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PHOTOS: Jack Rikess
There have been a few Fridays that I’ve accompanied Raymond on her ritual end-of-week junking expedition. On the north side of San Francisco’s Haight, across the Panhandle, Ray likes the surprises or discoveries that can be harvested from this particular line of trashcans waiting out near the curb for pick-up.
“Lots of the junk I find here has hardly been touched, some stuff still in the box. With the plastic still on. This is where I’ve found money and pills. But I like the shirts, napkins and new linens I find around here. Twenty or thirty years ago, this block never minded when I went through their stuff. This generation thinks I’m going after their stuff for bank statements or something with their social security number on it. ID theft,” Ray laughs between dives and forays into the array of bins. I follow, suddenly paranoid, looking up into the large bay windows for shadows with cell phones as we dish through their trash. There’s a quiet fury of lids opening and closing as Ray works the area.
For reasons I can’t explain, I’m beginning to act suspiciously as a lookout. Ray inspects lamps, jewelry boxes, clothing of all kinds while prodding and poking with one of those inexpensive metal “grabbers.” Ray navigates between bulging sacks of a week’s worth of locally grown garbage, ripening in perforated Hefty bags. The conversation continues with large pauses as Ray’s head and body disappears into a trashcan the size of Chris Christie.
“I don’t know why they get so bent out of shape? I’m just following the old Chinese ladies looking for pop cans. Forty years ago when I started doing this, the cans were filled with stuff. Now because the area’s richer or something, gentrification, yuppies Googleheads; it’s cheaper to hire Mexicans to haul the trash away than to rent a dumpster or a big bin. But I still find good stuff. And you never know what’s in the next dumpster.”
You have to wonder why someone would do this for 40 years? Commitment? Treasure? Something of value that could be resold that’s worth something? The hunt? Memories? Or just something you can’t put into words…
I’ve known Ray longer than any of my boyhood chums or the kids I grew up with in the Midwest. When I moved to the Haight-Ashbury and into our building almost thirty years ago, Ray had already been renting there for ten years. Now Ray is 72, as neighbors and tenants we’ve experienced earthquakes, eviction notices and the smoky highs and coming-down lows of living in the sweet ganja-scented Land of Jerry’s (Garcia) Kids, a couple of floors apart.
I come to Raymond’s apartment to waste time during the day. I have the opposite of writer’s block. I have writer’s freeway. Sometimes I need to stop, smell the roses, do some yoga, go upstairs and hang with Raymond and then get back on the keyboard. Today’s one of those days. Pretty much like yesterday was one too.
Ray’s apartment has seven doors, not counting the front door. Only two of them are attached, the bathroom and bedroom doors. The other five are leaning against a wall, surrounded by the rest of the knick-knacks and collectables landscaping the flat. Fraying tapestries splashed with 60’s posters and hand-made signs taped or pinned to the front, not only cover most of the walls and windows, but also hang down from the entrances to the living room and hallways. Walking in is like entering a sheik’s tent. Cats scamper around your feet wondering who you are and what you want. I’ve learned to keep one eye closed trudging up the long staircase to create night-vision so when I duck under the tapestry hanging behind the front door, I’m prepared for the darkness.
Near the door is Ray’s sturdy granny-cart stuffed with today’s catch. Besides a cool glass jar of garment buttons from the fifties, two cowboy shirts and some CDs that someone probably tossed when Amoeba Records wouldn’t buy them, there was a music box with a broken ballerina, t-shirts a’plenty and some other odds and ends Ray keeps in the “new arrivals” area. The big prize of the day is leaning against the breakfront, that once belong to Sausalito’s legendary Madame and mayor, Sally Stanford; an ornate oak framed mirror that is easily five feet tall and weighs close to sixty pounds. The mirror is barely two inches shorter and only thirty pounds lighter than Ray.
You got to wonder? How does she do it? Is there that much money in junk?
Ray and I didn’t really speak much for the first twenty years of being neighbors, except for in passing on the front steps. I always knew she was a dumpster diver but I didn’t know she really was a dumpster diver, or junker as she calls it.
In those early days, I’d see her in her hippie gear of a blue work shirt, vest and blue jeans as she walked her young son, who, in contrast, always wore a tie and a smart sweater, to our neighborhood school, Grace Slick Elementary. Our friendship actually began about ten years ago when we were both struggling with our landlord and it grew from there.
