As Shakespeare kind of once said, “Some are born cheap, some achieve cheapness, and some have cheapness thrust upon ’em.”
In my case, I was born cheap. I always loved getting things for free and, luckily, so did my childhood best friend, who lived on the same street as I did. One of our favourite things to do—besides stealing cats, wrangling younger kids into attending “school” in her garage, making prank calls, and picking our neighbours’ marigolds and selling the seeds back to them later on—was to go through the garbage in our back lane in search of buried treasure.
Being the 1970s, people were a lot less likely to throw out useful items, but we loved opening up the neatly tied black garbage bags and finding small surprises, like a ceramic bird with the tip of its wing broken off or a clay statuette of a little boy holding a bunny, the latter of which my friend’s mom put in their living room, hiding the little boy’s broken foot behind a potted plant. One time we dragged a chesterfield from next door into my friend’s garage. Always on the lookout for free money, we reached down into the chesterfield to see if there was any change, but only came up with—of all things—corncobs.
Nowadays, chesterfields are a dime a dozen in the alleys in East Van—though I wouldn’t touch them unless I was wearing a biohazard suit—and my friend and I went our separate ways years ago. But M, a former dumpster diver and certified cheap ass, loves prowling the back lanes for treasure just as much as I do. The best part is that now people put things they deem useful or attractive not in garbage bags, but beside their garbage cans or in “free” boxes.
To list off all the stuff M and I have gleaned from back alleys would take a couple of pages, but some examples are bookshelves, lawn chairs, an ironing board, an Italian cookie-making iron, a CorningWare coffee percolator (with the little blue flowers), an antler (which we turned into a coat rack), a kettle, a pair of hiking boots (for me), weights (for M), plant pots, rugs, records (33s and 78s), and most recently, a book called Teen-Agers Hairdos (with setting patterns for long and short styles) from 1964.
But those aren’t even the highlights. The best things we’ve found are vintage items that you could expect to pay a pantload for in antique and collectible stores. To wit, these are a few of our favourite (free) things rendered to us by the back lanes of East Van:
- a vintage one-speed bike, made in England
- an ultra-light Nishiki hybrid 10-speed
- a Danish modern teak chair from the 1960s
- a fine example of mid-century brass wall art
- a Formica table, turquoise with pink and gold flecks
- a red velvet swag lamp
- an antique wooden sled (we gave it to M’s nephew)
- a chandelier (only half the crystals were there but I found some at the Sally Ann to make up for them)
- a Bissell wood-and-metal (read: before the age of plastic) carpet sweeper that is excellent for cleaning up small messes
- an Aunt Jemima notepad holder (which came with a note dated Sep. 12, 1957, that says, “Barby was here again.”
- an antique dresser and buffet (M found these and didn’t think we had room for them, so he alerted the guy—who, incidentally, looks like a late-model Bob Dylan—with the used furniture store across the street, who promptly picked them up, re-stained them, and sold them for no doubt a hefty profit. I’m still mad at M for not bringing them home)
This is not to say everything is a score. We found a rug recently that looked clean, almost new in fact. It wasn’t till we got it home and laid it out that we smelled the unmistakable odour of cat pee. It took several cleanings with vinegar and baking soda to get the stink out (but this method totally works, by the way). Then there is the possibility of picking up something that’s infested with bed bugs, who not only like burrowing into mattresses and couches but also get into wood (Bob Dylan told us this).
But so far, we’ve been lucky. And even though our apartment is bursting with stuff—those de-clutter experts would have a field day at our place—I don’t see us turning away from shopping in the back lanes any time soon. The pickin’s are just too good, and the pull too great. As Shakespeare also kind of once said, “I go, and it is done; the alley invites me.”