The art of freecycling in the city

San Francisco is full of treasures. 

There is the ever-majestic Golden Gate Bridge, the perfectly crooked Lombard Street (a.k.a. Not the Best Street for Playing Kick Ball), and the wild parrots of San Francisco doing what they do best: waking up everyone from the Presidio to Telegraph Hill with their enthusiastic squawking.

But what about the undiscovered treasures of the city? Say, for instance, the abandoned stuff that San Franciscans leave on the sidewalk for any passerby. You know, the stuff that has a piece of paper taped on it, bearing one seductive word, “FREE!”

You probably pass by these items without a second thought, but if you stop and look at what people throw away, it can be a real eye-opener — and sometimes there are little gems to be had. I’ve found sealed perfumes and cosmetics, unread books, antique picture frames, ornate mirrors, industrial baking shelves, vintage dining chairs, and the pièce de résistance:  a working flat-screen TV with remote (OK, it was about 5 to 10 years old with a 1990s-style converter box — but still, it works!). Bam!

You’ll also find the clichéd pile of men’s clothing that one can imagine floating, piece by piece (to the music of an Italian opera) from the window of a Marina apartment building during the heat of an argument. I never touch clothes on the street though, because you never know if the couple is going to make up — though if my husband did that to my clothes, well, let’s just say that would be the last Italian opera he ever heard. And who wants to touch a grown man’s holey, running shorts, circa 1998? I do have standards, you know.

What is surprising is what items an owner considers valuable enough to not toss in the garbage, where they usually belong. Some-times, this “setting out” of stuff can be a wonderful act of generosity, even if we, the Dumpees, don’t see the items as having any true market value. For example, I have found many beaten-up cat trees on the sidewalks of San Francisco. If you stop and think about it, someone who recently lost their beloved cat — who obviously adored this now stained, furry, and shredded piece of furniture — is offering Joe Blow this essentially “priceless” object in terms of sentimental value. It is such an endearing act that I can’t help but feel my heart drop every time I walk by one of those hideous trees. But walk by I do because I have no need for a used, saliva-coated cat post, especially because I don’t have a cat. If I did though, I’d be all over it.

Another strange hobby of mine is that I like to take photographs of the hidden treasures that were abandoned on the street on New Year’s Eve. My favorite was a single, gorgeous, barely worn, red leather stiletto sitting at the foot of an expired parking meter on Polk Street. Oh, the stories it could have told — or perhaps the woman who walked home in just one stiletto could have told. I have found personal journals and calendars, possibly tossed from windows as a spontaneous gesture of getting rid of the old and ringing in the new. Sadly, the entries weren’t as interesting as I would have expected, e.g., “Tuesday. Had my hair extensions removed today. I cried a little, but it’s just hair. Right?” or “Oct. 3, 2012, Nutritionist 4 p.m., Bikram Yoga 5 p.m., Martinis at Mauna Loa 6:30 p.m.! Yayyy!”

I have unfortunately found undergarments, too — both men’s and women’s — again, a casting off the old and ringing in of the brand-new, super comfy Fruit of the Loom. My best find, though, was a case of unopened raspberry-flavored vodka drinks, apparently not quite a hit at a New Year’s Eve party. I don’t know what they were thinking, though — they were pretty tasty!

The best time to find some nifty items abandoned on the street is right after a move — or near the end of a move when everyone is too exhausted to pick up that last box. Maybe it’s a tip of the hat to the ’hood, a thanks-for-the-memories offering, or maybe the owners just couldn’t fit everything into the truck, but in any event, their loss is our gain. There are dressers, paper shredders, DVD players, paintings — and hangers. Lots and lots of hangers. But the thing that gets me is all the love involved. I know that sounds corny, but even though these throwaways appear to be junk, they were truly loved by someone as evidenced by the fact that the owner just didn’t have the heart to toss them into the dumpster. They still had some value remaining. Most people may just see an object for what it is:  a dusty box of cracked-up Styx and Rush CDs. But to me, I can feel the love.

Judging from my recent “finds,” I think it’s safe to say that my fellow San Franciscans are not only altruistic, but really take their recycling (and freecycling) seriously. There is always treasure to be found in San Francisco, whether it be a stunning view or a mind-blowing heap of junk. Still, the least appreciated of those treasures are definitely you big-hearted San Franciscans. Oh, yes, you! And thanks a ton for the hangers! Maybe I’ll finally get around to rehanging my husband’s clothing.

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Sandy Fertman Ryan has written for several magazines, including Parade, American Woman and Seventeen. The most recent item she left on the sidewalk was her keys. E-mail: [email protected]

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