The Town Dump – Revisited

Today was a dress down day at my school, provided that one wore a shirt bearing the logo of the college attended ( faculty) or the college intended ( seniors)    I was asked why I did not have a shirt on from my college.  My response was that I have not owned a shirt bearing the name Duquesne for over 25 years!    But, even with all of the years that have passed, some memories still seem fresh.  Such is the case with my freshman comp class.   I was blessed to have been placed in a section taught by Dr. Provost,  a classy, well mannered, intellectual southern gentleman.   As is often the case, it has taken many years for me to develop an  appreciation for  all that he had to offer.  A year or so ago, I wrote this piece and sent it to him.   I understand that he was in ill health, and I never got a response, but I would like to believe that he saw it and that it brought him some satisfaction.

The Town Dump – Revisited


Upon moving  back to Pennsylvania a number of years ago, my questions regarding directions to the town dump and where one might go to get a dump sticker, were met with blank stares.  It seemed that no one knew anything about the town dump.  They had never visited it  and could not imagine why one would be curious about its location.  In fact, the average citizen had no idea where the dump might even be.  It was just another reminder that moving from rural New Hampshire to Northeast Pennsylvania would require some major adjustments in our way of life.


But then, the town dump was not always a part of the culture that I knew.  Growing up in Bucks County. PA in what was then the relatively small town of Quakertown, I had never had the occasion to visit the dump myself.  Why would I?  All I knew about trash was that once a week,  the garbage truck would travel up the alley behind our house, kicking up a cloud of dust.  In our ignorance, we would race to get on our bikes and follow the truck, trying to keep pace and then braking to a stop to  watch with amazement as the operator would pause to activate the mechanism which caused the large pistons to engage the compactor, slowly compressing all of our trash into the bowels of the truck body.  We did not seem to mind breathing in the stench or the dust as we attempted to maintain contact with the truck as far as the end of the alley.


As I grew up and took on responsibilities around the house the chore of taking out the trash fell on my shoulders.  The Sunday evening routine of circulating throughout the house, consolidating the trash in a large plastic bag and then depositing that bag in the metal trash cans that were located in the shed and, finally, carrying the cans out to the front curb, making sure that the lids fit tightly so as not to blow away over night.  The job would be completed the next day on the way into the house after school.  Often the trash man did not take the same care regarding the lids.  If it happened to be a windy day, I would have to scout around to find the wayward lids, then carry the cans back to their spots in the shed.  This job remained mine until I left for college.  It also represented the extent of my experience with trash until half way through the fall semester of my freshman year.


 On a warm October Monday after lunch, I found myself sitting in Canevin Hall, wondering what would be the topic of the weekly essay, when Professor Provost asked us to open our books to an essay entitled “The Town Dump”  by Wallace Stegner.  He seemed to relish the story.   His introduction was underscored with a passion that suggested that along with Stegner, as a young boy, he too held the wonders of the town dump in awe – that the dump represented the ultimate playground, full of unending adventure.  I couldn’t relate, and, as I looked around, I figured that there were very few, if any, students in the room who had ever visited a town dump. 


I naively credited myself with a fair amount of imagination at that point in my educational career.  After all, as a kid, I had spent countless hours after school with my dog as my companion and with a stick that could serve as a gun or a sword, fighting “bad guys”.  But I lacked the life experience that would enable me to write an essay on a place that I had never visited or to finish with a conclusion that might include an original thought or appropriate insight.  Furthermore, I doubted that I would   ever have occasion to include a trip to the dump as an experience in my adult life. 


A move to New England would change all of that.  After graduation from college, marriage, and a short stint living in Pittsburgh, my wife and I set off to a new life on a boarding school campus in a small, town in rural New Hampshire.  We were still settling into our home, becoming acquainted with our new colleagues when a reference to the town dump arose in conversation.  We were visiting with our neighbors, when a piece of furniture that was “rescued” from the dump became the topic of conversation.  “Dump picking” was a new phrase to add to our vocabulary.   Recalling the essay that I had read in college that offered the fun and excitement of the town dump from the perspective of a young boy, I was now listening to an adult tell of the joys of picking through other’s discarded trash, finding treasures that would be given a new life with a fresh coat of paint.   Trips to the dump became common occurrences.  However, it took the renovation of a farmhouse in Maine to experience the next level of interaction that one might find at the dump.


 What began as a project to fix a hole in the wall in the dining room turned into the decision to totally gut the interior of the structure.  The refuse, every nail, every piece of splintered wood, every pound of plaster made its way to the local dump in the back of my pick up truck.  Faces became familiar, and, after a while, I paused to join in with some of the chatter that would accompany the unloading of trash.  It became apparent that the dump served as the center of a social network in town.  Everything was discussed, from politics to the school budgets to obituaries and beyond.  For an outsider like me, the town dump became the primary source of scuttlebutt.  On one particular Sunday morning, my neighbor from up the road pulled into the spot next to me at the dump.  I recognized his truck and introduced myself.  Our conversation led to an invitation to dessert at his house.  As I pulled from my spot, it dawned on me that I could never have imagined an experience such as this as I prepared an essay in my college years!


The decision to return to Pennsylvania was not an easy one.  There would be all kinds of adjustments for my family.  Little did I know at the time that one of them would be the loss of the opportunity to visit the town dump.  In preparation for the move, however, it was not uncommon for me to take at least one trip, and very often two trips to the dump each day as we consolidated our possessions.  One particular trip is memorable.  After loading up the back of my station wagon with bags of trash from the basement I began the journey to the dump which was located at the far edge of town.  The sky was grey, threatening a storm of significant magnitude.  After arriving at the dump, I backed up the to window through which I could toss household trash and spent the next few moments unloading and then throwing bag after bag through the window.  As I turned to close the tailgate, the skies opened up, and along with the others who were there, I waited under the awning for the rain to ease before walking back to the front of the car which was unprotected.  After a time, I  noticed the man next to me reaching through the window  into the pile of trash, pulling out Beanie Babies.  One might not recognize these stuffed animals today, but at that time they were all the rage, and the soft cuddly animals that he was collecting happened to belong to my son!  In my haste, I had mixed the plastic bag containing his Beanie Baby collection with the bags of trash.  In a panic, I quickly intervened, explaining to the fellow that I had made a grave mistake and that I needed to have those Beanie Babies back!  I can still envision the cloud of disappointment slowly replacing joy on his face.  He had found a treasure that, in his mind, belonged to him.  To this day, I am convinced that I left the dump with fewer Beanie Babies than I had when I arrived.  But the ones that were rescued are now packed away in plastic boxes waiting to be discovered by future grandchildren.


Within days after this episode, which still remains my ultimate dump story, we loaded the last few items into the truck and locked the doors of the house as we parted for Pennsylvania.  Little did I know that my days of visiting the dump were over.  Instead, a dumpster was conveniently located in the parking lot just outside of the building that would serve as our new residence.  To be sure, the time saved by not having to make a weekly dump run would be considered by many to be an improvement in lifestyle.  But I have fond memories of arriving at the dump, curious about what treasures I might find or whom I might encounter. And I often wonder if, like so many other advancements in life style , the well-organized trash collection in our town results in one less opportunity to interact with our neighbor.


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