A Day at the Dump, Page 2

Perhaps John recognized in me a kindred spirit. While I think his garbage and his vines are in part a method of expanding the boundaries of his home, I think they also are meant as a gift: John wants to be my friend, and having been frustrated in his attempt to win my friendship with his scintillating conversation, he has set himself to the task of winning it by giving me the most precious gift of all: his garbage.

Good taste forbids me from discussing the staggeringly Freudian implications of this in any detail, but I believe it to be so.

A few weeks ago I found that the rugged plastic trash can that I purchased new when Efren and I moved into this house had become ripped to shreds. I believe this came from having an entire fence broken into little bits and crammed into it each week for months.

I think that John has missed the mark, but his mistake is understandable. I am not "tidy", it is certain, but I am "clean". I usually shower twice a day, perhaps three times a day. I cannot make it through the day if I do not wash my hair - if I skip my shower on the rare occasion that I feel so rushed as to skip this most enjoyable experience, I always wash myself in the sink at the office restroom. John was correct in thinking that I like to collect what others regard as trash, but he gave me the wrong kind of trash: he gave me what I consider refuse (the pile of pipes came close, but I would not be satisfied by letting them lie in the yard. I would want to cut them up and assemble a geodesic dome in my front yard. This would be be blatant enough that he would consciously feel that I had stolen his property, even though he had meant, subconsciously, to give it to me.)

I collect vast amounts of stuff, but everything I own has its own little unique feature of great interest. I realized years ago that I had no more room to put this stuff, so I have disciplined myself and stopped collecting things, and I even have thrown away several pickup truck loads of old books, magazines, junk mail, telephone books and several hundred pounds of mechanical and electrical surplus components to the used book shops, the recycler and the dump.

I swear that I used to circle all the prime numbers on the reader service cards in the trade publications of several different industries, that I tore from magazines at the University library. I received my early education in business and manufacturing by studying the mail I recieved (stoically delivered each day by my sturdy letter carrier - when I realized the weight of her burden I set out a large box on the ground so that she could just drop it rather than cram it into my mailbox... I received this mail at two different addresses, my own and my business partner's, then merged it at the home that we shared later on) and by the conversations I had with bemused technical sales engineers who would call me on the phone to sell their wares to Holotechnics, to Bright Ideas, or to Oddball Enterprises, to find me replying to their query, "No, Lou N. Gerat (loungerat!) is out right now but I can speak with you."

Sometimes I would even tell the sales engineers what my scam was, and find they were still as interested to speak to me, if not more so as they understood that really I wanted to hear what they had to say even if they knew I meant to purchase nothing from them.

I learned a great deal about hydraulics from a fellow that I had actually made a serious inquiry to, with the intention of purchasing miniature pumps and torque converters for the purpose of making balloon-tired electrically powered roller skates for touring on the beach. This was not my invention - that honor goes to Billy Rainbow - but I meant to develop them commercially and pay royalties to Billy.

(Once the Pitney-Bowes rep was quite perplexed to pay me a sales call at the run-down old pseudovictorian duplex that I shared with five other college students, their five boyfriends and girlfriends, and whoever else happened to come by to crash on our couch. I heard later that my housemate Glen explained that Michael Crawford, Vice President of Holotechnics, did indeed do business there, but he was at his job as a technical support engineer in a nearby town, and also that Glen suggested that I would not be needing a postal meter. The sales rep still telephoned me later to make sure she had the right place, perhaps wanting to make sure she had not totally lost her grip on reality.)

While I quit sending in the reader service cards after sales reps started persistently telephoning me during the day as I tried to sleep after my graveyard shift job, I did keep all of the junk mail for years, carefully organized and frequently retrieved and studied, and I still have the very best, the laser optics and laser dye and electronics catalogs, carefully stored away in the four-drawer heavy duty file cabinet in my living room.

I also have taken care, when I do purchase anything meant to last more than a few days, to save up my money and buy only the highest quality product obtainable. I don't buy things merely because they are expensive, and in particular I shun brand names and fancy labels. Quality of consumer goods lies, for me, within the underlying structure, and not on the surface appearance. Thus I wear extremely comfortable, long-lasting leather shoes, and durable 100% cotton or wool clothing. I'm just beginning to wear silk - I used to react to the touch of it the way many people do to scratching fingernails on chalkboards.

(I am starting to acquire some sense of visual aesthetics so that others are starting to regard me as well-dressed, but I have always been extremely picky about my clothes: they have to feel nice. The texture of my clothing is of paramount importance, as is the warmth of it. My clothing is usually wrinkled, and completely without any sense of color or pattern (except that I prefer either solid colors, or fine pinstripes, but the choice of color or pattern bears no relation to anything else I might wear), my shirts usually not tucked in and my shoes often untied even at important business meetings, but it is always freshly laundered and quite comfortable to me. It annoys Dave no end that I wear hats indoors, but I do this because they feel nice on my head.)

