You never know what you'll find
New York City is densely populated by people living in tiny apartments. As a result, New Yorkers need to make trade-offs with their precious space. You got an air frier? That's great, but now you need to decide what to discard in order to make room in your kitchen. Do you throw out the old stand mixer that you never use, or the toaster oven that's been gathering dust on top of your fridge? Maybe you got a new coat, which means you need to throw out a few shirts just to stuff the coat into your narrow closet that's already brimming with clothes.
You don't want to just throw away a perfectly good item, but you also don't want to go through the hassle of selling it online. You think someone should have it. Not you, but someone. So rather than placing the item in the trash you set it on the curb next to the trash.
It could be a small appliance, cans of food, or a box of old clothes. Maybe you append some sort of half-assed advertisement, like a piece of masking tape that reads "free - fan works, but only on highest setting." By doing this you are contributing to New York City's street treasure economy.
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Street treasures are fun to find, but they’re also fun to give. There are entire communities online dedicated to letting others know that you are setting some shit out on the sidewalk that you no longer want. It's a great feeling to set something out and check back a few minutes later to see that it's already gone.
People new to the city love street treasures because they can partially furnish their empty apartments for free before upgrading their furniture. For our entire first year in the city we used a fan and a computer chair that had come out of the trash somewhere. Our biggest find, however, was our coffee table.
We were walking by a roadside trash pile one day when we noticed something gleaming among the black bags. We investigated and unearthed a beautiful coffee table. After several years it’s still one of the nicest pieces of furniture in our apartment. That’s a cool coffee table, our guests probably think to themselves when they visit, it must have cost a fortune. It looks like we paid good money for it, but our dirty little secret is that it was obtained on the sidewalk and it didn’t cost a dime.
Other street treasures may end up in a homeless person's yard sale. Some such yard sales are simply overturned trash cans with a scary man standing nearby offering to sell you anything that happened to have tumbled out, like Mr. Krabs when he sells SpongeBob the soda drinking hat. But others are well-curated affairs featuring street treasures carefully sourced from around the city, like the one depicted below.
As I was taking this photo, I looked up to see that two police officers were shutting this particular yard sale down, and the proprietor was busy packing up his wares.
"Can I help you?" one of the police officers asked me.
"No. I'm just, uh, grocery shopping," I replied.
"I wouldn't buy any of this stuff," the second officer replied.
"No? Why not? Where does it come from?" I probed. The first officer shrugged.
"Who knows? Wherever they get it."
This interaction highlights the mystery of street treasures. Where do they come from? Where do they go? My shiny coffee table may have belonged to an emperor or a sultan. Maybe a famous person is wearing the shoes I left out last year. You never know where things have been or where they're going.
Some of the most common street treasures are items like computer chairs, fans, and Ikea furniture.
More experienced New Yorkers warn against collecting clothing or anything with upholstery for fear that it might be contaminated with bed bugs. Some of my more feral friends ignore these warnings and dive into any bag of clothing they find on the sidewalk. Some of their most prized garments came from the street.
After all, you never know whether it's actual trash, a gay man's treasure trove, or something in between.
A friend of mine was walking in Chinatown when she noticed an enormous duffel bag sitting unattended by the trash on the sidewalk. Street treasure hunters began to circle like vultures.
Nobody wanted to be the one to open the bag. Maybe it contained a dead body. Perhaps someone would come out of a nearby apartment and say "hey that's my stuff!" But the siren song of street treasures was too much to bear, and eventually someone ripped open the bag and the hunt was on. Several strangers descended upon the bag and began rifling through its contents.
My friend found herself engaged in a ferocious tug of war with an elderly Chinese woman over a leather trench coat. Luckily, a neutral third-party treasure hunter refereed the dispute and ruled in favor of my friend.
"She had it first," announced the referee. "Besides, you already got the fuzzy purple shoes."
Eventually my friend walked away from the chaos with a corset, the prized trench coat, and these boots that make it look like boa constrictors have begun devouring each or her legs separately.
When you live in New York City, digging things out of the trash is all part of the fun. Keeping your eyes peeled for street treasures is like a year-round treasure hunt, and leaving street treasures out is equally rewarding. When you decide to set your ratty old tennis shoes out on the sidewalk and see that they disappear in ten minutes you know you’ve made a difference in some New Yorker’s life. Who knows? Maybe a famous person is wearing them now.
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