From “Squatter in Los Angeles,” a book by Christopher Nyerges, available from Kindle.
During the time that I was a squatter, David Ashley organized and conducted the first of a series of recycling seminars that were held on top of the hill in the meeting area at the non-profit, WTI. Before I met David Ashley, he was described to us as someone involved with urban planning, and who knew how to use the computer. This was before everyone had a laptop and the personal computer ubiquitousness. (In fact, this was way before cell phones!).
We’d heard lots of stories about David – he was an all-around skillful guy who was going to be the savior of the non-profit.
When he finally arrived and moved into the neighborhood, he didn’t exactly become a savior, but he did significantly enhance the operations of the non-profit and made a lot of us laugh more while he shared some of his learning.
One of the events that he organized were the Recycling Seminars, which were somewhat instrumental in further opening my eyes at this crucial time in my life. Lots of people were invited and about 10 people attended the first seminar. Once everyone gathered, someone brought out a trash bag of things that had been recently discarded. Everything was dumped on a large tarp so we could see what was there.
Now, first off, there were no vegetable scraps of any sort. All of that sort of stuff went into a composting bin or a worm farm. So the stuff scattered on the tarp was not full of grease or ants or other moldy old foods. It was actually all very clean.
David would talk, but a lot of this was discussion where he tried to draw out the information from everyone present.
David divided the trash into general categories: glass, cans, paper, cardboard, plastic bags and plastic containers, metal, other. David shared a phrase that he borrowed from the founder of the non-profit: “Why do we call this refuse?” he asked us with his big grin. “Because we’ve refused to find a use for these things.”
Then we proceeded to pick through the pile and talk about how it might be used. This was also before the days when every city had recycling bins on the curb, so if you were determined to recycle items, you had to bag it all up and drive it to a recycling center. It was economical to do this with large volumes of newspapers and aluminum cans back then, but not much else.
Since the non-profit was located on a large one-acre property, a lot of gardening was done, both with ornamental plants and with food plants. There were a few little nurseries on the property, and so everyone realized that a lot of discards could be used for potting plants for resale, and for various aspects of gardening and food production.
David would hold up an item – an old ice cream container – and ask everyone what it could be used for. Of course, the ice cream container would make a good planter. Lots of things made good planters – empty milk containers (both the plastic type and waxed paper type), coffee cans, soup cans, cans of all sizes, cottage cheese containers, even some old packing boxes (you could just plant the whole thing in the ground and the cardboard would decompose).
There was a wood stove on the property too and there were fires outside in the winter whenever it was cold. So anything paper or cardboard that had no better use could be burned. That was easy.
A lot of the paper was actually junk mail, and so David started a discussion about all the ways to deal with junk mail. The first solution was to find a way to get off the company’s mailing list, assuming you didn’t want their mailings in the first place. It usually does no good to write “Return to Sender” and drop it back in the mail box because the post office just discards such mail, and doesn’t return to the sender unless there was an agreement for the sender to pay for the return mail. So, in some cases, you could open the envelope, and using the envelope they provided, write them a letter telling them to take you off a mailing list. Sometimes you’d have to pay the postage but you might get off a mailing list.
One of the unique ideas from the seminar was to place any “tin cans” or any rustable metal into a container of water to let it rust. The water would become rusty within a few weeks, and you’d then pour that water on your plants as a fertilizer – it was called “iron water.” This was something that I did at my home where I was a squatter, and have done ever since. It seemed to serve two purposes at least: fertilizing the plants and reusing something rather than discarding it.
Then we went to glass jars with lids. These had all been cleaned after use, but were still the type of jars that are normally discarded in any modern city by the thousands every day. What can you do with a glass jar, asked David.
Everyone began talking at once, and the ideas ranged from storing leftovers (obvious), to storing grains and rice in your larder, to storing nails and screws. Timothy shared how he’d taken a dozen similar sized glass jars with lids – at the time, it was the jar that Trader Joe’s sold their salsa in – and how he screwed the lids to the bottom of a shelf in his workshop. Each jar was then used for various sized nails, screws, washers, eyelets, bolts, nuts, and then that jar could just be screwed onto its lid under the shelf. Some months later Timothy showed me that shelf in his garage and it really seemed like an ideal and ingenious way to keep a work area neat and organized.
A pair of Michael’s old shoes were picked out of the pile. What could they possibly be used for? Someone went around to the side of the house where there was a small nursery, and brought back an old shoe that had been filled with soil and used as a creative pot. A little succulent was growing in it. Everyone laughed, including me. After that, I tried using all my shoes that way for many years, much to the consternation of occasional visitors. And once in an expensive catalog, I saw what was called a “hobo pot” for $20 or so, which was a planting pot made to look like a stereotypical hobo’s shoe. Hillarious! Why would anyone actually buy such a thing when an old shoe would do fine?
This went on like this for a few hours. With some of the items, it was not easy to identify practical, realistic uses. After all, there are only so many uses for crafts and art items, and so unless you had some sort of a craft store, there was a limited amount of craft items that the average person would actually make.
There were a few more seminars like this into the 1980s, and they always seemed to waken everyone up to the fact that we throw away too much, and don’t make use of what’s right in front of our noses, all the while screaming “poverty.”
And during my time of squatting, I put many of these ideas into daily practice, never really quite realizing that a visitor would probably think that a trash collector or hobo lived in my house. Fortunately, I had few visitors during that time.
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