A new book arrived in the mail today, courtesy of my mother: Waste and Want: A Social History of Trashb y Susan Strasser. I’m only on page 7, and it’s already the most exciting book I’ve read in months. Come to think of it, it’s the most exciting book since the last book I read about trash. You could say I’m obsessed. And I could say I am what I eat.
Strasser’s other books have left her something of an expert on the history of housework (A History of American Housework), and in discussing the shift in society away from mending, recycling, and re-use and toward the throwaway society we find ourselves in today, she describes a number of household norms from the 1800s.
She describes how people would throw their garbage and dishwater directly out the kitchen window. She cites magazines that advised housewives to sort food scraps into pig and/or chicken feed, grease for cooking and soap making, and still-edibles. She talks about how scrap collectors sorted everything from fabric to metal to re-use and re-sell. And it all reminded me so much of the Wagenplatz.
Not having running water in the kitchen means we also don’t have a drain to carry our dishwater to a faraway treatment plant that we will never see. Yet we can’t pour our dish-washing water right out the window because the soap we use is toxic. (Was it already toxic in the 1800s, I wonder? I have read that it was once common to use hot water, lemon juice, and a bit of sand to clean dishes back in the day, so perhaps not. But don’t quote me on that.) So we walk a few extra meters and pour the dish water down the gully in the street behind our land.
Food trash we often toss directly out the window: coffee grounds blend into the dirt immediately, and other food scraps disappear into chicken beaks faster than you can say “compost.” (Our chickens seem to spend most of their time in the compost pile. Worms, bugs, food scraps—it’s a regular chicken smorgasbord and their earth-tiling dance keeps the compost aerated and decomposing healthily.)
There is plenty of non-organic trash that gets thrown directly out the window—pretty much anything you need to get out of your hands quick—but those items we usually end up collecting later and sending off to the dumpster 20th-century style.
As for re-using trash, well, I’d that’s what people known in German as “Messies” do best: reinvent the junk they just couldn’t help but fish out of the dumpster and store in their shed for 15 years until just the right re-use for it came up. Clothing is patched, curtains and table clothes made out of old sheets, crates re-thought as shelves, then kindling. (In a world without Ikea all furniture was once future firewood. Fuck you Ikea. )When one of us is in a rotten mood Scissors and I take stacks of plates to a nearby parking lot for a good smashing, though these days I’m saving the uglies to pound into colorful gravel for a little garden path.
The weather report claims that right now it is somewhere between -3 and -18 degrees Celcius. The wood stove has been raging for several hours and my toes still feel frozen. I am still wearing two sweatshirts, a hat, a scarf, and fingerless gloves.
Even if my wagon was finished we would be packed in here together. To save wood. To keep warm. He watches a movie from the bed while I sit in a chair in front of the fire, barely a foot away from each other, to write to you about abandoned buildings and the frozen potatoes in the kitchen cabinet. There is room for another two or three people in here, but the others are all tucked away in their own heated, blanketed nests or have already fled to relative’s homes for the holidays.
The windows are all covered with multiple blankets, the un-used cat door stuffed with an old sheet. A curtain sections off the room’s last meter so that there is less space to heat. Still the cold pushes its way in, even as the fire pushes it out. Orange tells us that he has had his wood stove blaring for three hours, and his wagon is not getting any warmer.
I imagine covering the floor with mattresses and fashioning cartoonish slippers out of two down blankets. I imagine warm toes and warm fingers. I’ve heard stories about winter days so cold that everyone moved into the house and had an enormous, spontaneous slumber party. People laying in a circle around a few candles, reading stories to each other, playing board games, making food, and sleeping on the mattresses spread out in the attic for visiting bands. The thought almost makes me wish it was even colder. Almost.
The pipes in the bathroom have all frozen because we forgot to turn off the water before the cold hit. Now three pipes have exploded, and we’ll have to beg someone from the plumbing firm in front of the platz to repair it and hope that they’ll except a case of beer in exchange.
I investigate the price of a plane ticket to Spain (“Are you planning your honeymoon?” people tease), but nothing that is cheap fits our schedules, things that are expensive don’t fit in our wallets, and after Sleeveless and I’s trip I swore I’d never fly Ryanair again. But really I don’t want to escape the cold. The snow, my breath hanging frozen in the air, the warm nested feeling of a small warm space and piles of blankets, the sound of the wood stove: the combination gives me a warm, protected feeling that I associate with the concept of home.
On Friday it snowed a few centimeters and public transportation stuttered to a halt. Unimportant things became obviously so: I don’t need to go to school or work in this weather; it doesn’t matter if I am late. People banded together to spread news about canceled buses and groups of travelers trudged down the middle of white car-less streets.
