Dump Pickings

A postcard-perfect day at the entrance to the Rockport, MA dump.

It’s a dubious distinction to have the road to the town dump named for you. But that’s precisely what happened to Ann Fisk, (first wife of organ builder Charles Fisk, whose biography I am writing). To be fair, “Tin Can Annie” really earned the honor.

Back in the 1960s — long before recycling was a part of the zeitgeist — longer still before dumpster diving and freecycling were Things — Ann was a pioneer in these fields. Liberal ideals surely came into it, but there were more pragmatic reasons, too. Organ building is not a lucrative profession (in fact, you could do better financially waiting tables at the right sort of restaurant). For Ann, managing a household on what her husband brought home required a considerable measure of thrift. One of her strategies was to take the kids down to the dump on Saturday morning to see what was fresh on the pile. Some of their best finds were practical: clothes and shoes. Others were entertaining: her daughter Miranda once salvaged a dictionary so old that it defined a parachute as a safety device for evacuating a hot air balloon, and her son Si found a still-functional 8mm movie camera with just a slight defect in the mechanism for taking up the film.

The Ann Fisk Swap Shop: sparing frugal Yankees the indignity of sifting through smelly trash to find the good stuff.

Later, as a Rockport selectman, Ann worked to institute a municipal recycling program — a precursor to the kind of system that now allows most of us to leave our empty milk jugs in plastic bins by the curb. But instead of plastic bins, Rockport in the late 60s had the Fisk children. Ann drove around town and made them hop out and dash onto the porches of the houses that put out bundled newspapers for her recycling drives. Later, she arranged for the construction of the Swap Shop — basically a shed on dump grounds where useable and fixable items could be deposited or collected. It made dump picking a little more dignified. It endures to this day.

On a Friday afternoon when I was visiting Rockport last month, I persuaded the Fisk “kids,” Si and Miranda (who are now old enough and solvent enough to buy their own shoes), to take me to the dump for old time’s sake. I envisioned a historical re-enactment in the name of research. That is, I thought it would be edifying to talk about the Fisk family with Miranda and Si while doing something characteristic that the family used to do: searching through cast-offs for something useful or fun.

We met at the house where I was staying, piled into Si’s car, and drove to Ann Fisk Way. Unfortunately, there was a sign indicating that the dump was closed that afternoon, without explanation. But if anyone had a right to go to that dump when they pleased, it was the living descendants of Tin Can Annie herself; we flouted the sign and drove in. Nobody confronted us, but we didn’t linger, either. Perhaps the “kids” were relieved to have an excuse not to dig in. For a moment, Si eyed a freestanding toilet paper holder that would fulfill a present household need, though ultimately he decided that it savored too strongly of Someone Else’s Bathroom*. He climbed back into the car, and we drove away.

After dinner that evening, we screened the old family videos shot by Si on his 8mm dump camera, which Miranda had digitized. It was a mash-up of childhood scenes: a dog runs in circles while one kid pounds on another in what appears to be fun, at least for the assailant; kids use a rowboat in an unsafe manner; old cars cruise by; matronly women wear hats and sip drinks in somebody’s yard; mailboxes open and shut in an experiment with stop motion animation. Then a younger version of Miranda leaps from the rowboat in a ruffled bathing suit. Young Si pulls on his courier bag to begin his paper route. I think I see fleeting glimpses of Charlie and Ann, in the scene where they’re shoveling off the surface of the frozen lake to play hockey, but it’s hard to tell for sure. Like many home movies of that era, the action seems to race, frame by frame, to outpace the clock; people do not move with the same fluidity they do in life. And whatever the auteur’s artistic sensibilities may have been, he was a kid with a damaged camera he found at the dump. The movie is, on one hand, nearly useless for telling me anything of significance about the family that they were. On the other hand, it is a revealing artifact unsurpassed in its authenticity, for all its inscrutable details.

It’s true, last month’s dump picking expedition was a bust. I came away literally empty handed. Fortunately, most of my “real” research has been more productive. And yet, dump picking seems like an apt metaphor for the experience of digging into a personal history to write this biography. The research process has been largely about sifting through dusty old stuff in search of what remains useful. There are items that stink and items whose original use I cannot decipher, amidst all the metaphorical tuna cans and banana peels** (remnants of daily life), and a few real treasures that make it all worth the effort. The best moments of research/dump picking afford a satisfaction beyond mere entertainment. I imagine Miranda’s wonder, as a child, the moment she understood the world view of the lexicographer who had to define “parachute” without knowing that one day there would be planes.

— Corrections —

* After I shared this post with Si, he wished to clarify that the reason the toilet paper dispenser was unacceptable was that the rust patterns at the base were strongly indicative of pee splash. It’s not like he’s just too good for other people’s bathroom fixtures, in general.

** As Miranda points out: her mother would insist that these two items technically belong in the recycling and compost bins, respectively–not on the trash heap.

6 thoughts on “Dump Pickings

  1. I wonder if we all have a gene for sifting through rubble for treasure? I know I do. My favorite memories always have to do with exploring the (seemingly) unexplored, or traipsing through abandoned buildings (remnants of buildings, really) to find things like very old newspapers—what is it about them that is so much better than the internet?—or discarded shoes, or my favorite find when I was thirteen: an old, black, intact Japanese kimono I wish I had kept.

    1. You’re right. Something about the act of finding a cast-off physical objects inspires a sense of serendipity that’s hard to come by out in the electronic ether. You know those discarded shoes once held another pair of feet, and you might literally try stuffing your on feet to see how they fit. And the kimono–I’m guessing you didn’t find it in the dumpster behind a dry goods shop in Japan, or you wouldn’t necessarily have remarked upon it–there’s something about finding something outside of its expected context that implies a story that the mind begins racing to imagine. (You pretty much expect to find anything and everything on the Internet now, which makes none of it seem quite so remarkable.) The old kimono may be long gone, but here’s hoping more objects of wonder may come your way.

  2. Reblogged this on A Biographer in Perth and commented:
    Over on her blog in another amusing and insightful post, Laura Sewell Matter’s biographical quest takes her to the rubbish dump, the one named after the wife of her subject. What a meta-moment! As she says: “The research process has been largely about sifting through dusty old stuff in search of what remains useful. There are items that stink and items whose original use I cannot decipher, amidst all the metaphorical tuna cans and banana peels** (remnants of daily life), and a few real treasures that make it all worth the effort.”

  3. I finish my biographical quest novel with the unearthing of a home movie. For Tom, the quester, it’s a moment of reanimation like nothing he’s experienced so far on the quest. After reading your experience, I may have romanticised the possibility a little!

    1. I would wax romantic about the right sort of home movie too, I’m sure. And now I’m curious to find out what Tom saw. The thing about Si’s movie is that, when he was twelve, he was more interested in cars, cats, and the antics of neighborhood kids than he was in his family. I find it a little hard to get excited about the cars, myself. I was pleased to have a face to go with the name of the family cat, but I would have preferred more footage of the humans. Ah well. At least I have a greater cumulative sense of what their childhood was like. That’s worth something.

    2. Which reminds me that I have my family’s old slide projector and a box of slides (not quite the same as unearthing a home movie, but close) I haven’t seen in 45 years. Perhaps, when I am further into my memoir, I should finally pull it out and mine the treasures there.

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