Mongo: Adventures in Trash

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mongo n. 1 [1970s +] an idiot. 2 [1980s +] (US, New York) any discarded object that is retrieved. 3. [1980s +] (US, New York) a scrap-metal scavenger. (The Cassell Dictionary of Slang)

When journalist Ted Botha moved to New York from South Africa, where people constructed homes out of what others considered trash, he decorated his apartment with furniture he found on Manhattan streets. Soon he realized he wasn't the only person finding things of value in the garbage, and he ...

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Overview

mongo n. 1 [1970s +] an idiot. 2 [1980s +] (US, New York) any discarded object that is retrieved. 3. [1980s +] (US, New York) a scrap-metal scavenger. (The Cassell Dictionary of Slang)

When journalist Ted Botha moved to New York from South Africa, where people constructed homes out of what others considered trash, he decorated his apartment with furniture he found on Manhattan streets. Soon he realized he wasn't the only person finding things of value in the garbage, and he began roaming the streets meeting all kinds of collectors, united by their obsession with mongo-any discarded item that is rescued from the trash.

Here is Botha's remarkable record of his travels among collectors, who are as varied as the kind of mongo they seek. They range from housewife to homeless man, from accountant to computer consultant, from retrenched bank worker to full-time collector. One man finds jewelry in the sludge of New York's sewers; another has built one of the most extensive rare book collections in the city. The myriad reasons for collecting open a window into the range of human desires: some people collect for fun, others to make a living; some to find friends, others to snoop; some to make a political statement, others because it is an addiction. Collecting mongo is a longtime, universal phenomenon, at last receiving a worthy-and appropriately addictive-literary appreciation.

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Editorial Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
"Delightfully weird, and thought-provoking enough to make you consider panning through garbage for gold."
New York Times Book Review
"We thought we knew something about this subject, but Botha's book offers a completely different perspective."

— Jane and Michael Stern

New York Observer
"[Botha] writes about his subject with such earnest reverence that it's difficult not to share his enthusiasm. Megapolitans eager to learn about the seamy underbelly of Manhattan should certainly consult Mongo, a work of urban reportage packed with arcane trivia and entertaining revelations."
Washington Post
"If you thought eBay aficionados and savvy bargain hunters were unduly resourceful, Botha introduces us to a whole new class of scavengers on the streets of New York City."
Publishers Weekly
After moving to New York in the 1990s and furnishing his apartment with bounty from the city streets, the author discovered he wasn't the first or only enterprising scavenger around. In this entertaining narrative, Botha (Apartheid in My Rucksack) delves into a world of avid collectors who forage New York's garbage for everything from empty soda cans and leftover sushi to old coins and first editions. These treasures even have a distinct name-mongo-which The Cassell Dictionary of Slang defines as "any discarded object that is retrieved," Botha explains. Each chapter examines a different category of mongo seeker, from pack rats and preservationists to voyeurs and visionaries, whom Botha befriends and accompanies on their mostly nocturnal routes. Some of the most fascinating sections involve Dave, "The Treasure Hunter," whose frequent forays to Manhattan's landfills yield precious gems caked with mud; and "The Anarchists," a band of bicycle-riding young people who forgo grocery shopping in favor of gathering edibles from plastic bags outside restaurants. Steven, "The Dealer," a used- and rare-book merchant whose entire inventory comes from the street, emerges as one of the tour's most industrious characters; he gets up before dawn and "works more diligently than anyone in an office, seven days a week." Though some of Botha's observations are repetitive, he's an able guide through the undisputed capital of mongo. His sensitive and nonjudgmental study portrays a previously overlooked but resilient and passionate population as one that's worthy of attention and respect. Agent, Luke Janklow. (June 28) Forecast: This book could have a strong New York following. Botha will conduct NYC mongo walking and collecting tours for booksellers and media, and the publisher will run ads in the New Yorker. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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. Agent: Luke Janklow/Janklow & Nesbit
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781582345673
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 6/28/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.36 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Ted Botha was born in New York City and grew up in Japan, South Africa, and Washington, D.C. He has written for numerous publications, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, and Outside. His first book, Apartheid in My Rucksack, was a personal account of discovering Africa as a white African.

