From the Sidewalk to Your Living Room

Photo: Lauren Klain Carton

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.

That morning: an empty space. That evening: a cozy retreat.Photo: Lauren Klain Carton

Apparently, a lot of Manhattanites had been told the same thing. When we got to the pickup site, we found ourselves at the back of a very long line of lost-looking people: That, plus traffic, meant we didn’t get on the road until close to 9:15 A.M. The sky was beginning to look ominous and filled me with trepidation. Most truck-rental chains charge not only by distance but also by the duration of the rental. Stiff tariffs are accrued if one keeps a vehicle past a certain number of hours. These financial factors dictated the territory we were going to cover, and to that end, I devised a looping route that took in the maximum number of neighborhoods: starting in the Bronx, heading down the east side of Manhattan into Brooklyn—where Boonmongkol and her empty apartment were located—and back up to drop off the truck. I also factored in friends’ reports of prime neighborhoods (the Upper East Side, Gramercy Park, Park Slope) and what I’d witnessed myself. I have since been told that a good haul is practically guaranteed in the Twenties and Thirties west of Ninth Avenue.

The Bronx proved fruitless, so we quickly headed for the Upper East Side, operating under the presumption that wealthy people toss better junk. We started cruising at 106th Street and First Avenue and hit pay dirt eleven blocks later. Seven moving trucks were lined up outside a humongous building on East 95th Street. Teams of postcollegiate types ran back and forth barking orders at each other, trying to hasten their progress as big black clouds gathered. We parked and turned off the engine. With several moves going on simultaneously, I felt sure that we might benefit, not just from the sheer volume of discarded furnishings but also from pieces left on the street in the resulting confusion. The items going in and out of the building seemed of good quality, if a little dorm-roomy.

As Jake and I waited to pounce, the heavens opened. Inclement weather means two things when scavenging for home furnishings. Rain dramatically reduces the competition from other hunter-gatherers, but it also ruins upholstery within moments. Ideally, one ought to witness an upholstered item actually being placed on the street.

We had been sitting in the truck, watching the behemoth building eat and regurgitate Urban Outfitters home furnishings for a few minutes, when we suddenly saw a full-size box spring sail through the air and onto a pile of garbage. Without words, we ran across the street to fetch it. It looked like it was in great condition. I surreptitiously gave the mattress a cursory sniff, though the wind and rain cut my inspection short. We put it in the back of the truck, where I confirmed its good condition, and returned to our seats. Thirty seconds later, a lone mover came out with a mattress. He looked slightly confused about the disappearance of his first deposit, but a modicum of pride prevented me from leaping out to claim the mattress. As soon as he was back inside, we grabbed it. “Hey!” the guy shouted as we tried to scurry away. “If you are taking stuff away, I have a bunch of other crap you might want.”

We followed our new friend Eric into the basement of his building with some hesitation, but it turned out to be an Aladdin’s cave of household items. With his help, we picked up a bed frame to go with the box spring and mattress, plus a sofa, lamp, microwave, blender, toaster-oven, and a wireless router and modem. Though nothing came directly from the seven-truck maelstrom itself, the building did afford us a major score.

The truck was half full when we hit the road again around 11:30, heading south. The weather worsened to a sustained downpour as we zigzagged, and we got as far as Murray Hill without adding to the truck. Then, on Second Avenue between 27th and 28th Streets, Jake spied a grouping of bric-a-brac that included a Chinese-style coffee table and matching nightstand, some sturdy wooden folding chairs, a VCR, and a small television. After we stopped, parked, and loaded these items into the truck, I noticed a scribbled sign on the door of the tenement building behind the pile that said FREE STUFF, NOTHING FANCY, 2ND FLOOR. Upstairs, a half-dozen people were frantically picking through dishes, mirrors, electronics, and more of the Chinese furniture that we’d seen outside. Jake and I helped pick the apartment clean, even down to the trashy romance novels.

The bedroom, post-hunt.Photo: Lauren Klain Carton

We continued downtown, crisscrossing the East Village, where we saw a small bookshelf in a state of slight disrepair and an Ikea-style aluminum headboard for a full-size bed. Briefly holding up Alphabet City traffic, we shoved them in the truck, which was beginning to groan under the weight of our scavenging. A few blocks later, we passed a Dumpster brimming with promising-looking Ikea detritus. With little thought to my personal safety or hygiene, I dived in, swimming through boxes stamped with words like vagö and ringsjön. It quickly became apparent that the cardboard had fared better than the furniture, which was broken and rain-sodden.

We fruitlessly circled Nolita, Soho, and the Lower East Side until almost 3 P.M. Jake, recognizing we were in danger of coming up short, suggested we expand our search to Brooklyn—a wise choice, particularly since that was our ultimate destination.

As we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, the sky began to brighten, making Park Slope look every inch a sunny urban Utopia. It also happened to be a free-for-all in terms of swag. Fourth and Fifth Avenues and almost every street between them were choked with all manner of well-maintained refuse. On Sackett Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, we came across a wicker hamper that contained a small framed black-and-white picture of a nondescript woman and a glass soap dish in the shape of a duck. Farther down the block, a group of wholesome Brooklynites helped us load our truck with the end table, coffee table, bookshelf, and synthesizer keyboard they’d planned to chuck. Unfortunately, a rug that might have been a great addition was rain-soaked.

Around 5 P.M., on Smith and Douglass, we found a beautiful olive-green leather chair and a large circular mirror, and a huge TV. Although it’s easy to appraise a table, desk, or set of folding chairs on the spot, electronics are a gamble. We were lucky: All seven of the pieces we picked up worked perfectly, which goes to show just how disposable appliances have become. We arrived at Boonmongkol’s at about 6 P.M., our truck overflowing. We hoisted the haul up a flight of stairs and into her 800-square-foot one-bedroom—giving everything a good wipe-down with disinfectant before it crossed the threshold. By 8 P.M., we’d arranged the décor to our satisfaction (which mostly means the heaviest stuff was closest to the door).

As a reward for our hard work, Boonmongkol ordered a sumptuous feast from her restaurant. With some fresh flowers and a few candles from the dollar store at the end of the block, our apartment had a very cozy, if slightly spare feel. And considering the entire venture, from the truck rental and gas to lunch to the disinfectant materials, cost $402, it was a day well spent. Boonmongkol liked the collected ensemble so much that she asked if she could have it all. Faced with the option of taking it all back to the source, we were happy to oblige.

From the Sidewalk to Your Living Room