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Curbside pickup (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)
Curbside pickup (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)

Spring Rituals

Curbside profit: Free-cycling brings people together Add to ...

One of the biggest criticisms against the automobile is that it can isolate people. We drive around in our own little cocoon and the rest of the world is reduced to a series of images floating by beyond the window glass.

This, say those who study these things, tends to make people feel disassociated from one another and can lead to anti-social behaviour.

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“Increasing volumes of vehicular traffic on roads in densely populated regions not only impact the environment, but can also increase vehicle operator stress resulting in anti-social behaviours in the operation of motor vehicles,” says Robert Mann, from the Canadian Centre For Addiction and Mental Health.

But, sometimes – classic show and shines, for example – cars bring people together, and all that pent-up hostility just melts away.

Although it’s a little more grassroots than a show and shine, once a year – usually in early April – my municipality has what it calls “curbside pickup” day. Bring all your household junk, throwaways, detritus, and spoilage to the curb and it will be picked up, gratis, and removed. If two men can pick it up, they’ll take it away.

When this happens, the streets come alive with activity, and it’s kind of a combination of Mardi Gras and Canadian Pickers.

Piles of trash are lined up curbside, which somehow de-formalizes everything and closet pickers come out of the woodwork to search for collectibles. Although they don’t want to actually be seen rifling through their neighbour’s refuse, people wander around checking out stuff other people have thrown out. One man’s garbage …

The quality of junk has been getting better over the years; some of the stuff out there isn’t being discarded because it’s broken or worn-out, but because its owners are tired of it or it’s uncool.

Avocado stoves that don’t match the new kitchen reno – with the sign “still works” taped to them – are left out, as are TV sets whose only failing seems to be that they aren’t big screens. Abandoned exercise equipment is also a hot item; older model stationary bicycles, StairMasters and running treadmills are put out to pasture, like their owner’s good intentions.

Bicycles are amazingly popular – or unpopular, depending on how you look at it; first-generation mountain bikes with chrome handlebars, full-fendered Raleigh and CCM cruisers with wire baskets, and kid-sized learner bikes proliferate. Bookshelves of varying sizes and configurations are also abundant. What has happened to the books that those shelves used to hold? Are people not reading any more?

Kids love curbside pickup day. The variety and quality of stuff sitting there, waiting to be experimented with, drives them crazy. A group of elementary school students gather round an unwanted elliptical exercise machine, while one climbs aboard and starts to pedal frantically, his pals helpless with laughter.

It’s also payday for the scrap-metal pickers. As if by some kind of jungle telegraph, they’re out in full force, driving around slowly in beat-up old sedans, rusty pickup trucks and first-generation minivans at the crack of dawn. People usually put their junk out, piecemeal, days in advance, and the seasoned scrappers are out cruising a day or two ahead of time. Aluminum and copper, in particular, are worth something, and old window sashes, rolls of wire, road wheels, and small appliances are snaffled up immediately.

Some people clearly use curbside pickup day to furnish their homes. If they’re not too far gone, old armchairs, lamps, end tables and kitchen tables will disappear. Maybe they’re taken away and put up for sale at swap-meets and flea markets.

The city’s truck swampers also like curbside pickup day. They get overtime, and because the hopper fills up 10 times faster than it would if they were just chucking the usual bags of household garbage into it, so they have to make more trips to the dump to get rid of everything. That means less time grappling with crap and more time riding in the truck. It also makes for a longer day, which means more money.

Not to mention the odd fringe benefit. It’s not unheard of for homeowners to leave out a six-pack as incentive to take away that oversized sofa, and if they can carry something on the truck without it getting in the way, they can keep it.

Around mid-day, weather permitting, the first ice-cream truck of the season often makes its appearance, adding to the chaos, with an endless loop of tinkling canned music providing a crazy soundtrack to the days’ proceedings. The tune of choice is an insane bastardization of Camptown Races, and Do Your Ears Hang Low? Copyright concerns, no doubt.

By dinnertime, it’s over. Traffic dies down, the streets go quiet, and a final sweeper truck trundles through in the twilight, picking up all the unusable stuff that has been eschewed by the city garbage truck, kids, recyclers and scrap merchants. What they don’t take away, well, just gets re-stored in the back yard to wait for next time.

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