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Read an Excerpt

MONGO

ADVENTURES IN TRASH
By TED BOTHA

BLOOMSBURY

Copyright © 2004 Ted Botha
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-58234-452-3


Chapter One

the pack rats

It is four o'clock in the morning when the phone rings. Sarah's voice sounds a lot younger than her fifty-five years, except for a huskiness that comes from having just woken up or from years of smoking too much. She says she will be in the city by five-thirty A.M., then laughs, very girl-like and enthusiastic.

"I'm on my way," she says.

Despite Sarah's promise, there is every reason not to believe her. In the past year she has repeatedly let me down. At the same time, I have grown fond of her, and I keep expecting her to prove to me what a great collector she is. Much of my faith is based on the fact that she was the first collector I met, and for a long time she remained the only one I knew.

There were plenty of people who told me they collected, but they weren't what I was looking for. None of them went out regularly. They picked up a piece of furniture here, a lamp there, and only, mind you, if they had the time and the patience to schlep it home. They were as dedicated and consistent as a vacationer gathering seashells at the shore.

There were also lots of wonderful collector stories, about someone who knew someone else who had collected something magnificent once upon a time-an armoire with a few scratches, a chaise longue done in burgundy velvet, a marble bust blackened by soot that was cleaned off in a jiffy. But when I tried to track down the objects or their finders, I got nowhere. The stories could have been true, but I wrote them off as urban legends, which proliferate in street-collecting circles.

I followed up on anyone who had the tiniest bit of potential, which led to many a protracted detour. A schoolteacher named Jack seemed like a good candidate from the moment I saw him walking down Madison Avenue one weekday afternoon with a broken chair on his shoulder. Yes, he said, he was a collector and had been doing it for five years. It took several months to organize a visit to his small beach cottage in City Island, but I was sure the wait would be worth it. As soon as I walked through his front door, though, my heart sank. I had seen better mongo on the street that morning.

Sarah, on the other hand, had come from an antiques-collecting family that was slightly eccentric, and she had collected off the street for more than thirty years, in New York, Philadelphia, and Tennessee. Once, in Manhattan, she had found a crib dating back to the Civil War period that she later sold for five hundred dollars. Moreover, she was eager to talk about it all.

"I've been wanting to write down my memories about collecting," she told me when I first approached her. "This will give me a chance. Call me."

When I called, there was no reply. I tried again numerous times after that, but it was as if she had disappeared. Six months later, she suddenly answered the phone as if she'd been there all along. She was bubbly and girlish, as eager as ever to talk about collecting.

"I've been writing down my thoughts," she said, picking up the conversation where we'd left off.

We agreed on a date to meet at her house in New Jersey, my faith in her renewed. But that didn't last, for she'd given me the wrong directions to get there. Perhaps it was an honest mistake, but perhaps she really didn't want to talk. Was this the erratic kind of behavior I could expect from all collectors? Maybe garbage wasn't something you opened up about as easily as Japanese porcelain or model cars. But when I finally got to Sarah's house, she was as warm and gushing as ever and couldn't understand what had kept me away for six months.

"You have made me think about all the years that I've been collecting," she said, addressing me like an old friend. In her garage, I admired a broken green leather armchair. "Do you like that?" she asked, one collector to another. "Oh, you must have it. I'm going to give it to you."

I mention the green armchair because it was the only piece I noticed in a garage packed so full of things that you could hardly walk in it, let alone park a car. It was the kind of stuff that didn't inspire awe but confusion, giving the place the jumbled air of a junkyard. The same went for her garden, which belonged in a trailer park and not at the end of a leafy cul-de-sac in New Jersey. My heart didn't sink exactly-I kept reminding myself that she'd once found a Civil War crib-but my confidence in her collecting abilities took a severe knock.

Inside her house, the things she'd collected were more interesting-an antique gas stove that didn't work, baskets that were hung from the ceiling, a display cabinet-but they were hardly impressive. Was this the best she could muster after three and a half decades? Even her husband, Rich, had done better, having built the entire house out of bricks he'd recovered from various demolition sites.

In the basement, Rich also had a collection of secondhand books that he sold on the Internet. As we went downstairs to see them, I was tempted to ask whether the books had also been found, but I didn't. They looked valuable, and I was sure they couldn't have been thrown out. In the coming months I would learn that they could have.