Extreme weather rearranges priorities and slows time, fills it with a feeling of magic and inevitability. Control is relinquished because the weather has taken over the wheel, and we are left to concentrate on the only things that were ever important anyway, but that we so often lose sight of in the hail of daily life’s errands and “responsibilities.” Stay warm. Eat. Snuggle up under piles of blankets with your friends and tell stories until you’ve all drifted off to sleep.
If abandoned buildings were food, East Germany would be the all-you-can-eat buffet, and Sundays would be the half-price special. See, despite restoration fees (people living in the west still send part of their tax money east to help fix shit up) and economic stimulus what- evers, East Germany still hasn’t transformed into the hyper-developed over- civilized beast that is the West. What this means is that there are abandoned buildings a plenty. And Sundays in Germany mean that everything is closed, leaving very few people out on the street to see you crawling under the fence outside of the empty building at the end of the block.
Sundays in Dresden were Empty Building, Full Dumpster Exploration Days. Dumpster scouting missions were executed by tandem mountain bike and led us to the usual vegetables and trinkets. Still the best booty was not edible, not dumpstered, but in the city’s crumbling edges, fenced off and forgotten. Abandoned buildings, but not empty; filled not with tangible treasure, but with goosebumps, whispered secrets, and half-forgotten stories.
One late-winter afternoon I choose the bike path along the Elbe as my guide and followed it until it disappeared into a small industrial suburb. I pedaled through town hoping to find my way back to the path. But I never did make it back to the river.
Instead I rounded a corner and saw a complex of about fifteen buildings with windows broken, paint chipping down to cracked doors, and carpets of leaves leading into horror-film-set innards. I locked my bike on a fence to walk between the fading facades. It was a crisply chill day in 2008.
With windows set too high to peer into, I eventually found myself standing hesitantly before a door. I often explore buildings alone, but this place was the stuff that horror film sets are made of. I imagined a couple sitting at home, yelling tensely at the screen—”Don’t do it you fucking idiot! Just walk away! The monster is in there! How could you be so stupid?”—warned by dramatically swelling music that I could not hear as they watched me peer into the building that would become my tomb.
You are not in a freakin’ horror film, I told myself, took a deep breath, and stepped inside. The first door led into a foyer. On the right a wide hallway led between rows of red doors on the one side and windows on the other. On the left a large stairwell led up to other hallways lined with more doors, leaves, and broken windows.
I went right, following the hallway past doors either locked or bricked over. The occasional graffiti tag told of other visitors, but there were no signs of current tenants. At the end of the hallway was a bathroom with peeling wood stalls. I tried every door in the hall and even- tually found several that opened into small bare rooms, each no bigger than a small wagon (approx. 3 meters by 2 meters).
Had this place been a school, or a prison? The hallways and stairwell said school, but the cell-like rooms said otherwise, and looking back remind me of the Sedel in Switzerland. (The Sedel is a concert venue that was formerly a prison. Today the cells serve as practice rooms for local musicians.) The rooms said prison, but the large unbarred windows said school. Then again, what’s the big difference between the two anyway?
Upstairs I found more of the same. The rows of locked doors were unsettling. What was behind them? Why had some of the doors been bricked over? The walls guarded the building’s secrets tightly, leaving no clues for the casual observer. I was somewhere on the third floor when the wind began to blow, opening and slamming a series of doors that drove me down the stairs and out the door in a rush of adrenaline and fright no late-night horror film could match.
I stood outside for a second, grinning stupidly at myself for being so easily frightened and at the house and the wind for the rush of adrenaline pumping in my throat. I took a quick walk over the rest of the grounds, snapping photos until my camera battery died, as it always seems to do at the first sight of something worth photographing. This place wasn’t far from the city, I thought, but might be far enough from the village that squatters might have a chance here if they remained quiet, under radar. Hundreds of people could have lived in those buildings, another few dozen in wagons in the sparsely tree-ed square between yellow facades.
I still wish I had gone back to explore on a less blustery day, or that I had written down the address and asked the almighty Internet what the place had once been. I’m sure she’s still there though, nestled quiet among the leaves and weeds, quietly chuckling to herself about the time she scared the small human who came on a bike.
Snow coats everything with a crumbly frosting. The drab winter-brown landscape looks magical again. But even the snow can’t right the construction site across the street because the construction site used to be home, and now it is Over Tilled Earth and Metal and Concrete and Four Ten Story Cranes and Loud Dusty Men in Hardhats.
The bitter cold pushes through the cracks in even the most well-insulated wagons. And in the wagons we never really insulated properly it is never really warm. From my seat in the kitchen I nod at every penniless writer of the last two centuries who has typed in fingerless gloves, hands cupped together and filled again and again with humid breath.
Breakfast is bread toasted on the wood stove and dipped in faux “bolognese” sauce from the promised land of dumpsters north of Cologne. (A tofu factory that regularly fills the coffers and mouths of the persistent.) Everything in the kitchen is frozen.