Recent acquisitions from Ray include; two pairs of brand new leather shoes, size 14, hard to find even retail, original t-shirts from the 60’s that sell in New York for hundreds, unused notebooks and a working banjo. Through the years, I’ve received hundreds of other things from Ray, always for free. She wouldn’t even consider charging me or letting me pay. Each time she says she has something for me, I say skeptically, “I don’t know,” even though Ray claims that some of the trash cans she dives from are cleaner than her apartment. But most times, the stuff is too cool to pass up.
The cats take turns fighting over her lap as she tries to remember what she was doing. Ray’s voice sounds like a lower volume version of Carol Channing’s. I’ve termed her, ‘terminally euphoric’ because of her ever-loving positive attitude and her dogmatic optimistic ways. She loans money to street people she knows will never pay her back. She just smiles.
Ray’s petite and always dressed in bright colors, in one of her many pairs of pajama-like pants with the requisite vest and mismatched socks; her appearance makes you smile. She speaks so uniquely, adding a sweet Channing lilt to every word, it only adds to her mystique of contagious happiness. I’ve never seen her down in thirty years.
She’s remembered she sold some stuff online that needs to be boxed and shipped.
“eBay?” I ask.
“eBay was…how do you say…what I like to call, ‘fair,’ in the beginning. It was like a quarter to post something. The people were cool and in fact, really nice. They’d help you learn how to sell. Then Meg Whitman took over. She went for cars, land, and houses to be sold on eBay. Bigger stuff…where she’d make more money. Soon there were rip-offs and petty little deals that weren’t right. In the beginning, if there was a problem; they were all over it. After Meg, they didn’t care. I stopped. I use Pin-something and some other online auction places.”
What about flea markets and vintage stores?
“Yeah. I have those and then there are buyers I know, antique people.”
You don’t refer to yourself as a dumpster-diver, do you?
“My friends call me an ‘urban archeologist.’ I call myself a ‘junker.’ When I first moved to the Haight in ’67, my old man told a friend of his that I was into junk. The friend said, ‘That’s a drag. Heroin?’ No, she collects junk.”
Ray laughs as she does throughout the day.
“But I like junker.”
I ask her what is the best stuff she’s ever found. Ray is hesitant to spill the beans. She stiffens like an old fisherman who’s reluctant to let even his best friend know the whereabouts of his favorite fishing hole.
“I found a diary from the Civil War. Gave that to some family member. I watch to see when people are moving, that’s when they throw out good stuff. One time I’m in a dumpster after a move-out. A Black family’s moving in to the house while I’m swimming around the bin. They practically adopt me. For about three days, I ate with them, hung out, watched TV and then I was gone.” She giggles and tells the cats they’re the best cats in the whole world.
Cool stuff you’ve found? I remind.
“Oh yeah. I found a scrapbook there that must have been left by the previous family. The people in the scrapbook were also Black, but definitely not the people who adopted me. In the back of the scrapbook, were porno shots of someone’s memories? Homemade porno from like the ‘30’s.” Ray chuckles. “I find so many dildos and sex toys.” The answering machine picks up before the phone rings. Ray listens and then continues.
“There’s a bunch of us junkers. We used to pray to a cutout of Dolores Del Rio for good luck. You know I have my routes, like my Friday route. It’s getting late one day, so I head in. My friend Dennis calls. It’s around eleven. He never calls late at night. He wants to know if I had any luck and any recommendations where to look? I tell him I was in this area but ended early.”
The phone rings like a stockbroker’s office. The cats scurry like there’s a cop at the door while Ray checks the caller ID.
“Another person wants something. That’s why mañana is my favorite word in the English dictionary.”
Dennis called? I prompt.
“So I tell him about where I was. The next day he calls to say I left something behind in the dumpster. He comes over and lays out 14 one hundred dollar bills. He says, ‘This is your cut. Ten percent.’ He found $14,000. Oh well.”
Ray figures that between the women’s purses and boxes and shoes, with money either hid or stashed in them, over the years she’s found around a few thousand dollars. Collectively, drug-wise, probably has pulled-in two pounds of weed and all kinds of pills. Watches and rings are standard.
Is there a deal like prostitutes, this is my corner. Are junkers territorial? This is my dumpster.
“I say, unless you’re living in it, it’s not yours.”
Ray’s apartment is lined with stuff, from top to bottom. If we ever need something, a folding table or weird decoration for a holiday, Ray drops behind a tarp and comes back with a desired item.
Raymond doesn’t consider herself a hoarder. “Hoarders can’t let go. They can’t toss stuff. I’m always moving my stuff. Eventually…” she says with a smile.
She loves toys. The more it can do, lights, movement, sound, the more child- like she becomes.
