Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: One man’s garbage – another man’s treasure

Sunday June 23, 2013

One man’s garbage – another man’s treasure

One of many teams scouring the city garbages

One of many teams scouring the city garbages

The first clue that things are a bit different in Montevideo is the horse-drawn carriages trudging through the streets. The passengers methodically stop at every garbage, large green plastic contraptions, and roam through the contents, invariably finding something of value. For the first few weeks I mistakenly assumed they were the garbage collectors, until I heard the early morning clatter of real garbage trucks.

Miles of "stuff"

Miles of “stuff”

Today I got to see where the proceeds of the garbage ended up. A large open market extending for blocks and blocks in the center of Montevideo. The market contained glass milk bottles, vinyl records, typewriters, brass flanges, used shoes, ship parts, a spindle from a hundred years ago, that with the advent of electricity was converted into a lamp fixture, to me symbolizing the entire local culture of squeezing value out of things.

Besides fresher items like fruits and vegetables, electronics, tools, clothing and bootlegged copies of every movie and video game, they had an impressive pet market, with the ever present and highly loved dog, as well as birds, fish, snakes, lizards, roosters, parakeets and some really cute and hairy tarantulas that you just wanted to snuggle up to.

100 year old spindle reconverted to lamp

100 year old spindle reconverted to lamp

I even came across some comic books, but being a veteran collector, I realized their value was next to nothing and I had already read them in the past in English, so my inclination to support the nascent comic book effort was not kindled.

However, I did finally give in and bought my first matte cup and straw-thingy-majigy. I was accompanied by my colleague Moshe, an expert in the ways of matte, and he guided me in my selection of these important items. I am planning on writing an entire post on the subject, so I’m saving his critical insights for that time as to the size, composition, material and curing of the cup as well as the metal composition of the straw-thingy-majigy and its effect on the taste of the matte leaves – in itself an entire science.

Brass ship propeller with (hand) engraved manufacture date of 1927

Brass ship propeller with (hand) engraved manufacture date of 1927

There was a lighthearted and festive atmosphere to the market, assisted by the troupe of percussionists marching through the crowd, as well as Brazilian samba playing on loudspeakers, competing with the latest American Rock and Roll. Likewise, there was the sweet smell in the air of caramelized peanuts intermingling with the vapors of fried dough containing a wide variety of foods I couldn’t eat.

I was intrigued by the history of media the market had. Besides the significant collection of vinyl records and functioning record-players, there were music cassettes, VHS tapes, CDs, DVDs and various video game formats that I’m unfamiliar with, covering a spectrum of technologies and eras. I kept thinking that though these forms of entertainment may be outdated for the upper class consumer, there remains a thriving market for both collectors and those who’ve inherited and still use the older technologies.

I was curious as to the wide collection of foreign coins and bills, many of no active currency and most of no commercial value. I glanced at the broad array of literature and artwork, looking with little hope for a painting of a ship that had once captured my imagination. I was momentarily excited by copies in Spanish of Popular Mechanics that must have been published in the 50s, but then decided that at this point in my life I don’t need more stuff and stifled my collector’s urge.

Besides the beginning of my matte gear I stocked up on some fruits, light bulbs and socks, all for significantly less than I would pay in the local supermarket. In the end, there is something for everyone.

Working phonograph from a long time ago

Working phonograph from a long time ago

One thing that was particularly enjoyable about this market, as opposed to the aggressive Israeli ones, or the cutthroat Chinese ones, is that there is no custom of haggling. The price written is the final price. Though I was fairly successful in my Chinese haggling [see my NEWLY PUBLISHED BOOK (I have to plug it, no?) for more details] there was something calm, civilized and enjoyable in just paying the price asked, knowing it’s a fair and reasonable price where the consumer is getting value and the seller is making a profit.

There were also a number of things that I thought would be cute for the kids, but I figured why rob them of the fun and experience of finding it themselves, pleading for it and then depending on my feelings of magnamity, shelling out the pesos or not.

As long as there are no funerals or cemetery services I need to attend, I’m thinking I’m beginning to rediscover and enjoy Sundays.

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