Last night someone told me that Christmas is this Thursday, and I didn’t believe them. “Christmas is still weeks away!” The calendar is against me. But the calendar is against us all.
The wood stove is almost lit, and my hands smell like pine sap. Sitting on the floor in front of the stove I look as if I am praying. Hips resting atop folded feet, hands folded on black pants, head tilted as I listen to the crackling fire, waiting for it to tell me that it is time to add another handful of kindling.
Outside a thin column of smoke snakes up into the sky where it meets other bands of smoke in a wraith-like may pole around which our wagons dance. I shove another handful of wood into the flames, and a cough of smoke escapes into the room. I open windows and door reluctantly to the biting cold that arrived yesterday and brought snow that didn’t stick today.
The floors are black with mud, and the wood pile shrinks slowly, counting down the days to a season it is too soon to think about or even mention.
The Orm is what Walter Moers calls the divine, possessed inspiration that comes over a writer when working on what will become a masterpiece. In this video—which I guarantee will interest any of my writer readers, and maybe a few others besides—Elizabeth Gilbert (who apparently wrote a best-selling book called Eat Pray Love, among other rather interesting things) talks about her relationship with the orm and re-assesses the way our culture understands creative genius.
My usual Saturday ritual involves walking through the flea market down the block and returning cans to the grocery store in exchange for juice and noodles. But today, revived from sickness by a fulfilling night of fancy cocktails and fancier dresses, today was lumberjack day.
Above: The country ghetto woodshed, built out of old pallets and metal siding, found in the trash. Pirate flag, found in the woods outside of Limburg.
Imagine if all the people who belong to gyms traded in their memberships for a wood stove and mighty lumberjack shoulders. I think that, in some small way, the world would be a better place.
Over the years I’ve had a lot of nicknames, though few have stuck around for long—Pajama Girl, Tiny Fists of Fury, and Sweepstakes. Now the people who once called me those things live way across the sea, and the names have faded into memory.
These days I have two new nicknames. The first is die alle letzte Drecksau—which means something along the lines of the biggest, dirtiest pig of all time and which I earned with a remark about how I’ve eaten enough mold (accidentally of course) at this point in my life that it no longer affects my bowels. And the second is the Hamster.
In German the verb hamstern means to hoard supplies and is used much as its English equivalent to squirrel something away. Which would probably make Hamster the most fitting nickname yet; I no longer even own pajamas, my fists have been stilled, and the name Sweepstakes never had anything to do with anything anyway, but oh do I hoard.
Hoarding is part of being a scrounger. If you don’t take something you might need when you see it and store it away, you’re not necessarily going to find it again. If there’s free scrap wood in the dumpster down the street one summer day, better take it so that when winter comes you’re ready and don’t have to shell out 50-100 euros for stove wood. My father refers to it as my “Polish peasant instinct” because apparently it runs in the family. Me, I just feel more comfortable when the pantry and the wood shed are both full because you never do know what is going to happen.
You never know, for example, when you’re going to be laying in bed, feeling like a lollipop that’s been sucked almost down to the stick and forgotten on the couch, and wishing that someone else would come along and bring you hydrating liquids and light the wood stove. And of course on the day when it does happen, the wood shed is empty. You see, I take turns sawing up logs and chopping wood with the non-plannerest of non-planners, he’s away for the weekend, and I’m too tired to haul logs.
Sick in the winter—it’s the only time anymore when the thought of apartment life sounds even remotely appealing. Heat you can turn up and down with a dial! A bathroom that is both nearby and not possibly occupied by guests from the party/concert/vokü going on right now! The nostalgia never lasts for long though. Either, like tonight, I pull myself together, borrow some already-chopped wood and kindling from the kitchen, light the stove and scare up orange juice or I revel in the fact that I live with 18 friends who are always willing to help each other out of a fix.
The phrase holy shit does not translate into German. If you try it people might not laugh at you because they’ve heard the phrase in English, but in German say “heilige Scheiße” and you just sound like an idiot. Then again, taken literally, “holy shit” is a ridiculous phrase that probably has a fascinating etymological story. But that is besides the point.
THE POINT, my friends, is that today Snowflake and I replaced the moldy support beam that I have been dreading/avoiding for months. Leeching onto someone else’s optimism about how easy something will be makes getting motivated much easier. Especially when said optimistic person offers to help, and then rips the moldy beam out with bare hands.
This is what it looked like before. Mold that turns wood into cheese is not your friend. Then again, when you are working with wood, you don’t have a lot of friends. Water, mold, bugs, and time are your enemies, and in the long run they will always win.
Then we WD-40ed a few rusty screws here and cut a few things there, and hit it with a hammer until it looked like this.
And that’s when Snowflake transformed into the Hulk. Now it looks like this, and tomorrow I can start closing up the hole that I should have taken care of months ago.