Junk Bond

Books for a nickel. Microwave magnets for a buck. Uptown's most assiduous dumpster diver knows there's gold in the garbage.

What about his collection of discarded microwaves? Well, Norman notes, a lot of the first-and-second-generation ovens that end up in the alleys still work. A good one can fetch $10 or $15 at his yard sales. From the dead ones, he extracts the heavy-duty magnets--for sale to kids (at a a dollar apiece) or his own amusement. Back when he worked at the P.O., he used to taunt supervisors with the magnets, saying that he would sell them to co-workers as "robot detectors."

With that, Norman takes a final swig of coffee, lays down the German science-fiction serial he's been leafing through, and prepares to make his rounds through the neighborhood alleys. First, though, an understanding must be reached: "You can have first pick on lamps, but I got books, okay?" Over the years, Norman has had a lot of junking partners, and he says it's important to agree ahead of time on how the spoils will be divided. Squinting in the bright spring sunshine, he leads the way, zigzagging from block to block in an entirely haphazard manner. The pickings, it turns out, are pretty slim--no lamps, no books, no microwaves, not much at all. The garbage trucks just came through the neighborhood, but, Norman insists, that doesn't preclude the possibility of a good score. "Everything is completely random," he says. "The more I do this, the less sense it makes." To be sure, certain spots at certain times can be especially productive. Over by the University of Minnesota, at the end of spring quarter, for instance. Behind apartment buildings at the end of the month. But above all, Norman believes in the principle of serendipity. "It's like being a Stone Age hunter and going out and finding a dead mammoth killed by an avalanche or something," he says. "It is totally random."

As he walks, stopping occasionally to peer into the dumpsters--or, as he calls them, "gift bins"--Norman encounters a slightly rusted, slightly dented file cabinet. Four drawers. A lock, but no key. With a key, it would definitely be a keeper. In the end, Norman decides, the cabinet still might sell for $10 or $20. And so he hoists up the cabinet and walks it the three blocks back to his home, where he crams it on to the crowded porch.

So what makes a man dig through other people's garbage? Money, to be sure, is only part of it. Norman has collected a pension since taking early retirement from the post office in 1992 ("the best decision I ever made," he says). He owns a nice Ford F-150--though because of his poor eyesight, Grace is the only driver. His house is paid off. He is vague in discussing his income as a junk man, saying only that he can earn "thousands" a year, but allows that he and Grace are financially comfortable. Lately he has been flush enough to play around some on the stock market--e-trading.

Dave Swirnoff, a bookstore owner who has bought scads of paperback mysteries from Norman over the years, speculates that his passion is fueled by a contrarian impulse: "His big thing is proving other people wrong. Proving that you can make a profit on super-low-end books. And he doesn't mind selling a book for a nickel, because he basically gets all his stuff for free." By turning trash into treasure, the junk man proves that the Uptown boutiques a few blocks from his house are missing the point--that the worthless has value, that you can acquire without spending, that you can furnish your house for free. Maybe he even proves, somehow, that everyone else is really kind of a sucker.

Of course, the junker does pay a certain price. At the end of a two-hour excursion through the alleys, Norman sits on his stoop, a bead of sweat on his brow, sucking down a Doral cigarette. He peers up at the clutter on the porch. Maybe he shouldn't have dragged in that file cabinet. Grace is tolerant of his habit, he adds, but lately he has been pushing it a little too hard. Oh, well. "You might say it's a war," he observes. "And the junk always wins."

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