Ever since I moved to New York fourteen years ago, I’ve collected things off the street. This is the city of plenty – plenty to throw away. You can find furniture, paintings, lamps, computers, printers, strollers, food, you name it. So impressed was I by the largesse/wastage that I wrote a book, Mongo, Adventures in Trash, about it. (Mongo is New York slang for anything someone has thrown away that you find some use for.)
I’ve since stopped collecting bigger items. I go for the occasional painting that takes my fancy or a lamp. If it’s something I’m looking for – though it’s rare you actually find something you’re looking for when you’re looking for it – then I take it. One thing I have always collected and continue to look for is money. New York is a city paved not so much in gold but brass and nickel. Mostly I find pennies. Pennies are plentiful and most people don’t seem to have the energy to pick them up once they’ve fallen. Pennies are the insignificant coin. So much so that many shops don’t even bother to give you your change of one or two cents. They regard it as so small as to be meaningless. How far away, you might ask then, is five cents and a dime?
But those pennies add up. I’ve collected more than $400 off the streets since I bent to pick up my first coin. Of course that’s not all made up of pennies – there was one very welcome $50 bill drifting around a gas station on York Avenue and 58th Street – but most of it was. I have always put the coins I collect to one side, just to figure out how much I’ve made, how much falls out of people’s pockets, how much people overlook what is right at their feet.
Whenever I see someone who picks up a coin, I make sure to say something, like, “You a collector?” They are always happy to meet a fellow collector/picker/gatherer (that is, unless the collector happens to be a psychotic schizophrenic, many of whom rummage through the city’s trash too). In all my years in New York, though, I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve seen picking up coins. Sometimes it is the kind of person you’d expect (an old lady who, wearing a torn dress and with a Medusa hairstyle, looks like a trash picker) and sometimes it isn’t (a twentysomething on his cell phone). I still feel embarrassed every time I stop the sidewalk traffic to pick up a coin – yes, even $400 later! – but that doesn’t stop me from doing it.
Coins won’t feature in the documentary about mongo that Italian/Australian filmmaker Marco Mona and I are making at the moment, but plenty of other amazing throwaways in New York will. For a taste of what the movie will look like, check out Mongo, Trash Treasure Hunters – and stay tuned for more!