Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bring Out Your Dead

As a new arrival to Australia, I was often astonished, frequently dumbfounded, occasionally flabberghasted by my strange new surroundings. And then, every once in a while, something would happen that would change my life forever and help make me irreversibly, irredeemably Australian. 

Here is one thing that Australia does absolutely right, in my opinion.  They could not possibly improve on this, and hopefully they will never try.


October 2001

Bring Out Your Dead

It began as a rumor of something sinister about to happen, spreading from one neighborhood to another.   The next thing I knew, big piles of junk began to appear, first in front of one house, then another, and then others still. In a few days' time, every house in my neighborhood had a huge mound of miscellaneous refuse in front of it.

They put it on a place called the "verge." But not "verge" as in "I was on the verge of throwing that thing away when I decided it might still come in handy."  Here they use the word in a literal, spatial sense rather than a temporal or figurative sense. "On the verge" here means "almost but not quite on the road." It is the strip of turf, gravel, dirt or weeds (depending on how classy your particular neighborhood is) found between the "footpath" and the "kerb." "Footpath" is the Australian word for sidewalk. And yes, that really is the correct way to spell "curb" in Australia.  Confusing, isn't it? It certainly was to me.

So here we were, big piles of rubbish on the verge between the footpath and the, uh, kerb in front of everyone's house. Tree branches, grass clippings, hedge trimmings, broken bicycles, a trampoline with a big hole in the middle (you know that had to hurt), chairs missing legs, assorted chair legs, bad dinettes made from materials once hailed as "space-age" and which are now mostly banned, rusted barbecues with manly, hairy-sounding names like "GrillMaster," "BeefMaster," "PartyMaster" and "PatioMaster," (I can prove that I did not make any of those up), old TV sets, a microwave oven, bags of rags, detached lamp cords, cordless lamps, and so on.

I said to Helen, "You know what this reminds me of? That scene in Monty Python where this guy comes around with a cart, shouts 'Bring out your Dead!' and rings a bell. Then people drag out these corpses that have apparently been accumulating for days, and heave them onto the cart."

"You're out of you're mind, John." she said, rolling her eyes and making that "mouth" in the way she always used to.  That mouth shape that without words said, "I despise everything about you."

"Why does everything remind you of something from Monty Python?  Grow up. This is nothing like 'Bring out your Dead.'"

OK, so there wasn't a guy with a bell. But people still dragged the most incredible, absolute junk, and I mean junk out of their garages and sheds, where it has evidently been accumulating and deteriorating for years. I asked my neighbor what this was all about. He said, "The City Council does this couple of times a year. We call it "Bring Out Your Dead."  You know that scene from Monty Python?"

. . .

If you're waiting for a description of an army of loaders, bobcats, dumptrucks, forklifts, and unamused-looking guys wearing very thick gloves showing up to haul all that junk away, then you'll be as surprised as I was with what really happened next. And it helped clear up the mystery of how some of my neighbors came to have most of this junk in the first place.

The next thing that happened all across the suburb was NOT the arrival of garbage trucks with sanitation crews. What happened was the arrival of a fleet of private cars, pickup trucks and trailers, on average just a bit older and more down-market than the ones parked around here, cruising very slowly around the neighborhood. The drivers would screech suddenly to a stop, leap out of the car, grab something off someone's pile of refuse, throw it in the back and take off again, looking triumphant if slightly guilty. Sometimes two scavengers would descend on one pile at the same time and they'd race to be the first to grab some valuable item foolishly discarded by its owner. While out walking, Helen noticed that someone had put out a fairly decent-looking bookcase. But before she could even say to herself, "say - that's fairly decent looking bookcase," some "bloke" drove up in his "ute," nabbed the bookcase, gave her a victorious sneer and sped off.

While in the early stages the piles grew perceptibly day by day, they now began to shrink precipitously. The trampoline with a rip through the middle was one of the first things to disappear. I guess I wasn't the only person thinking, "I bet I could fix that!" Bicycle parts and microwave ovens vanished before your eyes.  But things also disappeared that you wouldn't think could be of any use to anyone, like boxes full of plastic grocery bags and empty paint cans with old brushes still in them, cemented in dried paint. It seems people were taking stuff home just because it was free.

I have a friend who works for the City Council. In fact, he's the Waste Services supervisor, so he knows as much about this as anyone. I asked him what this was all about, and what he thought of people scavenging other people's garbage. He responded, "We call it Recycling. That's why we delay sending out the clean-up crews for a week or so."

"What???" I was incredulous. "Are you telling me this week-long suburban free-for-all scavenger hunt mayhem in broad daylight is an un-officially government-sanctioned activity?"

"Streuth, mate. It saves money on the pickup and saves space in the landfill. It's a proven fact that the longer we wait, the less rubbish there is. When the public is done picking it over, our crews go out and load up white goods and scrap metal which we sell to recyclers. Then the crews go back and collect the green waste and other compostable material. We use that to make mulch for the parks and sell the surplus, again at a profit to the City. The rest eventually goes to the tip."

(AussieSpeak notes: "White goods" are appliances like fridges, stoves and washing machines. The "tip" is the place where they "tip" out their "rubbish," what Americans would call the "dump."  "Rubbish" = "Garbage."  A "ute" looks like an assembly-line mishap involving a sports car and a pickup truck. Think of a Camero with a cargo bed, KC lights and a chrome roll bar.  A "bloke" is a male person of the sort usually seen driving a "ute."  I have no idea what "streuth" means.)

One afternoon my neighbor returned from a scavenging trip of his own, to a slightly more up-scale suburb a mile or two down the road.  "They have better junk than we do," he explained while unloading his finds and stowing them in his garage.  Taking the tip, I have since obtained a considerable amount of furniture and appliances in precisely this manner, most of which is now furnishing The Shed. 

I learned two things from this. First, I now realize I am not the only person whose grasp of reality is based on Monty Python. I now have no reason to feel ashamed of this.  In fact, Australian society is apparently founded on the guiding work of Python.   Second, if you can manage to find out when the next Bring Out Your Dead will be, you can do your civic duty, get rid of stuff you don't want, and get a lot of different stuff for free all at the same time. "How good is that?" as they say here. And if that PatioMaster turns out to be "not much chop" (does not meet expectations), you can just put it out on the verge and let some other bloke cart it off in his ute, no worries. That's how recycling works in our Python world.


  1. excellent! you hit it square on the head!

  2. worries mate!

  3. This happens on a weekly basis in New Jersey. People put out everything with their weekly trash. Really good stuff, too. .And its often gone before the garbage truck arrives. The missionaries in our ward say everything in their apartment was a retrieved throwaway. I didnt have to buy any carseats for my last three kids thanks to the wasteful lady with four kids several houses down who always puts out her garbage a day or two early. I have a little self respect, though, so I'd wait until dark and then send an older kid to go retrieve what I wanted.