The History Of Garbology – The Dumpster In My Head

Published May 19, 2010 by Larry Fisher

I’ve lived a good portion in my life in a dark place. My mother is a Holocaust Survivor and my Dad was brought up in an Interstate Trucking Business that involved… shenaningans.

I was not raised to trust you. I was not raised to feel that I could get high and relax and hang out with you. I might get high and relax and hang out with you but that is not how I was raised.

I was raised to be prepared for someone to beat down my door and drag me out of bed and I was going to have to kill them. By them I mean you.

It’s a tough gig especially when you understand the full story.

The full Story: In order to survive I need you and I have to put my full trust in you.

You are both the person who is coming to kill me and you are also the person who I will have to put my trust in, in order to survive. I hate you and I need you…

My family survived in the woods of Lithuana because my Grandfather buried a hole in a barnyard of a Polish family and paid them to let him and his family stay in that hole for 18 months. He trusted them to do the right thing.

However, my Grandfather overheard the wife complaining about my family and so my Grandfather warned this family against telling the Nazi’s where we were. He told the family that his brother was part of the Jewish Underground and that he knew where my family was hiding and that he would come and kill his whole family if something happened to him and his family.

His brother did not know where he was hiding and so my Grandfather just bluffed the Polish family into a stand-off.

My Grandfather no longer accepted food from the family and just went out and either hunted or stole food at night. My Grandmother, my mother and my Aunt and Uncle, the ones that survived in that hole, have been trapped in that hole for their entire lives… and they unwillingly dragged their kids into that hole with them.

I mean my family never got out of that hole really. I still live there. It is a different place than where a lot of my peers live. My childhood was a kind of prison, and so maybe that’s why I get along with former Convicts. They always ask me if I did time.
And I always says,”No. No, I never did time but I can’t wait to get out.”

I am tired and will tie things up for you tomorrow or the next day. I just wanted to get started on my family background because it reveals an easy way to understand how I might not pick a profession that is typical of my peers

