In mid-August, the Great Migration begins. Student leases end and begin. And the piles of rubble on the curbs begin to grow. To many, Aug. 15 is moving day, but those of us who aren't afraid to pick through others' trash have dubbed it "Hippie Christmas."
Some years, this auspicious trash-picking opportunity slips right past me, but this year, it's time to get intentional about scavenging. I make a date to troll the piles and dumpsters on the night of Aug. 14 with Marina Kelly -- a Madison-based interdisciplinary artist and Hippie Christmas veteran -- who says she's nabbed most of her home furnishings and art "from the garbage."
As luck would have it, I spot my first treasure in the afternoon -- when I'm returning home from shopping with my son Leo, 14. We've been looking for a new couch for the boys' room, and we noticed one in a pile of broken entertainment center parts right near Mermaid Cafe on Winnebago. It's lived-in leather, perfect for the lads' attic hideout. Of course, it won't really fit in the back of a Prius, but through strength of will, we shove it in the hatchback, Leo clutching its armrest while I drive the two blocks home with the flashers on.
At 8 p.m., I rendezvous with Marina and another artist, Ginger Lukas, just a few blocks east of the Capitol. Ginger says she makes installations from materials found in the garbage, and she's wearing a headlamp, which -- along with Marina's flashlight -- will become important as the light wanes. We can hear jazz musician Chuchito Valdes banging away on the piano, wrapping up his Jazz at Five set, drums echoing off the asphalt. It's a perfect night for scavenging, cool and clear, with a sliver of moon.
By 8:15, we've climbed and dug enough for Marina to score a purse, a vest, a lamp and a tiny handsaw. I find a baseball-shaped beanbag, a magenta jersey sheet and a Marimekko-style pillowcase. I also discover an unopened package of smoked wild salmon (I'm not going to eat someone's old salmon, but who throws that away?).
And because it's Hippie Christmas, Marina nabs two containers of brand-new Christmas bows. "This is way better than real Christmas," Marina smiles. Atop a giant dumpster we meet a young man visiting from Monroe, checking out the barely worn furniture piled high behind an apartment complex.
In a dumpster off Park Street, Marina spies an almost life-size Luke Skywalker poster, printed out on 8.5 x11 sheets of paper and affixed to foam core. We pile Luke in the car with the other merchandise and move back east. We grab a video-store "horror" sign and a truly bizarre ceramics piece, a homemade three-eyed androgynous figure with a snake wrapped around its neck and Vulcan ears.
At 9 p.m., we encounter another scavenger, Richard (who declines to give his last name). He is almost giddy when I ask if this is a special night. "Goodness yes. I'm kind of shopping for some friends of mine who are from Russia," he explains. "They're spending a couple of years over here, and they need a lot of things."
Richard says he's on the lookout for "valuable wood." He dismantles futon frames and uses oak and mahogany for other projects. How long has Richard participated in this ritual? "Unfortunately, I've only started in the last five years," he says, a little ruefully.
Just down the block on Hamilton Street, we meet Jim Williams, a transplant from California, who says he's astonished at the volume of stuff discarded on the streets. "In California, this wouldn't happen. This is just incredible. It's illegal," says Williams, nodding toward an impressive pile of furniture, clothing and food, all dumped haphazardly on the curb.
While Ginger examines a dehumidifier, Jim shows me a couple of his finds: a down vest, a sewing kit and a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt, which he models for me. "These are things that could go to St. Vinnie's," he says. "If you're a landlord, for every mattress and TV that's in the street you get a $40 ticket. You will hurt as a landlord."
He points to his van and says he's also picked up clothes, building materials, two-by-fours, a boombox, a subwoofer.
"I was arrested in Piedmont [California], which would be the Maple Bluff of Oakland.... I'm not kidding, first-degree burglary for dumpster diving," says Williams. "And when I went to Oakland jail, I was the hero."
At 10 p.m., we meet my sister, who coincidentally is wearing a Darth Vader sweater. When a convenience store clerk on Johnson Street compliments it, we know we've found a new home for Luke.
Ginger and Marina think we've missed the jackpot this year. Some of the treasures might have been picked through already -- or tossed into garbage bins. I feel a little like I do when I've returned from Third World countries: How did we get so much stuff that we can throw out entire living rooms, giant TVs...and more?
I hope as a society we figure that out. Until then, you'll see us hippies digging.