I assumed that Sarah and Rich's mutual love of amassing things was what had brought them together in the first place, but it turns out that several of the men she had been involved with in her life-Rich is her fourth husband-had been collectors. Whether or not that was a coincidence, Rich made sure to point out that even though they both collected, their collections were very different. His was a business; hers he dismissed as "cockroaches."

Sarah's routine, she told me, was to drive her Dodge Caravan through the suburbs near their home on garbage days, or simply when the urge took her. On the way home, she might also make a detour, just in case something had been thrown out unexpectedly. Certain items she would clean up-buckets, mason jars, shelves-and then decorate and sell, while others just lay there, a fact that clearly irritated Rich.

"He says, 'What are you going to do with that? What's that for? Where are you going to put those things?'" A mischievous look crossed her face. "I tell him, 'Honey, I'm not going to put them anywhere. I'm going to sell them.' But I don't. I have this box of wooden hangers I found seven years ago. I was going to paint them, put these flowers on them. You know the bitch of it? I haven't done a damn thing with them."

Oddly enough, though, Rich could be as much of an accomplice as a restraint. While he scorned her cockroaches, he sometimes helped her find them. Whenever he was out walking the dog and discovered something he liked, he hid it in the bushes till he could come back for it. Whenever they went vacationing in the Appalachians, where they have a cottage, they returned from the dump site with just as much as they took there to throw away. At those times, he could relate to what Sarah was doing.

"You look at an object and see hidden behind the grime this worthwhile thing," he told me. "That's part of the fun."

When I left Sarah's house that day, I asked her if she wanted to go collecting with me in the city. Despite what I'd seen at her house, I still believed in her. Maybe I'd set my sights too high to begin with, expecting her to have achieved on the street what a collector of illuminated scripts or eighteenth-century coins might have done in an antiques store. Maybe collectors of garbage didn't make the kind of jaw-dropping discoveries of other collectors.

I hoped that bringing Sarah to New York would jog her memories of collecting there thirty-five years earlier. But each time we set a date, she never showed up. We went through the same delaying tactics as before, which, I realized, had nothing to do with collecting but with Sarah. She didn't answer the phone or return my calls, but when she finally did she was brimming with excitement.

"I can't wait to come. I have started writing about collecting," she said. This time she added, "I call it my purge." But then she backed off again. She made excuses-she was too busy, relatives were visiting, someone died-but then the truth finally came out. Rich was interfering.

"He doesn't want me bringing home any more cockroaches."

I suggested, as a compromise, that she drive to the city and we simply look at garbage, not actually pick it up. This, I suspected, was like putting a full case of Johnnie Walker in front of a recovering alcoholic, but, surprisingly, Sarah agreed.

After all the months of unfulfilled promises, the morning I receive Sarah's wake-up call I doubt that she will actually show up. I get dressed but don't bother going downstairs to wait for her. I also decide that this will be our last appointment. If she doesn't arrive, I will give up on her and start following several other collectors I have met in the intervening months. But at five-thirty A.M., I hear a car horn and look out the window. It's Sarah, small and beaming, in her Dodge Caravan.

At that very same moment, barely a mile away from us, the personnel of Manhattan Seventy are arriving at their workplace. As they saunter into the two-story building, you can see that the backs of their green overalls are emblazoned with a logo that could be mistaken for the designer Donna Karan's. But it's not DKNY, it's DSNY.

Parked in front of Manhattan Seventy are dozens of big white trucks with SANITATION written in small letters on the sides. Before they start off on their morning run, they resemble huge robotic beetles, or cockroaches even, in repose between feeding on the city's detritus. The trucks are also the only things that give away the identity of Manhattan Seventy, a dirty-brick structure that's located anonymously between two open lots not far from a highway. Inside, the depot resembles a parking garage, except there aren't any cars. On the second floor, a row of flimsily made offices line one wall, while the rest of the cavernous space is occupied by a pool table, a Ping-Pong table, an old wooden phone booth, and a couple of Police Do Not Cross This Line barriers. At the head of the stairs stands a stuffed dog, more a joke than a mascot, its one ear chewed, its moth-eaten fur covered with a DSNY sweatshirt, and three of its paws clad in socks and two in heavy construction boots. It looks exactly like the kind of object someone might pull out of the garbage.

