Register Thursday | March 22 | 2018

Other People's Stuff

Montreal gleaners take it home

I’ve been staring out my front window for the past hour. Anyone watching would think I was daydreaming. I’m actually playing a game I call “Spot the Gleaners,” an odd sort of mental solitaire. It started when I changed apartments, moving further into the heart of the Plateau. “Spot the Gleaners” consists of abandoning unwanted household items on the sidewalk and then watching passersby swoop them up. The things I put out are still in good shape, but perhaps too old to sell or give away to the church bazaar up the road. There are times when I have placed items outside that I actually want to keep.  I have become so fond of these gleaners that I am now determined to leave them a few special offerings as they make their way up rue St-Hubert.

Things I have parted with recently include a breadbox that was purchased during my ironic decorative kitchenware period, when I collected as many retro mixers and flowered coffee cups as I could find. The breadbox was made from stainless steel with the word “BREAD” written in white across the shiny black handle. It had lived with me in all eight apartments in three different provinces—my most faithful roommate—since 1994. I never used it. Once on the sidewalk, with its faux ebony handle glimmering in the sun, it was there for fifteen minutes before disappearing. This time I waited to see the gleaner, a man not much older than me who lives in a dilapidated boarding house up the street.

Other gleaner bait included a life-size decorative fibreglass swordfish with chipped fins. Swollen with humidity, it looked ready to spawn on an old card table in my basement. At some point it belonged to my neighbour who had renovated and changed the aesthetic theme of his loft from Angler kitsch to Danish Modern. I put it outside, went for a cup of coffee, and by the time I returned, it was gone. But it came back. The fact that it was returned the next day—Thanks for the thought, but this thing’s total crap. See you next week—seemed to suggest that I was now an active participant in a silent dialogue.

There have been shelves, a toaster, books, lamps, vases and a radio. Not to mention unwanted gifts—crystal candy dishes, salt and pepper shakers, a frosted glass salad bowl—passed down to me from siblings who were a little overzealous with their wedding registries.

Those who have seen French filmmaker Agnes Varda’s documentary, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (released in English as The Gleaners and I), are probably familiar with the concept of gleaning: “to gather what reapers leave behind.” Varda’s film examines traditional gleaning rituals, which date back to Biblical times and are still practiced in parts of France. There are families who pick grapes off the vine after the vintner has finished harvesting. There are chefs who pick herbs and fruit after harvest for confiture. Varda also explores the activity of urban gleaners and interviews a host of eccentric city-dwellers—down and out for whatever reason—who fix up TVs and appliances or scavenge through supermarket dumpsters.

Varda shows that gleaning in the countryside is generally still acceptable and protected by law, even as it becomes less common. Rural inhabitants even look back on gleaning with nostalgia. In the cities, however, gleaning is seen as deviant. Although sidewalk scraps are legally public property, large supermarket chains have been known to spray bleach on rejected produce to discourage potential gleaners.

Varda suggests that some urbanites glean for ideological reasons as much as out of necessity, as if to promote an economy without currency, some sort of underground system of trade. She emphasizes the resourcefulness of the urban peasant, something that often gets swept aside by stereotypes of laziness and defeatism.

In Montreal, gleaning cuts across all socio-economic lines. On the famous July 1st Moving Day, the city turns into a giant sidewalk sale. Students have their picks of couches and coffee tables. Refrigerators line the sidewalks like an army of giant white rectangular blocks. In the Plateau neighbourhood, however, where the poor are being squeezed out in ever increasing numbers, gleaning is a year-round activity. Gleaners live here, quietly sifting through discarded possessions, putting our junked appliances back into the domestic ecosystem and making the streets a little tidier. While I want them to stay, I know their days are numbered as the area succumbs to gentrification.

There is a saying in Brazil that if shit was worth anything, the poor would be born without asses. Little can be done to stop my neighbourhood from undergoing transformations. It's a good thing for a lot of us. It's disconcerting, however, when you realize that there is always somebody who ends up losing their home.