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'Junking' lets the poor make a living off the rich Scavengers check trash to rescue useful items


GREENWICH, Conn. -- On Tuesday nights, after people in this moneyed town have finished dinner, Tonya White, a fourth-generation Greenwich resident, bundles her toddler into her car and, with her 58-year-old mother, goes hunting for junk.

As the boy nods off, mother and daughter cruise the lanes of nearby communities such as Rye, N.Y., and Port Chester, N.Y., and rummage with flashlights through homeowners' trash, sifting out old lamps, dolls, pots, quilts -- anything thrown away as clutter or too much trouble to repair.

On weekday afternoons, mother and daughter take another tack, visiting the town dump here and poking through mounds of wood, metal and trash for goods whose value has gone unrecognized.

What they harvest, they haul to consignment shops, which pay them 70 percent of sales.

"I found a very nice Pentax," White said. "Wide-angle lens. Digital. The only thing was the shutter was stuck.

"All I had to do was stick my finger inside. I put some batteries in, some film.

"Bang, it worked."

She knows a dozen for-profit scavengers like herself, including those who do it just because they cannot resist the instinct to lTC get something for nothing.

"There's so many people looking through garbage, it's hard to find anything good," she said.

"People in Mercedes-Benzes. They have lots of money, and they're still trying to find that Rembrandt in the garbage."

Junking, as it's called, is the way White and her mother make their living, the kind of occupation most Americans do not associate with Greenwich but one that says something about wealthy towns' scruffier, less visible corners, where weather-beaten clapboard houses are scattered among the factories and the lawns are handkerchief size.

People who resort to such makeshift enterprises have watched the wealth mushroom around them and pass them by.

Maybe they blame bad luck or personal troubles.

But they seem to have adopted the philosophy that if they cannot live as well as the rich, they might as well live off them.

Along the way, they help remind us of the extravagance in increasingly affluent America, where toys languish unopened in closets and perfectly fine refrigerators are discarded to make way for trendy Sub-Zeros.

Greenwich is self-conscious about this waste.

The town officially prohibits scavenging at the dump (although officials seem to overlook regulars like the Whites), and it includes a Salvation Army drop-off bin and a free book exchange that could stock a small-town library.

However, as White says, there is no getting around the indulgence.

"People have a fantastic need to consume," she said. "They can't get enough.

"They have to have more gold necklaces and more shoes when there are people out there who have absolutely nothing."

White, a slight 24-year-old who also is a painter, thinks of herself as "rescuing things that shouldn't be thrown out in the first place."

"I don't see any shame in doing it," she said. "I'm not prostituting my body. I'm not lying or cheating my way to the top. I'm making an honest living."

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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