Did you have a lot of toys growing up?
Then just a few hundred or so? I say jokingly.
“No, I didn’t have any. Ever.”
“My mother wouldn’t let me. She wouldn’t let me have anything. No possessions. Plus she said the exact opposite of what was happening. She hated women. All women.”
What do you mean she said the opposite of what was going on?
“When the neighbors complained about her, she blamed me. Because she wouldn’t feed me…”
Wouldn’t feed you?
“Yeah, she wouldn’t feed me. My older brother would get hot oatmeal and I would get cold oatmeal, leftover from the day before, or worse. I went to the neighbors for food. I was hungry. She blamed me when they complained. If it wasn’t for Graham crackers, I would have starved. ”
What about your younger sister?
My mother, how do you say, doted on my brother. She was very smothering. My brother did, what I like to call, a genius move. He adopted my little sister like a best friend. So my mother laid off on her. She hated all of my brother’s girlfriends. She offered him thousands of dollars not to marry his future wife. He married her anyways.”
No dolls or anything?
“I grew up in Ohio. There was a lot of hillbillies around where I grew up. From the Appalachian’s. My mother hated them. Trash, she’d say. I’m four. Billy Hazard, a hillbilly and I walking down this alley. Yeah, I’m four years old. And Billy says, “How come I don’t ever see you with any toys? How come you don’t have a little doll like other girls? Billy says, girls are supposed to have dolls so they know how to be mothers. And I tell him my mother won’t let me. We pass this garbage can and there’s this broken ass doll in it. Billy takes it and wipes it off. Puts the eyes back in it as best as possible. The arms are half hanging out of the sockets, the eyes are droopy, but I love it.”
Raymond dries the corners of her morning-blue cascading eyes with a balled-up paper towel as she continues.
“This new doll is my B.F.F. I sleep with it. Hold on to it. Won’t let go of it. My mother asks where I got it? I tell her Billy found it for me in the garbage. That night, I go to bed with it. In the morning, it’s gone.”
Now a roll of paper towels isn’t helping either one of us.
“That morning, she has this new doll. Still in the package. One of those that you can feed a bottle to. Brand new! The eyes open and close. Then my mother gives me this long lecture. She lets me play with the doll. Let’s me feed it twice. Then she says, ‘Now you let your brother play with it. He’s never seen anything like it before.’ I never saw the doll again until I was 8.”
Raymond was named Shirley by her parents, but she felt ‘a Shirley’ was destined to have a pageboy haircut and drive a station wagon to the PTA with two point three kids. She renamed herself, “Raymond” after her friends voted down her first choice, Daisy. I knew that about Ray. The doll stuff, not being fed as a child, was new.
“Then when I was 8. We’re moving to a new house. My brother comes out with the doll. I said that’s mine. I want that. My mother said it wasn’t and to shut up! I felt betrayed. Let down. I raise holy heck that day. I really let her have it. It was my doll! But it didn’t help. Never saw the doll again. In the new place, my dad bought me a bike and I was in heaven.”
Do you think that’s why you search garbage cans today? Trying to find something magical like that day you and Billy found the doll?
“I never thought about that. I like junking because you never know what you’ll find. What’s waiting on the bottom? Most people are wasteful. They have two sets of bags with ketchup and mustard from McDonald’s. They have sets of this and that. They have too much stuff that they have to throw some out. Even if it’s in good condition. Even unopened. Sometimes I see myself as a channel or a means by which a person is matched up with the perfect item.”
Raymond smiles again.
“When I get old, all this stuff will be gone. They say that the perfect life is, at the end, to have a spoon and a blanket as your only possessions. That’s all.”
Is that what you want? Is that your idea of the perfect life? You mean all this stuff will really be gone?
“I want . . . when I go, I want there to be a huge debris dumpster out front, like the giant ones from a construction site. And I want it to be empty. And I want some junker to come along, and know, the way I got to know the personalities of the people around me by their garbage. I want that junker to know that the person, who lived here, left nothing behind. She either gave it all away or sold it. That she lived a life, not clinging onto stuff, but by giving. I want that junker to know that the she was a happy person. Not someone who died alone with her stuff.”
The phone rings. A cat jumps onto the coffee table knocking over a stack of books and postcards that had a piece of paper on it marked, ‘post office, Tuesday.’
Raymond hollers, “Avalanche!” Smiling as her pets scatter in all directions for cover.
Ray looks at the caller ID, ponders and says, “Mañana.” She then asks me what was she doing?
I say, living the perfect life.