Thursday, April 28, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #3: Trash collector (Part V)

Although I spent most of my summer weeks hauling junk out of old homes and cottages for my uncle, Fridays were set aside for The Rubbish Route. And a great deal more.

We'd start before sunrise, driving the old chain-drive dump truck in a winding, back-tracking route that didn't make a lot of sense to me the first time we did it.

"Aren't we going to get Mr. Wheeler's trash?" I asked as we roared by the fine Victorian cottage on the tip of the lake. I didn't know everyone on the route, but I knew Mr. Wheeler--from his long-winded visits to my aunt at the post office--and knew he was one of uncle David's customer.

David just looked at me. "Maybe you think you know everything there is to know about hauling rubbish already?" he asked archly. I shut up.

After about an hour and stops at 20 or so places, David pulled over and ordered me up in the back of the truck. Bags were strewn everywhere. He threw me several stout bungee cords.

"Now pile all that garbage way up to the back of the truck," he instructed. "Pile it right up good, like a hill of shit." Once I did this sloppy, messy work, he had me hook the bungee cords across the bed of the truck and up to two metal struts on top of the cab, effectively lashing the mountain of garbage tight, keeping it securely in the back third of the truck bed.

"Now for the good stuff," he said, when I got back in. We criss-crossed out way around town again, this time collecting rubbish from some of the more well-heeled addresses, and it gradually dawned on me what David was doing: We had collected the trash of the customers who David had determined threw out only genuine garbage. Once that was done, we lashed it in the back, keeping the rest of the truck bed free for what I came to call "treasure trash." This was usually--but not always--the refuse of the summer residents and folks who were in the process of cleaning out their places. This was, in short, trash worth picking through. Which is exactly what we did.

As soon as we had collected all the trash, we never went straight to the county landfill. First, we stopped back at the barn or one of David's many sheds scattered throughout town (but never, I noted, the shed on the Bog Road, where David claimed he kept a storehouse of all his paper goods, including the stack of vintage comics for which I was working my ass off this summer). Wherever we ended up, we spent several minutes opening bags, feeling around, picking through trash, looking for anything of resale value.

We found lots. Stuff that had immediate and obvious value, such as old tools; radios and tape players with nothing wrong with them besides needing the old burst batteries cleaned out of them; countless books and magazines (and even a few comics, but nothing old or unusual).

And there was weird stuff. Someone pitched out a scrapbook full of TV Guide covers. Someone else discarded a large and varied stack of mismatched table legs--but not the tables themselves. One Friday, I extricated a box of old wooden spools, each with a perforated paper scroll wrapped around it. David and I puzzled over these. The perforations on the paper made me think of old computer printouts, but the wooden spools were really old. It was as though someone had invented a computer in the early 1900s and this was what they used to program it. When I said this to David, he brightened and snapped his fingers. "I know it!" he cried. "Them there are player-piano rolls. They gotta be."

And indeed they were. Almost a century old and in perfect condition, according to the restaurant owner we met at the Newport flea market a month or so later, when he made the financially fatal mistake of sharing this information with us, along with the fact that the restaurant he was opening had in its entryway the very piano that played these spools. "I've been looking everywhere for new music for the thing," he gushed, not seeing the dollar signs roll in my uncle's eyes as he kept increasing the amount he was going to ask for the rolls. In the end, David sold the lot for $500, but was grumpy about it. "Where the hell was the sport in that?" he asked me after the guy left. "He practically tossed his goddamn wallet to me, yammering on like he did."

While we didn't find such treasures in every Friday load, it was almost always worth the hour or so it took to pick through the trash of the summer people. I also learned some real lessons in detective work. I, of course, had fancied myself a boy detective only a few years earlier, but David took deductive reasoning to a whole new level. He could read people's trash like a newspaper. Knew who was sick, who was having marital problems, and quite a lot more, just by seeing what they threw out. Of course, Dumpster-diving is well known today, but back then, the idea of garbology was pretty new to me. It was an education.

As scientific as he could be about such things, David also proved to be quite the mystic. Aside from his revelation that he apparently talked with "haints and spooks" regularly, David accepted as fact what many of us regard as superstition. In his personal belief system, luck was somewhere between a godlike entity and an actual force of nature, like gravity. He believed in signs and omens, took the reading of tea leaves (which my great-aunt Mary did for both of us every other Friday or so, when we came to collect her trash, and the light snack of tea and blueberry cobbler she often prepared for us) VERY seriously. And in certain matters of the occult, others in our community took David very seriously.

As I discovered when we went to collect Elisha Mutney's trash one morning, and David sent me into the woods nearby on an odd errand.

