In the city where I grew up – Chicago – the ghettos were literally crumbling. My house had a fireplace and my brother, sister, and I would take a wagon into the ghetto to collect firewood. Along with the wood I’d usually scavenge old cast iron heating grates, door hardware, fireplace parts, finials, and sometimes radiators. To this day it’s difficult for me to describe the delightful feeling of getting something for free, of cheating the idea of decay and destruction, of extending the life of stuff.
There is an image that I can’t get out of my head. A man stands at the bottom of a big pile of scrap aluminum. He’s got a torch in his hand, sometimes a cigarette. He’s torch cutting pieces of aluminum and throwing them into a bin. After every three or four cuts he sits down with his cigarette and stares out into the desert. The aluminum pile is maybe thirty or forty feet high.
I think of Sisyphus, doomed to push a boulder uphill that always rolls back down. There’s no way the torch cutter’s task will ever be complete, the pile he works at continues to grow. There was a torch cutter here before this man and there will be another long after he’s gone.
After hanging around scrap yards most of my life, it’s become clear how they sing with immortality. As Sisyphus cuts aluminum, I sit on a scrapped-out casket. Bodies die. But this pile – some of it’s been here for two generations, and it’s anybody’s guess how far into the future it will exist. One could come here years from now and still fine the same pieces. Why do we collect such stuff? Why is the silence in these places rife with so many echoes?
All around me is that past.
I seek a connection to the past, partly because the future has encroached too fast and partly because it comforts me to know the past exists in scrap yards, river fronts, abandoned factories, and vacant lots used as dumps. I used to scrap solely with an appetite for what I would fine. My ultimate goal was to discover the treasure amidst the chaos. On my more recent expeditions I find I surrender to a pure, simple contentment. I am happy to be among so many benign and useful ghosts of an extinct industrial past.
There are still certain things I look for at the yards – nuts, bolts, all thread, electric motors, hydraulic parts, bar stock, springs, sheet and plate, valves, and tools. And there have been some occasions when I heard the object calling, paid attention to its voice and then sought it out and bought it.
Yet the items I treasure the most have been unexpected finds with no apparent value or use. These things sit in my yard and around the shop and echo with more sculptural value than what any artist can make.
Some forms are reminiscent of ancient cultures: rural mid-western or African, Milltown industrial or Prehistoric Chinese. What’s the connection? A thread that has been woven through culture and history somehow passes through this pile and often ends up spliced into my own backyard.
I have my own pile of scrap – so do most of my working associates. We often know what each other has, although a careful inventory is no more than wishful thinking. We all have our pile of immortality that, unless we sell it will be there forever to serve us and our friends. I know that if I ever need metal frame single pane windows, they will be in Jim’s scrap pile. Could my relationships with some people be cemented into the future by knowing what they have in their scrap piles? I could call them in about twenty years and chances are that the objects that I seek will still be there.
I don’t want to live forever, but I have a healthy fear of dying. The scrap continuum eases my fear. It’s a way to transcend time, style, era, economy, and place. The obsolete quality of mass consumables we buy today just doesn’t soothe as well or as richly.
While there is money to be made from aluminum cans, radiators, and batteries, nobody in this anthill of profit seeking pays much attention to the rocket nozzles, jail cells, cast iron fittings, hydraulic cylinders, compressors, and antique car parts.
Ask a yard owner why he doesn’t get rid of it all just to clean things up. Now wanting to admit that he finds comfort just knowing it’s out there, chances are he’ll say that it may be worth something someday.
I did meet a recycler in Kansas who, with a yard of scrap as far as the eye could see, showed no embarrassment regarding his desire to hold onto the stuff. I could look and shop around, but when it came time to talk price – just the idea that I was interested in this or that piece of his future seemed to set him against selling any of it. Are scrappers not unlike the Egyptian pharaohs, preparing and collecting for life everlasting? Or is the future so uncertain that some simply hold on to an era when forever was conceivable?
When I die, my pile of treasure will go to someone who will be able to relate to and appreciate it. I’ll be content known that the stuff will outlast me. When I come upon a scrap yard and walk and climb around and reflect, I’m filled with hope: the hope of usefulness, of endurance, of the future, and of the promise of immortality.