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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Overcast
The Paper
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Sweeping up after Moving Days 2007 in Madison
It's not quite a Hippie Christmas any longer
A UW student stands guard over her pile of belongs overnight on August 14-15.
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

The open lawn in the future home of Madison's Central Park at the corner of Main and Ingersoll streets was bustling on Tuesday evening, a steady stream of people stocking up on fresh vegetables, cheeses and other foods at the Eastside Farmers' Market. This wasn't the only place to shop at this space by the train tracks on Tuesday, though. The Madison Free Store was back and in action... sort of.

Emerging over the days immediately preceding and following the annual mid-August rental renewal date in downtown Madison, the Madison Free Store has been a regular fixture at this east side plot of turf over the last few years. Like the joint city/UW recycling program for charities, the free store is both a response to the tremendous waste of perfectly usable items that are thrown to the curbs every year, and an attempt to bring some order to the gleaning frenzy that follows.

"What is not salvaged ends up in the garbage, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars in landfill tipping fees and driving hapless sanitation workers into a veritable frenzy," proclaims the Free Store's organizers. "It could be otherwise, which is why every couple of years some folks who believe another world is possible invite the community to spread the spirit of reciprocity, mutual aid, and stewardship by bringing unwanted items to a central location for redistribution."

Indeed, in past years the free store has been a sight to behold, a sprawling supermarket of furniture, clothing, non-perishable food, and a profusion of other items left behind by spendthrift renters. And it was busy, many people from multiple life backgrounds taking advantage of the gathering long before the concept of "freegan" was popularized by The New York Times in June. This year, though, the scene was rather different.

The Madison Free Store was in action, but there was but a trickle of people dropping off and picking up would-be garbage. The store itself was a paltry affair, a forlorn television and a pair of end tables towering over a few strewn handfuls of things that looked little different from any trash-picked curbside. Perhaps the new apartments under construction across Main Street were apocryphal for the future of this someday park space.

The state of the free store, though, was merely a reflection of the rest of the city, where serious gleaning and an even more aggressive assault by the City's streets department left things comparative clean to the legendary messes of years past. The curbs along downtown side of the Marquette neighborhood around Willy and Jenifer streets were fairly empty on Tuesday afternoon. That evening, much of the Langdon and Old Marketplace neighborhoods on the northern edge of the isthmus were similarly clear, a far cry from the chest-high piles that have been known to sprout along stretches of Johnson and Gorham streets.

By Wednesday morning, many streets in the heart of downtown Madison were remarkably clear, the city streets crews hard at work amidst the renters busy with their moving trucks. Hippie Christmas, it seems, was a comparatively empty stocking compared to previous years for those gleaners who weren't grazing with the intensity of a goat.

Overly aggressive trash-picking, in fact, is one headache faced by some renters on the move. While many piles lining the curbs are indeed garbage, or at least garbage mixed with decent stuff ripe for prospecting, there are others that have not been forsaken. These mounds of furniture and boxes are but a temporary stop between rental units, their owners not lucky enough to acquire a truck or actual roofed space for housing their belongings during the twenty-four hours of rental limbo imposed by many downtown landlords.

These unlucky renters are forced to zealously guard their piles lest they get appropriated during the trash-picking free-for-all.

Anna, a UW senior moving from an apartment on Mansion Hill, had to spend twenty-four hours from Tuesday until Wednesday mornings on sentry duty, taking care of her worldly possessions gathered underneath a blue rain tarp. "The reason this is out here is because I rented a U-Haul for 24 hours a week ago, and then they called me on Sunday saying I could only have it for four to six hours," she explains. "Then I called a storage company who said I could only rent one out for a whole month, so I asked myself, 'What am I going to do?"

Camp out overnight was the only answer, her family out of state and her friends immersed in their own moves.

Guard duty through the day and early evening on Tuesday wasn't so bad, she says. "Many people I met on the street have been so nice. Somebody brought me Starbucks, somebody else brought me a Mountain Dew. People are just being really cool."

As night fell, though, she couldn't take her eye away from her pile for a moment. "People have been coming up and trying to steal my stuff," she says. "At one point I had to take some boxes apart, and one lady came up, took a vase of mine, and literally started running. I had to say, 'Excuse me Miss, that's my stuff.'" This continued on a regular basis through the night, people lifting up the tarp and opening boxes every ten minutes, she reports.

By bar time, people out prowling for more than a little trash-picking had frightened her enough to acquire a fellow guard. "It was really creepy," she says Wednesday morning, noting that there had been more than a few scares through the night. Ultimately, she was glad to get going on Wednesday morning, after a night of warding off gleaners both the clueless and malevolent and a morning of steady rain.

At least in this anecdotal way, it seems like the mythic Hippie Christmas is eating itself. As the city does a better job at cleaning the streets early and swiftly, the gleaning follows suit. Any garbage worth recycling is quickly claimed, leaving unscrupulous gleaners to go after the open-air storage spaces of students and other downtown renters.

Bah Humbug.

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