If I had to come up with just ONE sentence that described, in a nutshell, my father’s entire belief system about the state of the world, it would be his absolute favorite opener to my mother after a successful scavenging run: “You’ll never BELIEVE what people THROW AWAY!”

Perhaps it was the Depression, or maybe it was being a poor child from The Old Country; but Dad was born with a squirrel’s ken for scavenging, the strength to haul home objects several sizes larger and heavier than himself, and the chutzpah to face down my mother at the doorway and remain delighted with his ‘haul’ despite her serious objections and total inability to see gold in what she believed to be ‘garbage’.

Dad’s scavenging habit was always notorious but didn’t get out of hand until retirement (…let this be a warning, y’all …), when he actually had UNLIMITED TIME to explore his small town’s underground goodies.

When he was working his San Francisco explorations were mostly limited to weekly visits to the Dented Can store and careful scouring of supermarket sales; but once retired and on a fixed income in a smaller town he found himself lured into restaurant alleys by his discovery of the ‘cash for cans’ program at the local dump and the promise of pocket change for ’junk’, and his scavenging subsequently soared to new levels.

We became used to the idea that our family car had been miraculously transformed into a haul-o-matic, and to the notion that a wall-sized piece of ‘thrown away’ plywood could actually make its way safely across town when bungied to the admittedly expansive roof of a Lincoln Mercury Marquis Mark II.  (I guess Dad figgered if TV commercials touted the ability of his Marquis Mark II to house a real live lion on its expansive moving hood, surely a stationary piece of plywood would be no special challenge for its roof.)

Dad guarded the map of his wanderings as tightly as he held his wallet so we never quite knew all of his pre-dawn paths through town – but we DO know they involved personal inspections of: construction sites, wholesale farmer’s market garbage bins, and the Dempsey dumpsters in back of Albertsons, Safeway and other local grocery stores.  By far construction sites held the richest of pickings.

I can recall Dad coming home with a heavy, huge coil of 8-strand commercial electrical wire: when mom opened the front door and beheld him stooped nearly in half with its weight on his back, any protest was duly halted by his huge grin of success, his pride in once again being the family provider even whilst retired, and the admonition “You’ll never BELIEVE what people THROW AWAY these days!”

Oh, Mom tried to protest as first the garage, then the shed, began to slowly fill up and items oozed out cracks and edges much in the manner The Living Dead ooze from their graveyards to haunt the living – slowly, relentlessly, unwavering. But clearly she had NO IDEA of how VALUABLE these items were in the scheme of things – and Dad was only too willing to outline future projects involving huge sections of peeling plywood, thick wiring that likely originally linked the electricity substations of America, and all the miscellaneous nuts and bolts he had trained the entire family pick up from the street during family outings (and in this endeavor Mom’s training contribution involved “don’t put that in your mouth”).

Every piece of gleaned construction material had its use, and was duly and carefully stored against future projects. Our first “no car” garage was inadequate, so Dad built a double “no car garage”.

Whilst Dad fancied himself a ‘handyman’ and indeed boasted he “knew a little about everything”, conversely Mom always confided to us kids, in private, that in actuality this knowledge too often translated to “knowing a lot about nothing”.  We were admonished by Mom to stay an explosion’s-length away (preferably to ‘go play outside’) when Dad was “tinkering”. Pair gleaned resources with Dad’s Cobwebbing Theory of Construction with Used But Still Valuable Parts and you often had big potential for a simmering disaster in the basement. Yup, our family version of hell actually resided Downstairs. But, I digress.

Take plumbing. Please. Dad got an estimate for sprinklers in the backyard and per his Old Country standards quickly decided all bids were “outrageous”. Obviously, ALL that was needed was some “creative cobbling” ideas, together with some of those there handydandy pipes that he couldn’t BELIEVE people actually THREW AWAY.

That’s how we came to have a spiderweb of piping and valves (‘cause Dad was BIG on shutoff valves after I tested my ‘Toilet as a Black Hole’ theory at age 5) across the entire back and front yards. Mom was not above ‘handy’ herself and she came out, viewed Dad’s ‘completed’ project, and gently pointed out that the neighbors’ sprinkler system was not ALL above ground and laid criss-cross over the very lawn it was supposed to water. But Dad’s irrefutable logic (“but, then I’d have to TEAR UP THE LAWN I’m watering”) stood and we proudly housed the only above-ground labyrinth of plumbing in the neighborhood, completely constructed from WHAT PEOPLE THREW AWAY.

No mowing either: Dad’s above-ground system was soon hidden by lush grass (as my dad said about semantics: one man’s ‘carpet’ is my mother’s ‘jungle’), Dad scavenged a timer (“…somebody THREW THIS OUT, can you believe?? The cat pee TOTALLY doesn’t affect the mechanism!”) and all seemed well until Fall struck.

(Pre-emptive commentary: geysers have followed me all my life. And I’ve never viewed THAT as a bad thing, either.)

One cold pre-winter morning the first frost graced our neighborhood and I awoke to a true miracle: 4 geysers of varying heights had erupted in our very own backyard. I took time to savor the glorious observation and contemplated the largess of admission fees to FOUR ‘Old Faithfuls’ simultaneously erupting in one awesomely convenient locale.

OK, so maybe a full-volume yet sedate “Yippee!” was involved, I’ll admit. A suspicious sound that never boded any good according to my mother, who magically appeared by my side and let out a screech that would’ve put a hooty owl to shame.

Dad was called and with a cheery “NO problem!” he THEN field-tested (apparently for the first time) his (scavenged and numerous) shutoff valves, only to find that none of them actually worked (…so much for his lecture on ‘backups’ and ‘redundancy’ being Good Things in the professional plumber’s world). The only one that happened to work was mysteriously connected to the entire house and handily labeled “Main” in the garage. Mom was decidedly unenthusiastic about the lack of water for the entire day, even though to me it heralded a Freedom From Bath Day and the uncommon opportunity to “Help Dad Outdoors” (i.e. play in the mud) without divine retribution from the resident Tub Patrol.

A plumber was summarily consulted and unhelpfully recommended that Dad’s brilliant plumbing maze be pulled, much like an elongated errant tooth. I believe ‘Frankenstein’ was mentioned during the conviction process. Dad was crushed and ultimately refused to observe the sacking and pillaging of his beloved system by the wizards at Ace Plumbing.

In the end – as usual – life returned to ‘boring’. The Ace folks had NO imagination and you couldn’t even SEE the sprinkler system they insisted on installing (which to my mind called into question the very reality of its existence). Were it not for the now-decimated lawn, you’d barely know a system had been installed. Much to the neighbors’ delight (and Dad’s chagrin), the eventual new lawn again got mowed regularly. And to my mind THAT meant no more glorious hand-sized spiders lurking in the lawn. Refer to ‘boring’, above.

Dad was out some serious bucks in the whole matter.

But that didn’t dissuade him from an early dawn visit to Ace Plumbing the following day and a personal inspection of their Dempsey dumpster contents; nor from enjoying his crow of victory to Mom when he appeared at the door that morning with both arms and an entire car full of “perfectly good” DISCARDED PLUMBING PIECES Ace had (apparently ignorantly) deemed ‘junk’.

Which, mysteriously, happened to look awesomely similar to parts from OUR old system.

You just never know what people will throw away….

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