One of the more unique and unappealing aspects of New York City, is that there is nowhere to put the trash. Two days a week, multi-story apartment complexes disgorge mountains of garbage that line the already narrow sidewalks. One day a week this trash is an odd and strange assortment of bulk items: from couches, to discarded child’s toys, to remnants of “art” from another decade. New Yorkers walk through chi-chi neighborhoods and into condominium buildings where the price of a one bedroom would buy a small mansion anywhere else, casually stepping over their own trash. Like finding that one place on the subway to cast your eyes that does not constitute staring, New Yorkers learn to “not see” large parts of their personal space.
There are those, however, that seek out the trash. The can collectors are the most common, collecting soda cans to return for deposit. On bikes, or pushing heaping shopping carts, they drift from trash heap to trash heap, building their already impressive collections. Others sift through the garbage casually, looking for items they can use themselves. A woman stood next to me today as I photographed, opening each garbage bag and peering in, hoping to be rewarded by the contents inside. And then there are the professionals, pulling up next to the heaps in paneled vans and carting off the furniture for repair, resurrection, and another life.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, or so the saying goes, and in one story at least the word treasure is right one the mark. A woman living on the West side of Manhattan, once found a painting in the garbage on the side of the road. “Even though I didn’t understand it, I knew it had power,” she said later. She brought it home where it hung in her living room till she learned, through an episode of the Antiques Roadshow, that it was a “stolen masterpiece” by the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo. It sold at Sothebey’s for over 1 million dollars. The woman earned a $15,000 reward, a share of the profits, and the bragging rights that she has a pretty legitimate eye for modern art.
Today, as afternoon rolled around and I had yet to get my picture, I grabbed my camera and slipped out of work for a quick trip around the block. I photographed robins pulling worms out of the damp spring soil (too dark and thus too blurry), a colorful fire escape (too bland), naked dolls through the day care window (close), but what captured my photographer’s eye the most was a smashed mirror, lying in the trash, covered with a pile of snow that was littered with shards of broken glass. For once I was seeing the trash, and in it I found my treasure.