Where I grew up, we didn’t have anything like the Take It or Leave It (TIOLI) at Nantucket’s Town Dump. Where we lived, when you had something you didn’t want or need anymore, you either: included it in a yard sale, donated it, gave it to a friend, or threw it away.
When I first learned about the TIOLI, I was fascinated, especially when several friends who are TIOLI regulars explained the kinds of things that are sometimes left there, such as: a truck-load of still-tagged merchandise dumped by one of the more upscale shops on the island at the end of one season, antiques and furnishings of reasonable (and, occasionally, impressive) value, a painting that turned out to be the early work of a highly respected American portraitist, and historical documentation and photographs regarding an early 20th C. sea voyage that turned out to be of interest to the U.S. Library of Congress. Of course, these “diamonds” are only occasionally found amongst the more common and well-used (sometimes too well-used) items that are to be found both outside and inside the TIOLI shed. To find them takes vigilance, patience, good timing, and a “picker’s” love of the hunt.
Even if you don’t find something of great monetary value at the TIOLI, you can often find something quite useful and/or interesting. I, for example, in need of a little table for my printer, found the perfect one at the TIOLI one day. And, cookbook lover that I am, I’ve found quite a few abandoned culinary tomes to which I’ve given a good home. I know of crafters who use old cashmere sweaters and other weaves and fabrics that they find there to make very attractive patchwork scarves, quilts, and woven rugs. Rustic baskets, pretty glass- and dish-ware, cast-off but hardly-worn good quality clothing, used furniture and appliances, unneeded building materials, garden equipment — you name it, it’s possible you may find it at the TIOLI if you’re there on the right day and at the right time.
Nantucket’s TIOLI is a beautiful example of recycling at its best — it’s free cycling, keeping things in service and preventing (or at least delaying) their entry into the landfills, with those who don’t need things any more handing them over to those who appreciate them and can find a use for them. It’s the kind of activity we all should support if we care about protecting the environment and mitigating over-consumerism.
An Unusual Find at the TIOLI
I happened to stop at the TIOLI the other day with a bag of things I didn’t need — an old straw hat, a basket, some wine glasses, an extra power strip, etc. Normally, I only go out to the dump in the off-season and had forgotten how frenetic it can be in July and August. I had hardly crossed shed’s threshold before I was pounced on by the group of people who were there looking for finds and relieved of everything I’d brought (like a cornstalk being stripped by locusts). I didn’t mind — it saved me having to travel around the room, putting each thing on its appropriate table.
Before I left, I thought I’d check out the books. I found an old-ish cookbook from 1974 that I’d never seen before — “Helen Corbitt Cooks for Company.” Apparently Ms. Corbitt, who at one time was the Director of Restaurants for Neiman Marcus, was a stellar entertainer (at least that’s what her friends told her when they encouraged her to write a cookbook), and her book was full of intriguing recipes organized by type of event — dinners, buffets, picnics, teas, receptions, weddings, etc. Right up my alley, and the kicker was that there were several additional xeroxed and handwritten recipes stuck in amongst the pages (I just love it when I find personalized things like that), as well as a bookmark from the now-defunct Brentano’s, which has a soft place in my heart as the first bookstore that ignited my already smoldering love of reading as a child.
By now, you’re probably wondering (if you’re still reading), “Where is she going with all this?” Well, although I’m looking forward to getting to know Ms. Corbitt and her recipes better, that’s not the point of my story. Actually, it’s what happened next that surprised me. Scanning the shelves, I suddenly noticed something strangely familiar, yet totally out-of-place. Shoved into a corner was a large but slim white book with a simplistically hand painted watercolor rainbow spanning the cover. If I hadn’t known what it was, I might have surmised it was a children’s book, or some sort of self-published and amateur art portfolio. But I knew it wasn’t either of those things, or anything else for that matter. How was I so sure? Because it was my senior year high school yearbook.
