Streetcombing by Flo Bridger
FJ Bridger was born and raised in Mackay on the Central Queensland coast. She studied arts and law at the University of Queensland, then practised as a lawyer in the private and public sectors, and as a government policy advisor. In 2007 she completed a Master of Arts degree from Griffith University. FJ Bridger writes novels, short stories and memoir. Her first novel manuscript won a place in the Queensland Writers Centre/Hachette Publishing manuscript development program in 2012. A short story was published in Idiom 23 in 2013. FJ Bridger lives in Brisbane with her husband and two sons.
Not much of a haul today. People aren’t throwing away their perfectly good old stuff like they used to.
Still, I had a nice find the other day. Trick is, see, you’ve got to be the first there. Problem is, you don’t know who’s going to put out the good stuff when. But I’ve been studying it. Eight years now I’ve been doing the rounds. Perfecting the art. It’s not just random stumbling on terrific finds like some people think. You’ve got to be smart to make a good haul. ‘Streetcombing’, I call it.
Once a year or so, the council trucks pick up your old washing machines and furniture and mattresses, bulky sort of stuff. Meant to be things you can’t take to the dump in the average family car. But people are taking liberties with their cast offs, putting out everyday stuff, not just the bulkier things. Things like clothes and toasters and little plastic Christmas trees. Stuff the charities could do with. Gets ruined if it rains. A waste, really.
Annoys me a bit, thinking about the years I missed, before I got onto it. It was my wife Marjorie got me started. God, don’t think I’ve said her name in years! We were only together for about three years. It’s one of the few things I can thank her for. When I was at work at the museum one day she cleaned up the house and put out the old suitcase I stored all my school reports and treasures in. Lucky I got home in time. Found it out on the footpath before someone swiped it or the council truck came. I would have been ropeable if I’d lost it. It was precious. Still is. I gave her a piece of my mind over that, I tell you.
After that, I set her some rules. No throwing my stuff out, for a start. It’s not as if I had much gear in the first place. She was the one who’d inherited all the furniture, and a thousand and one little things that came with the house. All the silverware and paintings on the walls and jewellery and dining suites and wardrobes and lawn mowers. Not that you’d want to throw out good quality stuff like that. But she could have gone through her mother’s old papers and tablecloths and got rid of them. Poor old Brenda had no further use for them. Not like me and my suitcase.
That same night, I had to get out of the house, I was that angry with Marjorie. So, I went for a walk. While I was out I saw stuff on the footpath in front of other houses. The trucks were due to come round the next day, see? Anyway, that near-disaster and seeing those piles of gear got me thinking. I noticed the kinds of things people put out. It was an education, I tell you.
There was the usual old rubbish, like rusted pots and pans, and old garden tools and prams and sports gear. Then there was the big stuff like dryers and couches and cupboards. But when I got up close I came across things I liked the look of. Figurines and vases, and really old bottles. All there for the taking. A blue china bowl that caught my eye. I picked it up and put in under my jacket.
It dawned on me, I could collect this stuff. And it wouldn’t cost a cent. I’d show Marjorie I could have a worthwhile thing or two. I’d do my research and learn all about antiques and collectables. I could take books in to the museum and spend work time studying up on it. My supervisor, Bethany Flangel, she would never know. She’s hardly ever there, and doesn’t take much notice of what I do anyway. I’m the one who keeps the place going. So many museums are closing, or cutting back opening days and hours. Not mine, thank god. I don’t know what I’d do without my job. It’s my vocation, see?
So, that night got me started. I’ve collected a heck of a lot of stuff in those eight years. Not just any old junk – fabulous stuff. And I’ve done my homework, reading up, honing my expertise. But I’m not greedy. I don’t like the idea of venturing far from home. I keep myself to just a few suburbs near me. Luckily, they happen to be some of the better suburbs in town. So, good pickings. You wouldn’t believe what some people turf out.
