Junk Bond

Trash Cash: Norman is vague about his junking profits, saying only that he can earn "thousands"
Michael Dvorak

From the street, the ramshackle two-story home looks a touch out of place, nestled amid the carefully tended properties that dominate a tony neighborhood just east of Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. Vines crawl up the faded stucco exterior all the way to the attic windows, where big, haphazardly stacked cardboard boxes press against the panes. Branches from sprawling shrubs partially screen the front porch. They do not, however, conceal the evidence of the homeowner's passion. The porch is piled with bits of scrap metal, used lumber, tattered furniture, a well-worn wheelchair, a dead lawn mower--and, off to the side, three very rusty women's bicycles. If there were a breeze, a visitor might half expect the wind chimes to tinkle out the theme from Sanford and Son.

Inside, narrow sunbeams pierce the gaps between the window shades, dimly illuminating a bounty that dwarfs the piles on the porch--the product of more than four decades of relentless scavenging, salvaging, and hoarding. The loot, mostly culled from the alleys and dumpsters of south Minneapolis, spills from the foyer to the dining room to the living room. And into the den. And into the basement. And up the stairs--past a scowling plastic statue of the Incredible Hulk perched on the landing--into the bedrooms. Throughout the house, narrow passageways are carved out between precariously balanced stacks of books. It is mostly cheap, mass-market stuff--mysteries, science fiction, children's books, history, how-to guides, even some "spicy books" garnered from the ruins of the notorious Ferris Alexander porn empire. On this day, Norman--he didn't want his full name used here, for reasons having to do with the city inspections department--sits at his kitchen table, under a faded poster reading "We Take Care of Armadillos," and digs into his customary noontime breakfast: fried eggs, bacon, and toast. "You look in here, and what's the first word that comes to mind?" he asks. As is his habit, he answers his own question. "Shit," he says flatly. "I've got too much stuff, by any standard, reasonable or unreasonable." Over the years, Norman and Grace, his wife of 32 years, have had occasional discussions with city inspectors over the condition of the property. "The neighbors thought we had a garbage house," Grace notes with a hint of indignation. "It's not a garbage house. It's a clutter house." Still, she concedes, the place has gotten more crowded in the years since the couple's four children moved out (all their homes are spic-and-span, Grace says)--and, more recently, since Norman's mother went into a nursing home. She was, Norman says, a prolific collector. It took nine months to empty her place out, and lots of the flotsam--rocks, figurines, Native American artifacts--wound up here.

At 57, Norman has a thinning, tousled shock of gray hair, and an unkempt beard, which, he says, his mother once offered him $4,000 to shave. (He declined.) He wears thick, plastic-framed glasses, thrift-store slacks, loafers, and a plaid, short-sleeved polyester shirt. Grace says Norman never has cared much for appearances. Maybe, she theorizes, that's because his father, a north Minneapolis haberdasher, placed so much emphasis on looking "high-class."

Norman puts it more simply. "I'm a slob," he says. For most of his working life, Norman was in the employ of the postal service, to which he now sharply refers as "The Buzzard." He also did stints as a technical writer, a television-repair shop proprietor on Lake Street, and, briefly, as a technician for IBM, whose buttoned-down corporate culture he found intolerable. But he has always been a scrounger. As a teenager, he used to earn pocket change by collecting and selling recyclable newsprint with his uncle, a former old-time "ragman." (Ragmen, or rag-and-bone men, or sheenies, were fixtures of the pre-WWII urban industrial landscape. Their trade consisted largely of salvaging rags for use in papermaking, and bones for the manufacture of candles. Back then junking was a full-time occupation, not the sideline it has become for even the most avid contemporary practitioners.)

Over the years, Norman branched out in his various enterprises. "There is no term for what I do, because I deal in so many things," he says as he sorts through the day's mail--mostly orders for the books he sells over the Internet, sometimes for as little as fifty cents apiece (plus, of course, shipping and handling, where he makes his profit). "I guess," he finally says, "I'm a merchandiser."

Norman's business model relies on two basic principles: volume and diversity of product. "You got to look for more than one thing, because you can only make money on a fraction of the stuff you pick up," he explains. His niche is low-end merchandise--especially when it comes to books: "A lot of dealers don't want to touch anything under ten dollars," he huffs. "They're arrogant, lazy bastards. I maintain you can make money on dollar, dollar-and-a-half books." Of course, you have to sell a lot of them to do that.  

Norman applies a similar ethic to his other junking pursuits. He is quick to drag home just about anything he believes he might be able to pawn off at one of his periodic yard sales, or online, or at a scrap yard--especially items that at first blush appear to have no value. On the back stoop, he points out the stacks of broken and obsolete computers he has collected over the years. The old motherboards and carts can be sold to recyclers who salvage the tiny amounts of gold in them; two box loads weighing 66 pounds, delivered to a downtown firm called Midwest Electronic Recovery, will net $52. The fried monitors? The copper coil at the base of the picture tubes can be stripped and sold, he says.

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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