Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Boughs of Garbage

By Jay Hardwig

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  For my first three years in Austin, I slept on a mattress found by the side of the road. When company came, I would turn it upside down to hide the tire marks. It was not a triumph of public health, but I loved that mattress just the same. When I first spied the mattress, it was leaning up against a streetside dumpster. Thrown over, no doubt, by some impetuous gent who'd started a reckless affair with a pretty young futon. I walked over to check it out: a sturdy queen size, soft and strong, with years of life left to give. How could I turn my head and let it be hauled off to an ignominious end at the bottom of the city garbage dump? I hustled it into a patch of weeds and came back the next day with a pickup truck. I don't think my mattress ever forgot this initial act of kindness, and it repaid me with three years of good sleep.

This story is not told as neither maudlin confession nor moral tale. Instead, it illustrates my taste for salvage, my predilection for the previously owned... my joy in finding cheap, used shit. I can assure you that I slept better knowing that the mattress cost me not one red cent. Similarly, I am moved by the conservationist impulse -- although I can't stand a garage sale, I am possessed of a fondness for old couches, found baseballs, and Japanese cars with 200,000 miles on them.

It is this spirit I have tried to infuse into my holiday shopping, to do my small part to slow, if not stall, the mad proliferation of objects upon objects in a world that already seems crammed to the rafters with crap. My practical success, I'll admit, has only been partial -- you may well see me at the mall in the coming weeks -- but philosophically, it's been a dream.

Sometimes I'm worried about solid waste and the long-term effects of our throwaway culture. Sometimes I'm just a little thin of wallet, due to circumstances far beyond my control (Who'd've known that "Daddy's Dumplin'" would've failed to show at Saratoga?). Sometimes I want to make a fists-raised, damn-right rejection of the rampant consumerism at the core of our society. Sometimes I'm just one cheap bastard. In each case, I have forgone the new and shiny for the slightly tattered. I favor shopworn charm over shrinkwrapped smarm, so much so, that now and again, I've been known to give gifts that by rights belong in a landfill.

I have given used CDs, books, and clothes without a hint of apology. I have fashioned gifts with my bare hands. St. Vincent de Paul is a regular stop on my holiday shopping tour. I have given away baling wire, driftwood, small rocks. I have even given gifts I have found on the side of the road: stray Christmas ornaments, worn plastic He-Men, battered chrome letters from the sides of station wagons. (Here, I must admit that even I would hesitate before giving a loved one a used mattress.)



illustration by Roy Tompkins

Thankfully, other members of my family are possessed of this same penurious spirit. So when we gather 'round the tree, mine are not the only gifts that are a little frayed around the edges. (Do not misunderstand: My family is widely generous in both spirit and fact. It's just that they share my appreciation for, ahem, archival materials.) My father regularly avoids his Christmas shopping obligations by giving away his favorite albums -- a nice personal touch which unfortunately has left his own collection a little thin; my mother is always quick to let us know that it's okay if we don't like some of her gifts because she got them off the clearance table for $3 and change. More inspired, in my mind, is the audacious and economical direct giveback. (If it's crappy, give it back. Right back at 'em, by god.) There is a certain clean justice in this gesture, as well as historical potential. My father and his friends have been passing around the same decorator duck for the better part of 20 years; the duck has only grown in stature and by now has transplanted at least three uncles and one grandfather in the family mythology. Likewise, my brother and I traded a pint of Genuine 101 Proof Fightin' Cock Kentucky Bourbon back and forth for a number of seasons, relieving the rotgut flask of one ceremonial sip with each giving. (This tender family tradition came to a rather sudden end one night in the parking lot of the Poodle Dog Lounge, as the ceremonial sip turned in to something rather more meaningful. My stomach still churns at the memory.)

I have become increasingly enchanted by this conservationist tack, and by now I have both given and received enough cheap used shit to fill a small trailer. Only rarely have I been disappointed. I have come to believe that, for economic and environmental savoir faire, there are few gifts that can match the lived-in soul of the previously owned. To be sure, it takes a keen eye to separate the wheat from the chaff and round up a genuine bounty of as-is merchandise (you can't see the stains anyhow, except in bright light). Moreover, I've found that I have to be careful upon just whom I thrust my core values (it turns out Uncle Mark likes his undies new). But more and more, I've been taking my holiday strolls down the primrose path of direct recycling, letting the world of the used open up before me in all its faded glory. In the midst of the holiday frenzy -- America's most guileless display of conspicuous consumerism -- it's strangely gratifying.


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