But it shouldn't be. Sanitation workers are not allowed to collect for themselves what they collect for the city. According to General Order No. 96-09, section 3.17 of the DSNY's Code of Conduct, "Employees may not sort through garbage. Employees may not take for their personnel [sic] or other than department use any material put out for collection." Members of the public are forbidden to do it too, but they're banned by a different city ordinance. The New York Administrative Code, Title 16, section 7 (b) states that "No person, other than an authorized employee or agent of the department [of sanitation] shall disturb or remove any ashes, garbage or light refuse or rubbish placed by householders, or their tenants, or by occupants or their servants, within the stoop or area line, or in front of houses or lots, for removal, unless requested by residents of such houses."

What Sarah and I are about to do, therefore, is illegal. What hundreds, maybe thousands, of collectors across New York do is illegal and punishable with a fine. Not many people seem to know this, but every single item that gets thrown away-soda can, sofa, disposable diaper, washing machine-becomes the city's property as soon as it reaches the sidewalk. I always thought that I was doing sanitation workers a favor each time I picked up something; it was one less object for them to remove. But the DSNY maintains that collectors, no matter what they're collecting, make a mess and actually increase the work of its employees.

Finding this out, however, was not easy. In a year of trying to reach the DSNY to get its view on collectors, all my calls were redirected or went unanswered, and my messages and faxes got lost in a black hole. Sarah at least fed me a line, gave me a bit of hope, but not the DSNY. I couldn't help concluding that the department was too embarrassed to admit that it didn't know anything about collectors or, for some reason, didn't want to talk about them.

Eventually I got two brief replies, which referred me to the abovementioned clauses, 3.17 and 7 (b), and gave me a few statistics that I already had (for example, seven hundred trucks from seventy depots go out daily to gather thirteen thousand tons of trash). Meanwhile, the spokesman who explained why collecting is forbidden refused to go into details, if there were any.

This left me with the distinct impression that the DSNY is the collector's Enemy Number 1, when it is, in many ways, the exact opposite. If it weren't for New York's recycling program, for instance, can collectors wouldn't be able to quickly identify the clear plastic bags containing their kind of gold, saving them many hours of searching. If it weren't for New York's bulk-garbage days, furniture collectors wouldn't know when to go out, or which part of the city to focus their attention on. The DSNY even tries to stop garbage from being created by encouraging manufacturers to send industrial discards to various not-for-profit organizations, which find other uses for them. Why, then, would it outlaw civilians from doing exactly the same thing? Admittedly, I never once heard of someone being fined for picking something off the street, but the regulations remain in place. Meanwhile, collectors make full use of the city's sanitation schedule and the sanitation department turns a blind eye. It's a relationship that's as imperfect as it is old.

A hundred years and fifty years ago, collectors went by different names, whether it was ragpicker, chiffonier, or trimmer. They were poor and often homeless people who sought out rags, glass, metal, bones-anything that could be used again or sold for a few cents a pound. There were probably bigger items available too, for the same axiom of today must have applied back then: Great wealth makes great garbage. And New York of the late nineteenth century certainly had wealth to throw around as well as to throw out. As Charles Beard wrote in The Rise of American Civilization, "Diamonds were set in teeth; a private carriage and personal valet were provided for a pet monkey ... $65,000 was spent for a dressing table, $75,000 for a pair of opera glasses." Yet in the same way that there is a queue for garbage today (be it the hired help in a Park Avenue apartment, the doormen downstairs, or even the sanitation workers), the line was probably even longer a century ago, at the very end of which stood the ragpicker.

Continues...


Excerpted from MONGO by TED BOTHA Copyright © 2004 by Ted Botha. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Chapter 1 The Pack Rats 6
Chapter 2 The Survivalists 33
Chapter 3 The Treasure Hunter 55
Chapter 4 The Anarchists 78
Chapter 5 The Visionaries 103
Chapter 6 The Dealer 124
Chapter 7 The Voyeur 155
Chapter 8 The Archaeologists 175
Chapter 9 The Preservationist 200
Chapter 10 The Cowboy 223
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2013

    Great read

    An interesting look into the NYC collector culture.

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