Garbage foraging is not new, but we are here to make it respectable. We had a boost last year when thousands of middle class Argentinian families were filmed on the garbage heaps of Buenos Aires after the country’s spectacular economic collapse.
Mongo: Adventures in trash by Ted Botha (Bloomsbury $23.95) is a tribute to the garbage foragers of another city: New York.
As New Yorker’s endlessly improve their tiny apartments, or buy vast new “Home Theater” systems, the city’s streets and dumpers fill with reusable and often extremely valuable trash.
In recent days I have walked past a fur coat, seemingly in perfect condition, a 7 foot Mahogany bookcase, and a Methuselah of Champagne, admittedly empty — but a bottle the size of a small man is still a highly collectible item.
As a child Ted Botha stockpiled used batteries in garbage boxes, but he has now found a more useful outlet for his interests. Mongo is apparently New York slang for “any discarded object which is retrieved. ” Until now I had only known it as the name of the vast Neanderthal in Blazing Saddles with his one memorable line “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”
Botha has certainly stocked his entire apartment with Mongo, and in doing so discovered that New York is one of the best places to be searching for Mongo. The crowded island, the wealth existing alongside poverty, are ideal conditions for this search. As he puts it – “Great wealth makes for great garbage…”
When Botha first took to the streets it was because he needed to, and now he charts the lives of those who still do so out of necessity. Not for him the millionaire’s daughter furnishing her starter home on 14th Street. Mongo: adventures in trash is organised by scavenger type. Each chapter introduces a different type of garbage collector from the articulate young anarchists who “dumpster dive” outside supermarkets, to the canners and black-baggers, the forming specialising in rescuing and selling aluminium , and the latter who take anything they can get.
There are also unclassifiable individuals, like Steven Dixon, a former Chase banker who now combs the streets looking for rare or valuable printed matter – his finds range from a first edition of Finnegan’s Wake to a card signed by Disraeli.
Many of the collectors are obsessive compulsive hoarders, and Botha prefers to concentrate his attention on the less damaged members of society. He focuses on the freedom that a life of trash gathering confers — “Being free is something that almost every collector prizes above the mongo itself.” This is not a great book, but it is a good one and a useful guide to anyone who is setting off on a life of mongo in any world city.
Mongo: Adventures in TrashMongo: Adventures in Trash