Prospecting at the Dump

Written By: Erica Kalick

Gold had hit a record high of $1787 per ounce, platinum was even higher. Bernie Madoff had already made off with the investments of whole municipalities, iconic charitable organizations, unfortunate A-list individuals and wannabes. It was a year for re-grouping and re-thinking one’s life plan, and in some cases, cashing in or out. Folks whose sacred intention it was to pass down Grandma Sadie’s gold locket or Uncle Bernie’s gold retirement watch, were now scrambling for cold cash. Precious metal buyers knew it and exploited the situation.

Not one to play lotto or bet on the horses, my breed of no risk, gambling entertainment sometimes manifested as a treasure hunt at the local dump. A diehard “Sanford & Son” fan, the Shelter Island dump appealed to the Fred Sandford, free lunch aspect of my personality. And, of course, we all know there is no such thing as a free lunch — we all pay. Over the years, I have paid in the form of clutter and collections that seemed like a good idea at the time. Part of the problem with “stuff” is that not only does it start to own you, but also begins to transform our most precious commodity — time itself. We need more space for our stuff, we must work harder to create new houses to house our new stuff. Sometimes it’s about feng shueing the space we already have. Maybe we are not so good at this and need to hire experts. And stuff is not just confined to objects, but paper, paper and even more paper in the form of news clippings that spark projects ideas; exotic trips to be taken; charitable involvements to foster as well as business plans of mice and men, we want to pursue.

Books, being the greatest collection of paper, go unread and weigh heavily on our shelves reminding us of our exhaustion and inability to focus on a single paragraph. Why have I moved the same box of books from place to place? What is the impetus of disgust that prompts me to finally load that box in my trunk and bring it round trip back to the dump? More importantly, what made me collect those circa 1950’s gardening encyclopedias when I had not the time, space, money or intact back to create a garden?

I think it’s a wish for the me I wish I could be someday. Somehow I have a mistaken notion I am some sort of rarified historical renovation featured on “This Old House” with a staff of carpenters, wood workers, plumbers and specialized contractors at my beck and call. It is this primal anxiety, I am not enough at this moment in time, that brings me to the “Goody Pile” at the dump.

In fact, I am so uncomfortable right now writing this essay, that I can barely sit still any longer. I must indulge my addiction and head off to the dump.

But before I go, I have to tell you about the great haul I got yesterday consisting of a gently used sunny yellow, cast iron Le Creuset omelette pan (I REALLY needed an omelette pan); a darling set of Japanese porcelain espresso cups and saucers circa 1940’s (never mind the set is 4 saucers and 5 cups, the 5th cup is now re-purposed as the perfect Q-tip receptacle); a pristine Laura Ashley pink lampshade appointed with white flowers (eventually I will find the lamp for the lampshade); another set of Japanese tea cups & saucers (which I am going to give to my 8 year old niece); a set of antique Asian calendar prints cleverly laminated into place mats; two brand new tiny plastic garbage pails one white one yellow (one can never have enough tiny pails); and three books one entitled, “A Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart” by Noel Carroll (this volume attracted me as a text that might help me better understand my husband’s abiding interest in the genre of campy, horror films such as “They Saved Hitler’s Brain”)

Now, my dear readers, it’s off to the dump. A Sunday run to the dump has a particular quality reserved just for Sundays. Folks are in less of a hurry and more apt to share and make a joke in the form of out loud reviews and snarky comments.

Until very recently, when the goody pile was on the opposite side of the dump, the staff would unceremoniously drive a back hoe into the pile at approximately 4 pm or even earlier, in an attempt to get rid of the clutter, odor and chaos. People were not pleased.

Now, the goody pile has it’s own tent complete with a 5 tired bookshelf, as well as an 8 foot, industrial strength coat rack for clothing. There are now a series of 6 foot tables to drop off stuff for kids, kitchen items ( I have outfitted several kitchens over the years from whisks to lobster pots), picture less picture frames, board games, whatever is not completely broken or does not smell. The goody pile has a gate keeper now, who polices exactly what is acceptable or not fit for human consumption. Things that are wet, smell or are hopelessly broken, don’t make it past the front entrance. This policy has elevated the quality of the dump experience as flies, bees, mosquitos, and noseums now tend to go elsewhere.

Today, I found a 6 x 8 bamboo picture frame from Thailand; a series of brand new plastic platters perfect for exhibiting a specialty food item my company produces; two Japanese red & black lacquer rice bowls; an almost brand new set of high count cotton thread bed sheets with a repeated jungle pattern of three chimpanzees in a “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” scenario and a back copy of Audubon magazine with the cover story, “Eureka!Audubon Scientists Help Find Piping Plovers in the Nick of Time.” When I finish the piece I am writing, I vow to read at least two stories from this issue. If not, it goes back to the dump.

All this being said, perhaps my most lucrative find at the Shelter Island dump was literally, pure gold. Several years ago, I arrived one hectic week day on an impossibly hot day at high noon. What possessed me to come at that time was a power beyond me, as I usually go in the late afternoon on my way to the beach. The goody pile was in the old spot, a buzz with all manner of greedy summer insects on the wing. One guy was already into a box someone had just dropped off and holding up an ersatz, men’s, gold-plated Rolex watch. He was mesmerized by his find, inspecting the piece as he dangled it for all to see.

Springing into action, I delved into the box while he was not paying attention. In the box was World War 1 and 2 memorablia as well as several smaller boxes within the main box. I began opening the boxes. In one, I found 4 gold tooth fillings, in another, two sets of gold cufflinks. I quickly pocketed the booty and drove off.

Many months past before I took the findings back to New York City to liquidate the alleged gold. I was delighted to find it was real gold and high quality gold 22 and 18 karat. Ka-Ching! Hundreds of dollars later I decided to put the cash away for a rainy day.

That rainy day came years later when I had discovered the store, “Beads of Paradise” in New York City and became enchanted with the idea of designing my own jewelry. My best friend had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and I was wild with worry. In an attempt to engage in a healing activity, I headed to the shop. I decided to refurbish an antique, Tibetan amulet of lapis lazuli (the stone of Medicine Buddha), that I bought in happier times at an antique shop on Chartres Street during a Jazz Fest trip to New Orleans. In place of the simple leather cord that originally came with the amulet, I created an elaborate beaded necklace of carved silver beads interspersed with semi-precious stones.

I spent hours with the Nepalese shop keeper as I selected each silver and stone bead. I was wonderfully absorbed and lost total track of time. That day I also designed a necklace for my friend with lapis lazuli as it’s centerpiece. To me, turning the “gold money” into another substance was an odd tale of alchemy. Sometimes gold is better spent transformed into love and healing. My friend has made a wonderful recovery.

I am still an avid dump gleaner, and like all of life’s lucky and pleasurable times, try and hope to repeat a peak experience. It cannot be replicated in the same way, every moment is changing and wonderfully different.