Lately it has occurred to me to collect small things: my Macintosh Powerbook, compact disks, tiny but interesting toys (look for the "Jet Ball" at the gift shops next time you are in the L.A. airport. They are clear plastic balls, filled with a clear liquid, with weighted spheres painted like eyeballs inside. They look bizarre, and have peculiar physical properties: high mass, but very low moment of inertia so they appear to slide around on things like ice cubes when they are actually rolling. The weights keep the eyes looking upwards, but oscillating, as they roll. I use these to demonstrate lab-frame vs. center of momentum particle physics to the amazement and horror of my non-physicist friends.)

Efren's latest find is a tiny telephone directory, free from GTE. The text is just big enough to read, and it can be held comfortably in one hand. I asked him to pick up another that I now keep in my car. I used to keep a milk crate of telephone books in the back of my first car, a Toyota Corona wagon. I had phone books for every SF Bay Area city, as well as the Los Angeles residential and business-to-business directory, the Northern California business buyer's guide, and Sacramento, and would drive around all these cities browsing around for interesting stuff to buy in the small shops in industrial parks, chatting with the engineers there.

I was often asked by these engineers, quite mystified as to why someone might come in off the street to purchase, say, a two-foot square sheet of teflon with cash (for use as a work surface for building structures from epoxy... one can drip the glue right on the teflon and pop it off when it is set):

"Are you an artist?"

After I while I learned to say:


Thus I have a reputation as an utter slob, when I feel, in my own mind that I am fastidiously neat. I have always felt that this reputation is undeserved, much as I have always felt it unfair that others regard me as lazy, when in fact I work very, very hard, but always with a relaxed and casual demeanor. The perceptions that others have of me often seem quite incongruous with my own experience of myself. I am sure that my friends would regard this all as an elaborate rationalization for not washing my dishes.

I have come to realize that I choose to be neat in stricly limited ways, ways that others might not notice, but that hold central importance to me. For example, my computer program code is probably the most neatly organized that one is ever likely to see:

When I am hired as a consultant to fix someone else's buggy code, my first strategy is to just neaten it up. I see and fix the bugs as I go along. While others hunt for bugs with a magnifying glass and pick them out with tweezers, I back my truck up to the computer and toss out the bugs with a shovel. It works very well for me - but I think that my recent dispute with my adviser stemmed from his unwillingness to even give me permission to do this, as he felt it was a waste of time. The resolution came when I realized I did not need his permission, and decided that I would do it anyway, after I have taken a break from the clutches of Dr. Heusch.

When I make things, I now try to put a nice finish on them, to spend time making something of both external and inherent quality, rather than just making lots of stuff. Most of my bookcases are coarsely constructed of unfinished pine shelving, but my last bookcase is made of birch-veneer plywood with oak trim, and a nice clear lacquer finish. It really is quite lovely. I intend to slowly replace each of my old bookcases with these nice new ones. This last bookcase I keep in my bedroom, by my desk, made from a birch door, again with a lacquer finish, set on milk crates. I bought a eucalyptus-framed futon, a beechwood stool and a tatami mat for my floor. I want to replace the other bookcase in my room with one of these new ones, and get a birch chest of drawers (this is too complex for me to make myself) to complete my room. After that my hardwood will encroach gradually out to the rest of the house.

Last week John asked me to haul the stuff to the dump with him. He said that he had hired a lovely young french woman to help him around the house, and wanted me to meet her, as he thought we would strike an interest in each other. He said that he would pay for the dump run, and he, I and the french woman would load the truck with all the stuff in the front, and as much of the cut-up tree from the back as would fit until the truck was full. He also asked to borrow my "lawnmower from hell". I said that I did not remember the garage door lock combination, so we would have to bring the lawnmower out the back, and lift it over the gate and squeeze it past the pile of pipes.

He also "noticed" that my trash can was broken, and offerred to give me one of his own. A beat-up metal one of his has already taken up residence, much as a cat might leave one owner and go to another caretaker in the same neighborhood, if it feels it is being neglected.

He said that he was not sure that the dump would be open on the weekend, but he would call to find out, and to find out how much it actually cost. I just said that I knew it was open seven days, and that it cost five bucks a truckload. He seemed anxious at this, and insisted he should still call.

This struck me as very odd. Here is a man with a greater interest in and awareness of garbage than I had ever seen, and he does not know when the dump is open, or how much it costs. I started to ponder what was really at work here.