"You want what?" I asked.

"A branch. It's gotta be birch. Needs to have a fork in it. Break it off about yea long--" he held his massive hands about three feet apart "--and bring me the fork of the branch. If it looks like a giant Y, you done it right."

"What are you gonna do with it?" I asked.

He glared at me. "Might be I'll jam it up your ass and roast you on a fire if you don't hop to and find me what I need." I hopped to.

When I came back, old Elisha was chatting with David and pointing to a spot behind his cabin. Elisha was one of the oldest men in town and a beloved friend of the family. He had known David since he came to town, I learned, and they often bartered favors with one another. I handed David the Y-shaped birch branch. He hefted it and spun it around.

Elisha looked at me. "Best dowser in these parts, he is."

I had no idea what he was talking about til I saw David hold two ends of the Y-shaped branch loosely in the palms of his hand and begin to walk around the yard, the stem of the branch flopping loosely as he went.

"Uncle David's a water-witch?" I asked.

Elisha frowned at me. "Better not let him hear you say that. Dowser, they call 'em. Ol' Dubba here has got the touch, he does. His people all did. His aunt was the real witch. Potions and such, doncha know. She raised him when he was a pup."

"Was this in Maine?" I asked, my voice unconsciously dropping to a husky whisper as we watched David work.

"Ayuh," said Elisha. "David's family died out from one thing or another. His aunt took him in, but then she passed. Nobody knows when. During the war this was. He were just a sprat, no more than 10 or so when someone finally found him, living all by hisself up in the woods. He never went to no orphanage nor nothing. Just started working the lumber camps. But before she passed she taught him all manner of things. Saved your grandmother from a whammy, I recall."

"A what?"

"A whammy. A curse, doncha know? Lifted it off her like it were a tree that fell on her. This was when he first come to town and still bunked in my wood shed. There was quite a to-do about it, but that's an old story and ol' Dubba don't truck with such things no more. Mostly now he does this."

And as we watched, the dowsing stick waggled in David's hands, then suddenly spun straight down like a magnet was pulling on it. David stopped and called out. "Here she be! From the pull of it, it's down a ways, mebbe 200, closer to 250 feet."

I'd seen some crazy things even by this early age in life, but this was too much. "I gotta check this out," I called, running over.

If David was pulling a trick on me, it was a good one. The dowsing stick was pointing straight down and was unmoving. I tried to wiggle it but it did seem as though some force held it fast.

"You're gripping the stick," I said, but even as I said it, I could see he wasn't. David's arms were loose and relaxed, not showing the slightest amount of muscle tension. The two ends of the Y were in his open palms, digging into the callused skin slightly, as though a weight were tugging on them, but as near as I could tell, David was exerting no force on the stick at all. It certainly did seem as though something unusual was at work.

"Ol' fella's a detective, he is," David called out, sharing a wink with Elisha. "Your father didn't think this was hokum. I been up on your hill a time or two to dose for well sites. But I keep telling him, the water's too deep. Too expensive to dig for it, least til you decide to build a place."

"And this really works?" I asked.

David shook his head. "Magnets work, but you can't see how they do. Lotsa things--and lotsa people--work at things they can't see nor understand. Sight unseen, ya know. This ain't no different."

Elisha came up now with a small red flag and marked the spot David indicated. David tossed the stick into the bushes, waved absently to Elisha and lumbered back to the truck. I followed, full of questions I would never fully answer. We kept on with our appointed rounds.

A month later, I did get one answer, of a sort: The excavator who came to drill Elisha's new well hit water right at the spot David indicated. At a depth of 248 feet.

It was near the end of summer when I found this out. In fact, that was the same week that David announced that we needed to stop over at his shed on the Bog Road.

The shed where he kept the stack of old comics I'd been dowsing for all summer...


Me thinks you could write a book about your Uncle. Oh, and I'm going to start shredding everything in my trash! You've got me paranoid now!
My very Southern Baptist grandfather was the most religious man I ever met.

All the books the Jehovah's Witnesses gave or sold him, he threw on a bonfire when he found out that they didn't believe in a burning hell.

He would not let us FISH on Sunday because he said it was too much like work.

All of us kids thought he was a little over the top on his strict interpretations of the Bible.

But he believed strongly in water-witching, er ah, dowsing.
I remember cleaning out the Dell Publishing warehouse in NJ back in the 80's. There was a file cabinet full of the Dell "Funny Animal" series, waiting to be thrown out. And I let 'em. A couple of years later I told that story at Marvel and blood spurted from the ears of several listeners.
Who knew? I sure didn't.
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