Helen Chappell: November 2005

The Custom of the Country
Helen Chappell

     “Why did those people just dump that stuff in their front yard?” a newer neighbor of mine asked as we walked past a rose-colored toilet and sink another neighbor had left beside their driveway.
     “They put it out there because those fixtures still have some use in them. They’ve remodeled the bathroom, so they put out their old fixtures in case anyone coming by can find a use for them,” I explained. “It’s a country custom. If you can’t use it, you put it out in case someone else can.”
Being a suburban come-here, my friend is still adjusting to country culture. The old ways of the Eastern Shore are a puzzle to her, as they are to many people.
     “I got one of those new tower fans,” I explained. “I had an old floor fan that still has a lot of use in it. So, instead of tossing it out, I put it down by the foot of the driveway. About three days later, I looked out the window, and someone trailering a boat from the ferry slip stopped, checked it out, liked it, put it in his truck and drove away. That fan was of no use to me, but it was useful to him. And it won’t be going in the landfill.” I added. “It’s an old custom of country living.”
      She mulled that over for a while. About a half mile down the road, we passed a house where someone had placed some wicker chairs beside their driveway, with a cardboard sign propped up on the seat, naming a price.
     “Now, you see,” I continued, really getting into this teaching culture thing, “there’s a price on those chairs. That means they’re for sale, not a freebie. You want those, you go knock on the door, dicker a price, make a deal and take your chairs away. Cash and carry.”
     “I never heard of such a thing,” my friend said. “If you did that back in Chevy Chase, you’d get a ticket.”
     “Toto, you’re not in Kansas anymore,” I laughed. “I read somewhere the other day that you can tell the state of the economy by how many people have cars and trucks for sale in their front yards. In bad times, you see a lot of vehicles. In good times, not so many.”
     “I never heard of such a thing,” she mused. We fell into a comfortable silence for a while as we headed for the post office.  The bulletin board was filled with notices of things for sale, as it always is. Everything from new lab puppies to a boat trailer was on that board.

   “Now, you see,” I pointed out, “Those are things people think they can get some money for. The stuff you see down by the end of the driveway are generally things that still have some use in them, but aren’t worth trying to sell.”
     “Sometimes at the end of summer, I bring zucchini and tomatoes in here because frankly, we’ve got more than we need, and I figure when people come to get their mail, they can help themselves to fresh vegetables.”
     “Same idea.” I opened my box and sorted through the mail, which, of course, was mostly bills and catalogs. “It’s a kind of recycling. Now, it used to be that people who lived in town would take stuff out to the dump, and if it still had some use to it, they’d leave it beside the dump gate. But the Dump Powers that Be put a stop to that. You know how there’s always someone there when you back up to the dumpster? They’re not even allowed to take perfectly good stuff people toss out.”
     “That seems like a waste.” My friend glanced through her bills and catalogs. Neither of us was getting a big surprise check that day, it seemed.
     “Well, I’ve noticed now that people who have old vacuum cleaners or electronics or small appliances leave them beside the recycling bins around the county, or perch them on the edge of dumpsters behind businesses. I had a working TV that I replaced with one that worked better, and a VCR that didn’t work at all. I left them beside the recycling bins. The next day they were gone. Someone had a use for them and took them away. A lot of times, people cannibalize them for parts, I understand. And it keeps them out of the landfill. Everybody’s happy.”
      As we walked out of the post office and back into the heat of the day, my friend nodded. “What about yard sales?” she asked.
     “That’s a whole part of what they call the underground economy. You know, it’s all cash and carry. But you have to have a lot of stuff to hold a yard sale. I just had that one poor old fan with a couple of summers left in it. It wouldn’t have been worth trying to sell. I notice most of the stuff that gets left at the foot of people’s driveways is hard goods. You never see a box of clothes or toys or anything like that, because people yard sale that, or donate it to a thrift shop. I knew a guy who left an old wooden net box at the foot of his drive. I snatched it up because I knew an artist friend of mine could take it apart and use that weathered wood in her sculptures.”
     “Well, now that I know about all this, I’m going to start slowing down to take a closer look at those driveway freebies. I could use some kitchen chairs.”
     “That’s the spirit!” I exclaimed. “But if you want to see what people can do with stuff that would otherwise end up rusting away at the dump, you need to check out the Avant Garde Art Show in Oxford. It’s always a very cool show, with a lot of artists who work with found objects, as well as conventional media.”
     “We went last year, remember?” my friend asked. “It was a great show. And the place was packed.”
     “They’ve expanded the show this year to run over two days, and added more artists. This year, the opening reception is on November 12, starting at noon, and running until 5 p.m., then on Sunday from 9 to 5. It’s going to be at the Oxford Community Center again.”
     “Who’s going to be at the show this year?” my friend asked.
     “There will be twenty artists there, including Griffin Bates, Heather Crow, Geraldine Czajikowski, Carol Gorden, Dotti Heimert, George Holzer, Anne Klinefelter, Janet Kreiger, Joyce LaForce, Bob LaForce, Barbara Lucke, George Merrill, Carol Minarck, Nancy South-Reybold, DeDe Ritner, Emmy Savage, Susan Stewart, Craigie Succop, Helaine White and Don Whomsley.”
     “That sounds great!” my friend exclaimed. “We’ve got to go again.”
     “I wouldn’t miss it,” I replied. “Lots of those folks are good friends of mine. It was great last year, and I bet it will be even better this year. Besides, it’s free, and a reception always means food and wine.”
     “We’ll both have to mark it on our calendars,” she said, reaching into her pocket for her Blackberry. “Who do I call for more information?”
     “Bob LaForce is the coordinator this year and his number is 410-226-5077.”
     “Got it. You know what?”
     “You really ought to think about putting that old couch of yours down at the foot of your driveway. That thing is just plain nasty.”
     “You’ll have to help me haul it out of the house, then.”
     “Hmmm. On second thought, maybe you should just hang on to it a little longer. Maybe one of your artist friends can make a sculpture out of it.”
     “Now there’s a thought.”