Journalist Botha (Apartheid in My Rucksack, not reviewed) explores the ingenious (or sheerly wacky) art of sifting trash.
Growing up in South Africa, Botha was captivated by how people would convert other people’s garbage into “toys, ornaments, houses, even entire suburbs.” When he moved to New York, he saw something of the same in the time-honored tradition of the young furnishing their apartments with goods from the curbside. Call it “mongo” (any discarded item retrieved and rescued) or call it adventure or addiction among the street farmers, the urban survivalists, the Dumpster divers, but little did Botha know how deep the process ran. Fortunately, the author is a tough guy who doesn’t mind working at night—mongoing is mostly a furtive act, not to mention illegal, since all trash is the property of the department of sanitation—and so he got to run with the very best of the gleaners, the mongo-folk who do their bit to alleviate the city’s refuse problem. In a subdued, reportorial style, Botha manages to keep a steady voice as he details the pecking order of the mongoists, among them the black-bag slashers, a “lumpen proletariat” of pickers who rank even lower than the sewer-sludge (feces) probers. Botha’s favorites seem to be the anarchists who subsist on discarded food, hunters and gathers who take their slogan “Food Not Bombs” to new heights. But he also likes the folks who sift through landfills, who certainly uncover some fascinating stuff, from a Revolutionary War–era tricorn hat to a 1939 Superman Ring of America. Magazines, catalogues, playbills, and books are specialty items: Philip Roth will be unhappy to hear that a first-edition Portnoy’s Complaint will net at best $50, while Hunt for Red October can bring its discoverer $1,000.
An adroit paean to thrift, lasting value, and the bargain ethic.