I have a weakness for found objects. I am unpleasant walking company, pausing every few blocks to hover silently over some unusual stone or scrap of metal. My wife has more than once walked ahead while I have stood contemplating logistics. Abandoned sections of drainage pipes have tempted me (they make excellent planters) and I have watched sadly as ornamental terra cotta has been unceremoniously trucked away like ordinary debris.
My tastes in junk are influenced by my environment—a large city. In college this meant street signs which had “fallen.” These are long gone, replaced by more subtle objects. I am drawn to those that, with imagination or fiddling, can serve some trivial purpose in the home. When a historical brownstone on my block was renovated last summer, the sidewalk suddenly became fertile ground. I was tempted by a copper gutter bracket, beautifully green with oxidization, but settled instead for a cylindrical piece of red sandstone that had once held an iron balustrade. With some scrubbing and a felt base our coffee table now has a handsome (and largely unused) match holder.
If one lives by the sea, acquiring driftwood seems inevitable. The best examples are uniformly taupe, cured by salt and sand, with an almost sueded surface. I had an eye as a boy for finding the good stuff, and to this day I cannot go to the beach without scanning the high tide mark. Though I don’t know what I would do if I found a keeper; when driftwood leaves the shore it loses its allure. A collection of grey wood washed over in hard city light is always sad, no matter how artfully arranged on a mantel.
That’s not to say interesting wood is unavailable in urbis. It’s worth taking a walk after a storm in search of felled trees. If it hasn’t blocked a road, a crew will generally appear a day or so later, and I find if asked politely, the fellow with the chainsaw will usually oblige. Large cross sections of trunk or thick branch make ideal occasional stools. Another good time to hunt is following Christmas. I have several Douglas fur trunks curing on my balcony; whether they will be made into uncomfortable furniture or resinous hiking staffs has not yet been decided.
And then there is the dumpster. I must admit, it takes a certain confidence to go through the garbage in your own neighborhood, however worthwhile the fruits. I once rescued a pristine fox fur coat. Not to wear, or sell, or do anything with really; I just couldn’t bear the thought of it in a landfill. I have a far more pedestrian find though. A business tenant in our building dumped several old computers one day, many shattering upon impact. Like a cracked quartz geode, one of the splintered processing towers revealed a number of cooling elements that had been milled into intricate shapes from solid aluminum. I plucked them out, and after several days of deliberation, decided they should be epoxied together to make a modernist paperweight.
My most cherished of these objects is an oblong stone I found as a boy deep in a Welsh forest. I had spent that summer visiting my cousins in Flintshire which meant most of the month took place exploring the old woods near their home. On the second to last day we spotted something of an unnatural line in the shallows of a fast moving brook. We fished it out and brought it home. That night and most of the following day was spent in conjecture about what it could be; my memory might be influenced by the youthful enthusiasm of the moment, but I seem to recall parents, uncles and sage locals offering opinions ranging from depleted uranium to a Medieval lintel. In a solemn moment before I left, my cousin decided I should return to the US with the thing. To this day the object occupies our home as we see fit, from window ledges to sideboards, and I’m thrilled to report still moves friends and family to heated debate.