Local Dumpster-Diving Lore: Wealth and Waste Are Wed

Mongo: Adventures in Trash , by Ted Botha. Bloomsbury, 243 pages, $23.95

This is the ideal time to release Mongo: Adventures in Trash , Ted Botha’s paean to the garbage foragers of New York. All summer long, as students vacate their dorms and prosperous young families head to the beach, the city’s curbs fill with reusable-and often extremely valuable-trash. In the past week alone, on my poky Brooklyn street, I’ve walked past three gutted refrigerators, a futon, a rather extraordinary bathtub-sized Captain Morgan Rum mirror, a fuchsia two-seater sofa, several head- and footboards and a collection of pristine hardbacks, among them Fear of Flying , Shadow of the Dolls and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People . Not bad for an outer borough.

As a child, Mr. Botha stockpiled used batteries in shoe boxes, and when he moved to New York in the early 1990′s, he furnished his apartment with “mongo”-local slang for “any discarded object that is retrieved.” (The term, unknown to me, sounds dispiritingly like the name of a Bobby McFerrin comeback album.) A South African familiar with the creative resurrection of other people’s possessions, Mr. Botha began to study, then pursue, his fellow scavengers. “I soon discovered that furnishing your apartment off the sidewalk has been a New York tradition for a very long time,” he writes. Why here precisely? “The combination of wealth, residents living at close quarters, and the fact that so much gets thrown away out of lack of space, sheer laziness, ignorance, or wastefulness means there’s lots of mongo and it’s easy to reach.” Or, more aphoristically: “Great wealth makes great garbage.”

Mr. Botha is interested not in button-down dilettantes who boast of rescuing potted ferns off Waverly Place, but in the full-time mongo devotees who sift through the trash as profession or vocation. In New York, it seems, collectors are as surprising and multifarious as the treasures they unearth. Mongo: Adventures in Trash is organized by scavenger type, each chapter introducing a different genre of collector: the articulate young anarchists who “Dumpster dive” for restaurants’ and grocery stores’ edible trash; the visionaries who converted an Allen Street brownstone into a folk-art installation of objets trouvés ; the archaeologists who dig up privies in Greenwich Village in search of antique medicine bottles and other Victorian refuse. Within these categories, Mr. Botha finds complex striations: For example, among the survivalists-collectors who make their living from trash-one must never confuse the “canners,” who take aluminum to redemption centers, with the “black-baggers,” who take whatever they can get.

Mr. Botha never lets us forget that most mongo maniacs rummage for motives other than profit. Steven Dixon, the former Chase Bank employee who now combs Upper Manhattan for printed matter (his finds range from first editions of Finnegans Wake , Ulysses and You Can’t Go Home Again to a card signed by Disraeli and a letter signed by Aaron Burr), is a lifelong bibliophile who immediately recognizes the literary and commercial value of every book he disinters. Self-improvement, and later curiosity, keeps one Chelsea woman rising early on trash-collection days: She first taught herself how to rehabilitate tossed-out computers to qualify for an I.T. job, then took to reading the contents of the computers’ hard drives. Other spurs to collecting include reverence for the past, escape from the cubicle, the thrill of discovery, political conviction and a shield against death.

“It became like an addiction,” one pack rat-the most familiar and least interesting group in Mongo’s gallery-told Mr. Botha. “I always had to go out when I knew there was a garbage collection. Once you start, you have to go out. There’s this fear you might miss something.” But though Mr. Botha acknowledges the psychological instability of some extreme collectors, or hoarders-take the notorious Collyer brothers in Harlem, who were buried beneath their accumulated rubble-he would rather discuss mongo’s healthier practitioners.

Living for and off trash affords a degree of freedom rare in this citadel of late-stage capitalism, and many mongo collectors identify themselves with heroes of the Wild West. “I think people that collect would have been cowboys or something like that. They can’t be tied down,” says Stephen Dixon. Scott, the outhouse archaeologist, says collectors remind him of the “daring forty-niners of the gold rush,” while Dave-a “sludger” who excavates centuries-old treasures from New York’s vast acreage of landfill-compares himself to Crocodile Dundee. “Whether cowboy, prospector, knight-errant, or train-jumping circus performer,” Mr. Botha concludes, “in the end the ultimate quest of every collector seems to be, at least in part, freedom and adventure.” He makes this same point earlier: “Being free is something that every collector prizes almost as much as the mongo itself.”

As the above quotations indicate, Mr. Botha’s prose occasionally veers toward the clunky, but he writes about his subject with such earnest reverence that it’s difficult, after a time, not to share his enthusiasm. Megapolitans eager to learn about the seamy underbelly of Manhattan should certainly consult Mongo , a work of urban reportage packed with arcane trivia and entertaining revelations. Once you know about mongo, you start to notice it everywhere; and once you know about the subculture of people dedicated to the pursuit of mongo, you remember to marvel at what an odd, amazing city you’ve washed up in.

Laura C. Moser is the author of a biography of Bette Davis and a young-adult novel, both of which will be published this year.