A few years back, I was tempted to throw out all my rules, be a bit of a rebel. Go out to far-flung suburbs to pick through their throw outs. Or stick to just the best streets of Ascot and Hamilton where I was bound to score well, and where locals wouldn’t be seen dead going through their neighbours’ piles. You never know what you’ll come across. But my conscience wouldn’t have it. That would be too much like scrounging from a dump. Almost like going through rubbish bins. I can’t come at that.
After I’d been in the game a few years, I did expand my territory another suburb, an extra thirty streets. With a bigger area, I could do my streetcombing for more weeks of the year, see? A very nice neighbourhood the new one is. Upmarket. Gives a good yield. Last time I found an ornate bedside lamp, and a lovely pair of china dogs.
I have to be sure to get to the good finds before those scavengers who drive round other people’s neighbourhoods. The council drops the flyers round in letterboxes a week before the pick up day. I’ve got to be vigilant, keep an eye out for people putting their discards out early. Others put them out at the last moment. Then there’s everything in between. You can’t take your eye off the ball, see? The bloke might clean out first and put his throw outs on the footpath, then the wife might have a go. It’s just too bad if one of them wants something that shouldn’t have been put out. If it’s anything remotely desirable, it’s gone.
What I can’t stand is those flea market people and second hand dealers who swipe stuff for profit rather than their own use. Some people say it’s just another way of recycling, so it’s not a bad thing. But I’d rather it was salvaged by someone who needed it themselves, or the charities, or me.
Once, I thought about if I should take time off from my job during kerbside clean up week. My boss Bethany is always on at me to take leave, since I’ve accumulated a lot in 18 years. I can never think what to do on days off. Public holidays are bad enough, but a whole week is almost unbearable. At Christmas, I’m beside myself during the two and a half week closing. When my wife was around she organised holidays, little trips away to the beach or the mountains. Now I’m on my own, it’s more of a problem. She did have her uses.
I decided to take a couple of sickies. Bethany would never notice I was off at around the same time every year. She’s not a details person. God knows what she’s doing working in a museum. Luckily, she lives on the other side of town, so she’d never know when it’s my suburb’s turn for the clean up. I’m always careful not to mention it. It’s cold and flu season anyway, so phoning in saying I’ve got a bad cold, after complaining of a headache and sore throat the day before, is a reasonable ploy. It’s ridiculous that I have to report to Bethany. She doesn’t know half what I know about the exhibits, but I need her approval for everything I do. Perhaps she’ll drop off her perch one of these days.
Some of the neighbours look at me. They think they’re being discreet, but I can sense them, or see them twitching the curtains in their front rooms, when I’m picking through their cast offs. I suspect a couple of them are low enough to deliberately smear disgusting muck on a thing I might want, so I either have to leave it or clean the muck off. A bit of rotting food doesn’t put me off. I always wear gloves, of course.
I don’t mix with the neighbours. I’m not into having friendly drinks, or weekend barbecues, or their noisy brats running through my garden.
My parents are dead now. I’m an only child. Not that I feel like I’ve missed anything, mind, not having a brother or sister. Far as I can see, there’s nothing but fighting and jealousy between siblings. Arguments about one being favoured more than the other, rivalry over who’s smarter or better looking or makes more money. Punch ups even. Accusing each other of neglecting their aged parents, and ripping off their pensions, and contesting wills.
There were a couple of cousins I saw a bit of when I was young. Once Mum and Dad were gone, I told them to stop coming over. I didn’t need them snooping around. I could tell they were looking for handouts, or hoping I’d die, thinking they’d inherit the house and all my precious stuff.
If I didn’t love my job so much, I’d think about going into business as an antiques dealer. High end stuff only. I’d have to learn to part with my finds, of course. Become a lot more hard-nosed. But I’d have to get used to dealing with other people. I wouldn’t only be going local with my streetcombing then. The world would be my treasure house. It’d be business, after all.
That good find I was telling you about. 1920s Lalique vase. Gorgeous! Not a scratch or chip on it. Did I look over my shoulder when I saw that sitting there? They must have only just put it out and I was the first to come across it. I hurried straight back home after finding that beauty, though I’d only been out looking for a couple of hours.
