Spending a Day at a Dump Taught Me a Lesson I’ll Never Forget

Turns out, piles of trash are life lessons in the making.

A Tour of the Dump Taught Him the Worth of Scrap and the Value of Junk FoodReminisce Extra Magazine

Every day like clockwork, Mr. Nagel would walk by our house in Salamanca, New York, and I’d walk with him as far as I was allowed to go. One special day in the 1930s, when I was 8 years old, Mr. Nagel was on his way home from the city dump, where he was in charge, and stopped to give me an unused paintbrush and an unopened can of paint.

I excitedly asked Mom where I could use my new treasures. She gave me a coat hanger and said, “Now, let’s see how well you can paint!” I believe I spent more time painting that coat hanger than I would spend painting a garage door today. I actually still have that coat hanger (above) in a closet, though the paint has begun to flake off.

One day Mr. Nagel asked Mom if I could go to the dump with him. She thought about it a spell, gave her blessing and then gave me a lecture on the theme of “Don’t do this and don’t do that.”

Mr. Nagel’s shortcut to the dump sent us through some woods, over a railroad crossing and past a deep swimming hole that also served as a spa and laundry. I remembered Mom’s instructions to hold Mr. Nagel’s hand near certain spots and to look both ways before crossing the tracks.

The wind was blowing our way as we neared the dump, and I’d never smelled anything like it. There was trash of all kinds, and many rats. I had a white rat as a pet but didn’t know they came wild—and in different colors.

A Tour of the Dump Taught Him the Worth of Scrap and the Value of Junk FoodReminisce Extra Magazine

We saw two men picking glass, rags, and metal from the trash. Mr. Nagel said they lived at the dump year-round, showing me the shacks they’d built from doors, scrap lumber and metal. The men smashed the glass into small pieces and put it in bushel baskets, since the scrap man wouldn’t buy it any other way.

Near the dump was a place we called hobo alley, where transients lived under and near the railroad bridge. At night we could see their bonfires. Back then we had three railroads passing through town, so there were many hoboes—a lot of good fellows who were just down on their luck and rode the rails. They sold most of the so-called “goodies” they collected, but not the cigarette butts. The larger butts they smoked, and the smaller ones they broke apart to use for pipe tobacco.

After I got back home, Mom asked, “What did you learn today, Bill?” Proudly, I told her how many wine bottles it took to make a bushel of glass, and that Mr. Nagel called the stuff the hoboes ate “junk food.”

It wasn’t long before Mom heated a kettle of water on the stove and brought the laundry tub into the kitchen. Boy, did she scrub me down!

And to this day I have not eaten any junk food.

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Originally Published in Reminisce Extra