“Free-Cycled” Empathy

by Christine Adams Beckett

On the first and third Wednesday of every month in Central Montclair, the Sanitation Department accepts bulky waste from the curb for pick-up.  Bulky waste day is a convenient way to get rid of whatever it is that plagues the household and won’t fit into a waste bin, but more than that: it offers an opportunity for the environmentally and economically minded citizen to take advantage of a little garbage picking.  Of course it isn’t called garbage picking here: it’s called Freecycle Day, and every citizen of Montclair has a singular story of a great find on Bulky “waste” day.

There are many stories: the baby item found on the side of the road for which no experienced mother wants to pay full price – or a red cent.  Antique furniture that one former owner found to be no longer fitting in his or her home found new life via the curb in another family’s den.  Intellectual-looking folks straddled over their bicycles dipping through a box of moldy books, to find a decent volume that somehow escaped damaging moisture was added to their own library.  Custom designed drapes not quite the right color for the new owner of the house next door was carted away in the back of  a Lexus SUV, a flash of burgundy peeking from its back windows.

Those suburbanites who are a bit more industrious try their hand at a rummage / garage / tag sale to make a little pocket change from their cast offs.  Bins of baby clothes, baskets of toys, old kitchen ware and furniture are displayed in the front garden, looking forlorn and in need of a good home.  I often look at these spreads and unless looking for something specific see nothing but piles of stuff.  But there are talented, artistic people out there who understand the Power of Vintage and can single out treasure in a flea market filled with obscured beauty.  One has built an entire business out of her gifted eye, Jennifer Rae Beck’s Chalk Farm.  A former Montclair Suburbanite, Jennifer now lives outside of Los Angeles and travels the world looking for treasure, most often in the Marché Aux Puces, or flea markets, of Paris.  Homes she has had a hand in decorating are inviting, serene places of repose which make one want to take off their shoes, pull up a cup of hot tea and curl up with a book.

Treasure hunting amongst the junk sales can prove to be even more profitable than a comfortable home for one lucky British businessman, Andy Fields, who bought a collection of five paintings at a Las Vegas tag sale for $5.  When he later took the paintings to a framer, they discovered that a portrait of singer Rudy Vallee sketched by Andy Warhol lay hidden beneath one of them.  The portrait has been estimated to be worth in the neighborhood of $2 million.  Not a bad return on those five smacks.

There are also the unfortunate freecyclers who have somehow landed the not-so-enviable prizes: Bedbug Elmo, the termite tea cupboard, cat urine soaked kitchen towels of once-beautiful flaxen linen.  Perhaps the spindled leg of that gorgeous round occasional table was compromised, a defect learned once a heavy brass lamp was placed upon it.  Maybe the cast off lap top computer was fried by a spilt cup of coffee, the smell of which has become more recognizable inside the closed confines of your home office.

Most of these items — in tact or otherwise — hold a story however.  There is a reason Vintage looks so appealing to us: with age comes character, charm and grace.  An invitation to speculate about an item’s origins, its travels, its stories, the experienced item holds much more interest, much like people. Kate Dicamillo recently published a children’s story entitled The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, satisfying every child’s curiosity about what happened to that lost favorite toy.  But also it offers an extended metaphor for the child: that only with experience comes empathy.  Perhaps our antiques represent a good, long life, one that teaches us with challenges in life, along the miraculous journey, there is a lot of love.  Everything on the curb on Freecycle Day may not be a treasure, one that represents that long wonderful journey, but there may be a Warhol or an Edward Tulane rabbit there, someday, waiting for appreciation and a better context.