I reckoned when I did a bit of research it was worth $4,000. My glassware expert says more like $6,000 in the right auction. Just think! Six grand’s worth, just thrown in the garbage! Didn’t know what they had, of course. Spoilt brats with too much money and no appreciation of works of art. If I hadn’t come along and plucked it out of the pile it could have been smashed, or thrown on the dump like a piece of worthless junk.
Anyway, back to my technique. Soon as the council delivers those flyers in letterboxes about a clean up coming up, I’m out there. But that’s when the punters find out and start putting gear out. I’m onto it much earlier.
Here’s how I do it. I go through the phone book and find the name of a man in a nice street in my patch. Women are no good. I’m not going to go around impersonating females on the phone, am I? A man has his limits. Anyway, I note down the name and address. I phone the council, masquerading as the resident, asking when the kerbside clean up is happening in ‘my’ street. They always tell me, no problem.
So, I plan my attack. Dates, best time of day or night, whether I’ll drive the removalist truck or just the ute, which route to take, which streets I think will have the best haul that I’ll comb at the start of my run, then sweep past again to check if any more treasures have been put out before I head home.
There’s the odd occupational hazard in streetcombing. Once a vicious mongrel dog attacked me. I swear it was part illegal pit bull terrier. Damn fool owner left the gate unlatched. But I was crafty, see? Phoned up the council to complain, using the name and address of one of the blokes I’d found earlier. Then I thought, I’ll make a series of complaints under these names I’ve got. Make it sound real convincing. The dog’s gone, so they must have had to get rid of it, or moved house. Good result.
Occasionally there’s been an argument with one of those flea market scavengers over a find. In my mind, there are unwritten rules, but some people don’t live by them. One of the rules is, don’t go hunting through a pile if someone’s right there going through it before you. You have to wait till they’ve finished. Then it’s your turn. And you don’t stand over them watching either. Common decency.
One time, one of these second hand dealer types pulls up in his truck just when I’d started on a promising spread outside a flash house. Comes right up and starts poking around with a stick. I got in between him and the pile, pushed his stick away. Ended up being a bit of a scuffle. Had to do some quick thinking. I fumbled in my bag and pulled out a black skull and shoved it right in his face, giving a great big roar. Never saw a bloke move so fast in my life! Ha! That taught him. Some mother must have cleaned out her teenage son’s room and tossed it out. Bet she never thought it’d be put to such good use so quick!
I’ve perfected my strategy over time. Refined it. It’s only in the last six years or so I started recording my haul in the back of one of Marjorie’s mother’s old journals. (There, I’ve said her name again!) I could’ve kicked myself that I hadn’t been doing it from day one. Working in the museum, cataloguing is a big part of it.
I’ve just realised, I started recording my finds just after Marjorie disappeared from my life. My mind functioned so much better once she was out of the way. And that made way for me to sort out her and her parents’ things, and make room for my collection.
I guess in a way, the whole house is the jewel in my crown. Those in-laws of mine had some lovely stuff. Moorcroft, Meissen, Fabergé. Mine now.
It’s just a pity after six years I still have to put up with getting letters addressed to Mrs M Walstrum or Marjorie Walstrum, or even occasionally Miss M Parminter, as she was. Lucky Marjorie’s parents died years ago, and she was an only child, like me. She had no job, hardly any friends, and the neighbours kept away, so no-one missed her. Strangely enough, I find myself missing her occasionally. But I’ve got my job at the museum, and my collecting.
Sometimes, at the end of a night of searching, I stand at the end of a street that’s served up a good few treasures over the years, and give the neighbourhood a silent blessing. It’s the middle of the night, see? After one o’clock. No-one’s about but me. I stretch my arms up and do a little chant. For that moment, I’m the High Priest of the Kerbside Clean Up, Sultan of the Streetcomb. I am fulfilled.