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Nunc Dimittis

On Hunting

On one man’s treasure.


We do the same thing nearly every Sunday afternoon. I fold down our station wagon’s back seats, and my wife lays out an old blanket over them. We devote the rest of the day to a neighborhood treasure hunt.

Sometimes nothing turns up. But more often we return home laden with goods: a desk lamp, a spatula, a perfectly good ironing board, all found on the side of the road. In our suburb of Washington, D.C., people have the luxury of throwing these things away. We fortunately have the leisure to pick them up.

Early last year, I grabbed a coffee table from a prominent congressman’s garbage pile. My wife a few weeks later dragged home an armchair whose upholstery mimics the Met Cloisters’ unicorn tapestries. Sometime in the spring, after months of living couchless, we hauled back a scroll-armed sofa from a Russian diplomat’s apartment. And so on. We are private collectors of sorts, and we’re always looking for new pieces.

We can’t rely entirely on our own savviness, of course. We often go to Nextdoor or Facebook Marketplace for the things that people don’t discard with their waste. That’s how we get our firewood, coffee, and, once, an espresso machine that almost worked. It’s always surprising what people are willing to just give away. We’re hoping to find an upright piano soon.

We have the most fun when the acquisition is completely fortuitous. During a thunderstorm last July, we stumbled upon an Art Nouveau writing desk outside a condemned resort hotel. It was perched atop a pile of several decades’ worth of defunct hospitality: landline phones, radio clocks, tiki torches, a swimming pool vacuum, and hundreds of loose shoehorns. All junk, but a lot of it surprisingly durable. I use the landline for radio interviews, and I am writing this column seated at the desk.

Family members often send us pictures of their own finds. These are most frequently waterlogged couches stranded on the side of the highway. But my sister once picked up an intact Good Humor ice cream freezer, and my brothers sometimes score Redskins paraphernalia. My father is forever unearthing rotted sailboats. 

I was never prouder than when I found my first piece: a chaise lounge, pulled off a burn-pile somewhere in southern Michigan. It was beautiful, although it smelled like mold. In hindsight, I believe that I ought to have left it alone. Its stench made me sneeze for months. Whenever I flip back through the books I read while splayed out across it, I feel a little sick.

My wife was wiser. When she moved to New York City several years ago, she skipped the trash heaps and pilfered the Upper West’s sidewalks for decent chairs. I followed her to the city not long after and did the same.

We were pinched for cash in those days, as we are now. But I’m not complaining. Most people who marry young, even if they both work, have to improvise a little in their domestic lives. I think we prefer it that way, or at least have learned to. My wife is having a baby this summer, and necessity more than thrift keeps us on the hunt.

Recently we walked into a Crate & Barrel, on a whim, to see what the competition had to offer, and both of us burst out laughing. How can so much plastic and beige and sterility be so expensive? Neither of us can imagine dropping two grand on a mid-century modern couch when we know full well some kid will stain it the color of grape juice. And we shudder at the idea of buying a down-market version on Amazon, with superficially similar design. If we wanted to sit on a rock, we’d go outside.

What’s the fun in buying new furniture, anyway? Not only does it all look the same; almost none of it is built to last. The good stuff is all out on the streets.

Nic Rowan is a staff writer at the Washington Examiner.

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