food cake pan my husband grabbed and took into the kitchen to wash. (I think he wants me to make angel food cake)  And, yes, both the blender and the mixer work. The pasta bowls are from JC Penney and look new.  They are going into my garage sale box because as much as I love them, I know I won’t use them. I may keep one of the big bowls as a serving bowl.  Before I could grab it, another woman who slammed on her brakes and hopped out of her truck grabbed the big metal tub that looked like it was an old-fashioned wash tub.  It would have been perfect as a planter in the yard or a container garden.

Funny, but at this point in my life I wouldn’t care if I heard someone yelling out the window, “Garbage picker!”  but I would have died of embarrassment if I’d been caught doing the same thing as a teen. Today, I’d just laugh.  I keep that in mind when I reflect on an incident from two years ago. I was walking home with my teen son and saw a dumpster behind a house where the residents were moving.

“Look, a beautiful black coffee maker, ” I said, “Let’s go see what else is in there.”

Would you believe the kid left me standing alone in that alley?

The coffee maker lasted 18 months.

3 thoughts on “Garbage Picker!

  1. Martha Combs says:

    Hi Mary I remember you from Refund Express!
    Good to see another trash picker! lol I go to Circle Of Friendship now, COF. Wilda Shelly runs it.
    It is a lot like the old RE. Her email is if you are interested.
    I am so glad David got well. I had to take chemo in 2007-8 Lymphoma. Doing pretty well at 76. Lots of the oldies from RE are on COF. I have a Facebook page too, also Myspace and Tagged. But I just go when I get a message about my page. I love your writings. Have been reading…….. Love Martha

  2. Doris Toney says:

    Also another from Refund Express and a lot of other refund magazines of the past. I raised my 5 with refund checks and freebies. Now I have 7 grandchildren and 12 great grands. Still use coupons and do what I can Also a member of COF nice paper with drawings. love reading your experiences with your family. love Doris

  3. Lisa says:

    Ahhh Mary the memories! I had to laugh about the pampers points, when Stacie was little (she will now be 26 in Nov and expecting her first baby next month) John would take her on the back of his bike in her babyseat and they would come back with many many pampers points. I still have the savings bonds in my fireproof box. Those surely were the days weren’t they? Many Many premiums out back then not so much. Boy do I miss that..I remember getting 2 pool tables with the camel/salem offer and selling one to our high school Math teacher for $500! I still marvel over that offer and everything was FREE shipping, a big trucking company came to deliver the pool tables, TV’s, VCR’s I received from that offer. Oh and the M&M lights and delmonte yumkins I still have to decorate with at Christmas time..

    Thanks for the memories my friend!

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