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From the Sidewalk to Your Living Room

A determined scavenger proves that New York’s streets can fully furnish an apartment in one (strenuous) day.


Around the traditional moving days in every month—the first and the fifteenth, generally—the streets are awash with a plethora of sofas, armoires, floor lamps, coffee tables, bed frames, air conditioners, and other items that are perfectly acceptable in design and generally in pretty good condition. A found treasure speaks of more than just one’s thriftiness; its presence in your house says that you and the city have a symbiotic relationship. You are living off the fat of the land. And the land in this city, particularly at this time of year, can be very fat indeed.

The items of furniture that I hold most dear are not my few designer splurges, but rather the unwanted items that I plucked off the streets and spirited upstairs and into my life. Based on my experience, I decided that it would be possible to furnish and decorate a one-bedroom apartment in one day, armed only with my good friend Jake, a fourteen-foot U-Haul, and my finely honed instincts.

The best time to forage is the first weekend of any month, when most people move and are likely to cast out unwanted stuff. I posted an ad on Craigslist, offering a few hours’ rent for an empty one-bedroom to use as my blank canvas. Tassanee Boonmongkol, a Boerum Hill resident and owner of the Thai restaurant Tuk Tuk, responded in a matter of minutes. Then I reserved a rental truck (no easy task, as it turned out). There are a few important points to remember when shopping from the sidewalk. “Do I really want this item? Is it practical? Will it fit?” should be the guiding principles. Once you have answered yes to all of these, take a moment to check that the object of interest is actually being tossed and that it’s not infested with anything nasty. A friend of mine was about to claim a beautiful armoire that had been left in her building’s lobby when another resident informed her that the generous tenant had an infestation of parasites from the fifteen cats that lived with her. In the absence of friendly neighbors, one has to rely on one’s best judgment.

What passes as acceptable booty is a matter of taste or possibly upbringing. At a minimum, upholstery should not be damp to the touch. A cursory sniff test is also in order. A musty odor ought not to be a deal-breaker on a great piece of furniture, especially as it can be remedied by a good airing and some Febreze. Even an Eames lounge should be left alone if you detect the slightest note of urine. A great piece of vintage furniture is sullied if you cringe every time you sit on it. If you are truly committed to street furnishing, and open to paying for some aftercare, scope out a few reasonably priced electronics-repair shops, upholsterers, and wood refinishers prior to a scout (lamps are easily and cheaply rewired, and a hardware store will be happy to help). One can view street items as raw material to be fixed, manipulated, and reimagined if one has the commitment and foresight. For this venture, I wanted to collect items that required the minimum of sprucing up.

Jake and I were making our way to a U-Haul depot deep in the Bronx at 6:45 on a Saturday morning armed with disinfectant wipes and paper towels. (A good day’s haul may involve rummaging through Dumpsters, so dress appropriately. I also learned the hard way that a pair of heavy-duty gloves is really essential when picking through broken glass and rotted, splintered wood). I reserved a fourteen-foot truck several days earlier, though I was only given a pickup location late on Friday. The first of the month is always the busiest day, so advance reservations are crucial. Considering the charge of $2.99 per mile, I couldn’t help wondering if U-Haul’s decision to have us pick up and drop off a full fifteen miles away from our prime mooching area was contrived.

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