One Man’s Treasure

By Jeffery Cohen

One Man’s Treasure

“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” It was a mantra that my father repeated regularly – usually as he was dragging a rolled up Oriental rug or a marble-topped coffee table to the trunk of his car from a pile of trash at the side of the road. And truer words were never spoken by a real “junk picker.” That’s what my mother called him. It was always said with affection and respect. It was a title that Dad was proud of.

My father was a curious man with a vast imagination and a resourceful nature that he’d developed by living through the Great Depression. Some of those early years were spent, like so many of his generation, riding around the country in boxcars or hitching a ride on the nation’s highways in search of work. “You learn to make do,” he would remind me with a smile and a knowing nod.

While other fathers spent afternoons in their backyards having a catch with their kids or ran around a park hoisting kites in the air, my father and I strolled the streets of town. Like two explorers on expedition, we’d examine the stacks of trash placed in front of neighbor’s homes, as we searched for the tarnished brass lamp or the chipped china tea pot that begged for the chance at a second life. Every outing was another joyous treasure hunt.

Dad was a dreamer, able to see the possibilities in the simplest things. He prided himself in “making something from nothing.” I remember him scrounging around for months collecting odd pieces of board and scraps of wood. Then I watched him take that monumental stack of wood and, piece by piece, transform leftover lumber into a back porch he built onto our house.

When he began to gather up chunks of stone, even I had to wonder. Day after day he lugged grapefruit sized rocks of every kind into the backyard as the neighbors watched in amusement. One weekend, he dragged a bag of cement home and turned a plain old pile of rocks into an amazing outdoor stone fireplace!

Having grown up my father’s apprentice, I too, have become a “junk picker,” although I like to think of myself more as a creative recycler. I’ve surrounded myself with so many “reincarnated” objects that my wife teases me about being a hoarder. She’s never quite appreciated the fine art of collecting.

“Now what are you bringing here? Another piece of junk?” my wife accused, standing with her hands on her hips as I dragged a beat up, dusty, old, paint-splattered power mower across the front lawn. “You don’t actually think that thing is going to start?”

I took a long look. “The sign on it says, still works.” I shrugged. I held up the crinkled piece of notebook paper with the hand-written letters on it. My wife just smiled and shook her disbelieving head. Trying hard not to let her skepticism get in the way of my enthusiasm, I wheeled the ancient mower into the yard, filled it with gas, added a touch of oil and pulled the cord. To my great delight, it started up on the first try and has been doing so for five years without any end in sight!

One July I was driving through town on a sweltering afternoon when I happened on a young woman carting out the trash. Piece by piece, she placed a line of nearly life-size plastic figures at the curb.  Mary, Joseph, shepherds, sheep and the three wise men. She was lovingly about to lay the statue of a child in the manger when I slammed on the brakes.

“Excuse me. Are you throwing all of this out?”

She nodded, a sad look on her face, as she held the baby Jesus in her arms.

“Would you mind if I took them?” I asked.

A smile spread across her face as her eyes brightened. “Please do,” she sighed.” My father will be so pleased. He was so afraid that they’d go to waste in some landfill somewhere.”

That Christmas I covered the floor of our front porch with hay and happily displayed my rescued nativity. Joy to the world!

While on a lunch hour stroll, I came upon a mound of trash, a piano keyboard box perched at its top. I was pretty certain that the box would be empty, but my curiosity forced me to take a peek. To my surprise, it held a keyboard. I was pretty certain that the keyboard wouldn’t work, but I figured, what do I have to lose? So I carted it home. I plugged it in and pressed the power button, pretty certain nothing would happen. Boy was I ever wrong. The sound was glorious, its notes filling the house. If junk be the food of life, play on.

Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to come across some real finds: A first edition of Catcher in the Rye, a case of Wedgewood china, a crystal chandelier. I still haven’t turned up a bottle of Chateau Laffite, a Picasso masterpiece unknowingly discarded, or that box of baseball cards we all wish our mother’s hadn’t thrown out, but you never know. Like my father used to say, “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”

About this writer

  • Jeffery Cohen Freelance writer and newspaper humor columnist, Jeffery Cohen, has written for Sasee, Lifetime and Read, Learn, Write. He’s won awards in Women-On-Writing Contest, Vocabula’s Well Written Contest, National League of American Pen Womens’ Competition, Southern California Genealogy Competition, and Writer’s Weekly writing contest.

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3 Responses to “One Man’s Treasure”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Jeffery, our dads were cut from the same cloth, and your story is my story as well. I thoroughly enjoyed and could completely relate. You took me back to my childhood and those many discoveries that put food on our table.

  2. Erika Hoffman says:

    I had a father-in-law like that. When he got into his seventies he’d drop off a treasure with us each time he visited. Got kids to visit?

  3. Rose Ann says:

    Aha . . . it looks like there’s a few of us out there. I had to stop collecting when my ideas stopped becoming realities. There’s something special about re-inventing and reviving. Great essay!

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