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Author examines the goods, makes selection and smiles for the camera.

Big Trash, Bright City

Katie Degentesh

It was a Sunday afternoon, sunny. Exiting the posh organic grocery store on California Street, the one I've affectionately dubbed "Whole Paycheck," I was carrying two full brown bags by their trendy handles. After walking less than one block in the direction of Fillmore Street, I saw them: A well-dressed woman in her late 50s, a younger man in baggy shorts and a T-shirt, and five or six large black garbage bags filled with such potentially attractive trash that I put my overpriced grocery bags down in the stream of the runoff from the building managerís hose and dived in.

"I canít believe anyone would throw this stuff away!" My greedy noises, along with the grunts and wheezes made by three people bending over for scraps, drew the following comment from the stereotypical building manager, a short, greying, heavyset man in his late fifties: "Thatís from the girl upstairs. Sheís getting married."

Note to self: When starting new life, remember to throw out the old. But who needs to do that when youíre already living in the company of Kenneth Cole, Donna Karan, and Calvin Klein? By the time I picked up my soggy groceries and staggered home, I had an unopened box kite under my arm and a leather satchel filled with size-9 designer shoes over my shoulder.

I donít wear size-9 shoes, but the good people at Buffalo Exchange on Polk St. understood this and, after I had waited in the "buying" line for half an hour, forked over twenty-two dollars and change for my efforts. My thoughts turned back to my fellow scavenger, the well-dressed woman Iíd trailed behind for two blocks until she let herself and her loot into a late-model Audi. What was her trash-picking motivation? Not twenty-two dollars, Iíd bet.

Maybe the thrill of finding something for nothing -- or, simply, finding anything at all -- was enough to keep people going back to the curb. I thought of all the objects Iíd grabbed or seen up for grabs during my five years as a San Francisco resident: clothes, curtains, a pair of skis, a kitchen cabinet. Bookshelves or good chairs tend to get snapped up immediately, but Iíve seen perfectly decent dressers warp in the rain for lack of a rescuer, and outside my Pine Street apartment a brown couch has been soaking up rain for weeks. On a day when its cushions were dry enough to be sat upon comfortably, I chose the center one as the appropriate spot from which to snag passersby for their trashy opinions.

First and foremost, the rescued object must be able to "pass" for purchased: "Not broken or filthy," said Jessica, a grinning, twentysomething blond hipster flaunting dark roots. Her other concerns? "Will it fit in my crappy apartment? Do I like it?" Snorting, "Oh, yeah!" when I asked her if sheíd ever picked up anything off the street, Jessica has scored "bookshelves ... chairs ... occasionally clothes or shoes." "What kind of clothes?" "Clean ones."

Jeff, a clean, well-pressed man who looked to be in his late thirties, said he "never really" picked up anything off the street except on Big Trash Night. He took a good look at the skanky couch I was sitting on and noted, "I guess thatíll be here until the next one, huh."

Big Trash Night -- the night on which the mountains of furniture and cardboard boxes at the curb make it look as if whole neighborhoods are moving out at once -- is still somewhat of a hazy legend to me, like the return of a long-lost comet. I know that it happens, and that it happens at certain recorded intervals, but I, personally, never know the exact moment at which walking outside will afford me a panoramic view of bedsprings, dressers, and other peopleís early-eighties Polaroids.

Suddenly curious about the exact date of the brown couchís exit, I conducted a fruitless search through both the World Wide Web and the white pages. I did, however, find a City phone number for "SOLID WASTE" (554 -3400) and an "emergency" number for the report of "Abandoned Refrigerators and Freezers" and "dumped debris." Since my situation was dire indeed, I dialed in to report the soggy couch. The "out of service" message I got left me free to extrapolate that when the garbage is good, San Franciscans can pretty much take care of it themselves.