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Upcycling: The dark side

September 17, 2010

posted by Jimmy.

My wife--who taught and inspired small children for 25 years and who now turns forgotten cashmere sweaters into objects of desire--has a dark side. It's called trash night.

Don't go out for a walk with Rique on Sunday night. Otherwise she'll stop in front of a broken concrete flower pot the size of a small bathtub, tilt her head and stare longingly, sizing up the heavy object's potential. She might point out that it would make a great base for a coffee table. And it would be so easy. "Yeah," I say, "Easy if either of us had any skills beyond sewing and writing."

Which brings me to a 125-lb. sore point. A mammoth oak 4-drawer file cabinet she had to have, the same one that's sitting in our basement, moved from our last basement, still missing its side panel and covered with cloudy shellac that reminds me of moss. It was so heavy I had to call my friend Carl to help me drag it home.

After all the practice I've had, I don't know why I still get so embarrassed standing on the curb surveying other people's junk. I'm positive that they've gathered their whole family to watch from the picture window this pathetic spectacle: a homeless man looking for belongings. And, yes, they may wonder how it is that this homeless man has such a cute wife.

Now if you've been to my house, you may have heard this story, so skip down a few paragraphs if it starts to sound familiar. A couple years ago, Rique and I were staying in a B&B in Toronto, just off Queen Street. It was a Saturday evening, and we were walking down a very busy part of Queen St. when suddenly Rique let go of my hand and ran/galloped a block ahead and (at least from where I was standing) appeared to throw herself on a pile of garbage on the curb. I approached carefully like you might approach a car wreck.

There she was sitting on a strange brown leather chair with her feet up on its twin. She had a look of ecstasy on her face. She told me to go back to the B&B and get the car. I said, "We brought the Mini--these chairs will never fit." Much better than telling her what I was really thinking as a crowd gathered. She insisted they would fit, and I started the 12-block walk back to the B&B.

A few minutes later I was making a risky u-turn in the middle of Queen St. on a beautiful Saturday night in May, the street full of people, many of whom were staring at this adorable little woman who was sitting on a molded brown leather chair--the leather was molded around steel rods--with her feet up on a second chair.

Now began the task of showing her that the chairs would never fit. They weren't stackable. I gave the appearance of struggling to get them in before I announced that they just wouldn't fit. Well, Rique took over, and in a few minutes, the chairs were ours.

I couldn't see out of any of the windows, and we had to empty our suitcase and stuff the clothes in between the chairs. Going through customs was interesting.

Customs guy (eyeing chairs in back): Did you buy anything in Toronto?
Me: My wife bought a pair of earrings-under $100.
Customs guy: (looking hard at chairs in back) Anything else?
Me: I bet you're wondering about those chairs. Do you have a wife, sir?
Customs guy: (raising eyebrow). Yes, I do.
Me: Well, my wife didn't actually buy these--she made me haul them off a curb in the middle of a crowd on Queen Street.

He smiled and waved us right through. The chairs, I have to admit, are beautiful. All they needed were their rusted old casters removed. Now they look like a chair Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright might have collaborated on.

When I watch Rique cut the sleeves off a tattered cashmere sweater, I realize that sometimes upcycling is simply editing. A trim here, a cut here and everything changes.