I grew up in New Jersey. And graduated high school in the late ’70’s. What the heck was my yearbook doing here on Nantucket? Had it floated up here on the Gulf Stream? Whose was it?
The last question was most easily answered, as our conscientious yearbook staff had ensured that each cover was engraved with its owner’s name. Hmmm, the younger sister of a classmate of mine who’d married well, becoming the wife of a Wall Street titan (also from our high school, a year ahead of me). They had a vacation property on Nantucket until they sold it in 2010, setting a then-new residential real estate sale record for the island. That piece of info answered my second question, too, in a way — the yearbook probably didn’t float up here on the Gulf Stream, but very likely may have made it up here in a Gulfstream (jet, that is).
More questions arose: Why would someone bring a 30+ year-old yearbook, especially one not from their own graduating year, to their vacation home? And if it was deemed important enough to make the trip here, why wasn’t it important enough to include in the personal items taken away when the residence was packed up after its sale to a new multi-millionaire? Did its misleading cover cause young children to bring it along with their other books and toys, thinking it might be a fairy story, only to abandon it in a corner when they found it was just a boring bunch of pictures of dated-looking people with cryptic notations under their names (like “TNTLWO,” “Hamill’s Camel,” and “The Blue Stang”)? Had it been mistakenly forgotten in an unchecked built-in cabinet or shelf somewhere on the property? And if it had been left there purposely, why was it showing up at the TIOLI two years after the house was sold?
Perhaps I’ll never know the answers to any of those questions. What I do know is this: When I cracked the spine on the book (knowing, but still partly unbelieving, what I was holding in my hands) it opened immediately to Page 170, and I was faced with the 18 year-old me. Below me on the page, as always, was John C. McGinley, familiar now to most as a star of the TV show “Scrubs.” On the facing page was my good friend Leslie, and a few pages back was my then-, and still-, best friend, Rose. Warm memories flooded back. Reassured that this was the real thing — no illusion, no yearbook doppelgänger — I closed the book and wondered what to do with it.
A (Mini-) Moral Dilemma
I have my own yearbook, somewhere, at home in New Jersey. I certainly don’t need another. I rarely get overly attached to inanimate objects, and I’m not a hoarder. But I knew that if I left that yearbook there, its ultimate destination would be the landfill. Its unnerving trick of opening to the page with my picture on it (which it’s never repeated, despite having been opened a score of times since) almost seemed a desperate and direct cry for help: “Mary Beth, don’t leave me here — you know what will happen to me if you do — it will be on your head!” And somehow, it just seemed wrong not to take it. I was holding a book full of people I knew — many of whom I still know, some now gone from this life — abandoned in a strange place and probably meaningless to every other person on this island except me. It was like finding an old friend down on their luck unexpectedly on the side of the road and just passing them by. I couldn’t do it. I stacked the yearbook under Ms. Corbitt’s stately tome and escorted them both safely out of the shed.
For now, I’m giving the yearbook a good temporary home. It’s been having a fine old time showing people what I used to look like (not that different, but a little less knowing, a lot thinner, and completely unstressed — ah, for the good old days!). A friend of mine who used to work with the Wall Street titan plans to drop him a line, asking if his wife wants her yearbook back (in case its abandonment was unintended). If she says no, I’m not sure what I’ll do with the book, but it won’t go back to the TIOLI. That would be cruel.
“One Man’s [or Woman’s] Trash…”
This is the interesting thing to me, and it gets to the heart of the whole TIOLI concept. Beyond the element of surprise and that promise of the unexpected “find,” is that old adage about beauty being in the eye of the beholder. As seemingly easy as it was for the yearbook’s original owner not to take it with her to her next destination, it was equally difficult for me to leave it behind when I found it abandoned in forlorn circumstances. I suppose it all has to do with empathy, the power of memory, and personal connection. Whatever the reason, in the end I took it because I just couldn’t leave it.