Jezebel Music did an interview with me and that is what follows

Welcome to the first edition of Stomping Grounds, a new column focused on neighborhood venues and music establishments, and the proprietors that make them unique. Free ideas, charming characters, and some friendly incentive to get off your computer and onto the street.
The Thing
1001 Manhattan Avenue
Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Not that I’ve been to the MoMA in person lately, but I did hear Marina Abramović interviewed on NPR the other week discussing her latest venture – “The Artist is Present” – a retrospective of her performance pieces spanning 40 years. The part that struck me was not Marina’s artistic mission (energy shifts, awareness, world domination?), but more the performers she cast in the roles of her younger selves, and what they had to say. Apparently, to train for the MoMA show, the group of forty lucky apprentices trekked upstate, slept on the floor of a barn without food for a week, washed in ice-cold river water, and, here’s the kicker, SORTED GRAIN all day. They testified that the experience was at once calming and energizing, and established just the sort of zen focus necessary to, say, ride a bike in a museum, in the nude, in the middle of Manhattan for hours and days at a time. This, in so many melodramatic words, describes the reverence I have for dumpster-diving. Scrounging for records, books, photographs, and clothes is a zen art form. It’s cyclical: the goods are far and away useless and recycled, and your fingernails always end up impossibly filthy. Some love junk, and some don’t get the point. Not everyone has the stamina to sort the barley from the rice; it takes one devoted kook to get it done. That kook is Larry the Junkman, founder and owner of The Vortex in Bushwick and The Thing in Greenpoint. I caught up with him this weekend to hear why he thinks the remnants of somebody’s Spring cleaning rampage, sudden breakup, or Great Aunt Elna’s passing are as valuable as I do. How did you become “Larry the Junkman?”
Larry: When I started in the junk business, I knew immediately I was in it for the metaphor, as well as “The Maltese Falcon” I would find one day. I knew Hemingway had his bullfight, and I wanted to have something that I could write about that no one else had done. As far as I knew, nobody had examined the world of recycled possessions and the characters who dealt in this business – except for Sanford and Son – and that really never examined the inner life of collecting or the business. Quickly, I learned that there were characters in this world who were like legal pirates capturing treasures, and that they had stories to tell about the estates they found and the collectors they sold to. I was hooked. Can you give Jezebel Music readers a little background about your life?
Larry: I graduated college and won all kinds of writing awards every year. When I graduated, I tried getting jobs in advertising and in magazines. Though I was told that I was a great writer, I didn’t feel it. I felt like I had a lot to learn… I didn’t have my voice yet. I didn’t have my confidence yet and I knew it. I had work to do on myself and my writing. I was looking for work and the country was in the middle of a recession, and I finally got a job working production on magazines for a major corporation. I worked there for nine years and was not impressed with the company. I did begin to have my voice there, but the corporate setting also cut into my voice. I worked three days, twelve hours a day, for nine years. Well, what did I do with the other four days I had off? I played in bands for a while but I was not impressed with the people that I met. It was the late seventies and the early eighties when I was coming of age, and folks were taking lots of coke and drinking and I could never meet the folks I needed to meet. I got tired of pulling drummers out of their own vomit. I was writing every day, but I tried working this novel that was too ambitious for me. I must have written 5,000 pages to try to get it coherent. At the time, I couldn’t pull it off to my satisfaction, (5,000 pages is a conservative estimate by the way). So, when they closed the department down, I knew I wasn’t interested in the corporate world I had just spent nine years in. I knew I didn’t want to struggle with bands, and I knew I needed to at least write another 5,000 pages before I was going to find my voice as a writer. I knew that I had an opportunity to do something that I liked once my Production Department was closed down.
In the early eighties when I began to work for the Corporation, I lived by myself in an apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. I lived in Ridgewood because it was 330 bucks a month for a large space. I wanted to explore living by myself and to be creative. I wanted it all. I wanted to go out and get laid, and have my own place to write and find out what I was about. I wasn’t making a lot of money so I needed sources for furniture and cool stuff – Ridgewood happened to have a mecca of old school guys who had been around forever who dealt in clean out businesses, antiques, storage room auctions. They all came to this one man named Manny. He was the real deal Junkman. (When I call myself “Larry the Junkman” it is kind of a joke. I know that I am more than a junkman, but I like the simplistic stereotyping that goes with calling myself that.) Manny was the real deal. He was a true American hero junkman, and we became friends and he took me under his wing and told me everything he knew about making a buck and what was important in life. He had started business during the Depression. He told me one amazing story after another. “Don’t fall in love with the stuff,” I heard over and over from him, “only love women, that’s why you should make as much money as you can.”
So, I was spending four days a week in this community of men. There were junkies and con men, high end Sotheby dealers looking for a score, flea market guys, fences looking to buy gold and jewelry, a whole slew of America that nobody else was getting the inside track on or writing about, or learning. I was doing my post-graduate work in The History Of Garbology, and I knew that one day I was going to become a full time Junkman and I knew that I had the metaphor that would become integral in my writing. I was becoming a complete human being, albeit an unusual one. I didn’t care, I was happy finding great Art Deco furniture, juke boxes that I could fill with 45’s, old toys, great Noir books. I was allowing myself the opportunity to become the man I really wanted to be, and then when the corporation closed the department, it was time to step up and dedicate my life to my passion of buying collections, creaming out what I wanted for myself, and passing it along to everybody else. But what I really was in love with was the stories that came with every collection and the people I was meeting along the way. How does one go from private collector working a day job to fanatical flea market enthusiast?
Larry: Great question and I have witnessed many different paths in people. I really was incredibly lucky to end up in Ridgewood in the early eighties where Manny, my mentor’s junkshop was. It wasn’t even a junkshop. It was a hole in the wall, without electricity. But there was a hub-bub of men who sat around and told stories all day long. I went to that shop everyday, and it was exciting to hear these men talk. I fell in love with the lifestyle. It is not dissimilar to the way men sit around in The Sopranos. Most had been criminals who, after they got out of jail, needed something to do. Now, they were earning money by removing the contents of homes of people who were moving out of state or had a relative die. One of the jokes these guys always made was that now they were getting paid to remove the same type of crap that they used to break into apartments and try to steal.
There are more people who are now going deeper into their hobbies and turning them into careers because they lost their regular job and can’t find anything else to do. People will do whatever they have to in order to survive. As a junkman, I don’t get the kudos that other more specialized dealers get and the truth of the matter is, that I don’t know any one thing all that great. I know a little about a lot of things. I always had more of the passion for the hunt than the obsession of knowing every little detail of an item. But here’s what I do know: show me the box that is under your bed, and I will be able to tell you what is in it. What’s the best piece of treasure you ever found?
Larry: Best treasure I ever found was a Bronx Warehouse that had over a hundred thousand dollars of merchandise in it. It contained vintage mint porn as well as hundreds of photos of old strippers. When I first came upon the load, I thought it might be a million dollars worth of stuff. Still, a hundred thousand dollars is good except for the law of diminishing returns. What is the law of diminishing returns? Well, if I could sell that hundred thousand dollars of merchandise in a month, that is really great. If I sell it in one year, that’s good. If it takes two years. Eh… If It takes 10 years… well, now you know about the law of diminishing returns. This deal was crazy and i have written about it extensively Can you speak to the idea of inheritance? How important is it to you to pass along an appreciation for things that are old, used, or forgotten?
Larry: It is super important to me to educate people about what I know and what I have experienced in this business. I believe that there is not enough mentorship going on in this country. People are self-involved and don’t take enough time to educate and explain the knowledge that they possess. I understand why, but I still think people should make more effort. Mentorship should just be a real part of growing up. The seven-year-olds should be required to play with the two-year-olds; the twelve-year-olds should have to teach the seven-year-olds, and so on. Like I said, I understand why it isn’t done. It isn’t done because people are self absorbed in their own isolated worlds and feel like it is wasting time. It never is for me. If someone has a question about records or books or whatever, I will tell them whatever I know. If I have a worker who seems interested in how this business works, I will try as best as I can to answer as completely as possible. I always learn something about myself in the process.
I like telling my story to people because they become wide-eyed and have curiosity about the strange world that I am involved in. Earlier, I spoke about not feeling like I knew myself when I was in my twenties, and how this business helped ground me in a way that many older people still don’t have. That gets me off. I love having a youthful exhuberance about life while at the same time being very grounded and down-to-earth. I don’t tell everybody, but I am quite the happy fellow. I don’t tell everybody because I don’t like upsetting people even more if they are not happy. That is not to say that I don’t have my melancholy moments. Certainly, I have a very dark side, but like a Charles Addams cartoon logic, that makes me happy as well. A basic principle that I live by: I go from the sneer of contempt to the frivolous smile. Another one is: don’t shit on my dreams and I won’t shit on yours. If you feel like divulging this on the internet, what is your favorite hole-in-the-wall, or secret, to finding the best stuff?
Larry: My favorite hole-in-the-wall place is my own. I am constantly amazed at what I find in my own place. But that isn’t fair to people and they won’t believe me so, let me give you a few pointers.
Whatever town you visit, pick up the local paper and go to the estate sales going on that week. What a way to meet local people and really learn something about the culture. I scored bigtime in New Orleans before Katrina by going to estate sales. I also met great local people. Create your own favorite hole and place an ad in your local paper saying,”We buy entire estates. No job too big.” Write this even if you don’t have a vehicle. Let me know about your story. This is how I got started in the business. What lies in store for the future of The Thing and The Vortex?
Larry: The future will probably close the stores in New York. I can’t really see it going on forever here. The overhead is too much. I will move onto my writing career and use everything I’ve learned in the business to help carve a career for myself. I will one day have to work out of my house and do everything online. Don’t be sad. I have had a great run and there still is time to visit the store and chat about whatever interests you. Perhaps I will find that million before I have to close. If I make my mark, I will stay open like my mentors Manny and Sonny till the day I die. In the meantime, I plug ahead and try to bridge the communities of Old New York with the upcoming artists, musicians and writers who are interested in becoming something more than themselves.
by Drew Citron


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