Talkin' Trash

Cartoonist Lynda Barry tells Found magazine editor Davy Rothbart about her love of scrounging


| July/August 2002 Issue


DAVY: Do you remember when you first became interested in found stuff and why? LYNDA: I was always pretty much of a scrounge. Part of it might have been bugs. I really really liked bugs and when you are looking around at ants on the ground or potato bugs or caterpillars you sort of will run into trash and some of the trash will be interesting. At least in my neighborhood this was true. I remember finding brown paper bags with glue wads inside. The glue sniffer’s corner. And a whole block of houses was empty up the street. We all went inside, dug through things. Opened drawers. Bums were there. People set corners on fire. Peed on things. Made out. Places like that totally magnetized me. I loved finding things there that would give me a weird chill. A hairbrush. A pile of letters. And there was a dump, an unofficial dump, actually it was a mile-long stretch along a ravine down the hill where people threw things out, and I used to go poking around there, looking for tossed-off weirdness. This is when I was really little, like around 8. I would walk down there by myself, digging around in the piles of garbage. Finding suspenders and stoves and photos of people. There was a store called Pay’n’Save near my house and I used to look around their garbage area, trying to find broken things they threw out. It relieved a certain kind of itch I didn’t know any other way to scratch. What are some of your favorite and most memorable things you’ve found? The first thing that always comes to mind is a tiny bowling bag purse that would have fit in my hand when I was about 7. It was perfect with a little zipper and it had five bucks in it. I found it in the woods, in this totally unexpected area that kids were using to race bikes around piles of dirt. I loved that bowling bag! It was green and white and made me feel huge. I found a series of notes in a notebook a man and a woman had been writing each other over a year. She worked nights. He worked days. It ends with her writing lies! lies! lies all over the last pages. In a certain way my favorite or most memorable thing is hard to identify because it’s been a life of picking up trash. As I look around the room right now I can see that only the computer and stereo and other tech stuff are new. Mostly it’s found or church rummage sale, which is a paid-for kind of trash. About my favorite kind.
One of the things I used to love to do is take something really eye-catching that I didn’t want anymore and put it outside somewhere on display and see how long until it was "found." I used to love to take my penny jar and make tall stacks of pennies in funny places in alleys, the kind of places kids might look but adults would not. I loved walking and checking on the pennies. Seeing which of the stacks had been located.
What is your attraction to found stuff? What does found stuff mean to you? It gives me something to imagine into both while I’m on the prowl and after I find something. I especially like found notes and I used to keep them all together, but my organizing has since exploded. I love conversation notes between two people in class. Two kinds of handwriting ripping on a teacher. Mainly I like the story that smokes up from certain found things. And I like the collections of things one can put together. I collected playing cards I found on the street with the eventual hope of getting a whole deck—a weird sort of lifelong game of solitaire. I still run into the cards all over my house. No organization! When I was in college I nailed rows and rows of nails on one wall and then went out and picked up anything that was U-shaped and hung it on the nail upside down. Everything from tiny little twist ties in a U shape to an actual letter U that fell off a marquee. I loved being able to pick a shape and look for it. This was 25 years ago so, I can’t remember much about it except that by the end of the year the wall looked amazing and no one could believe I found all the U shapes on the street. In high school I started to notice shoes in the road, a single shoe lying here or there and I would think about how the hell that happened. Who loses one shoe in the road and how? I used to stop my 1964 Valiant and go get the shoe and throw it in my trunk. I loved opening my trunk and seeing all of these shoes that had no mates. I probably did it to be a way-out hippie and impress boys. But usually boys have had nothing to do with why I scrounge. Although scrounging had everything to do with why I married a certain someone. I’m married to the king of scrounging. My husband’s the kind of guy who looks down. My kind of guy. Kevin restores prairie. That’s his job. He’s a plant freak. So sometimes when a development is going in we go over to the planned site right before they start digging and find all the native plants and rescue them. This counts as found, I think, if you consider the rescue aspect of finding. He also has a thing about push lawn mowers. He finds them set out for the trash man. We have eight of them in the basement. We do not have a mowable lawn. He has to struggle with himself to keep from picking up more. My husband has furnished our house from dumps and alleyways. He is always coming home with some insane thing he found. Once he brought home a stuffed grizzly bear head. Someone had cut it off of a bearskin rug and put it out on the street with the trash. We dig the found lifestyle. I’ve been with people who were horrified when I bent to pick something up or slammed on the brakes to dig through a pile of trash on the side of the street. "You don’t know where that has been" is either a nightmare or a dream statement depending on the person picking up the thing. I think mainly it’s two things that makes me love trash. One is the imagined story that comes with it. (Who cut that bear head off the rug? How long did they think about it before they did it? What did they use to do it? Did they think a grizzly bear skin would be less offensive minus the head? What did people say after they saw the rug without the head?) The other is the feeling of rescuing some otherwise overlookable thing from oblivion. This might be a way that I identify with trash. Understand trash. Empathize with trash. I will call it trash. "Found object" is a nice term but it reminds me of when I was in college and looked down on comics so much that I called what I did "drawings with words." Now I’m a cartoonist and a trash lady.

From Found Magazine #1, a treasure trove of mysterious notes, inane travel journal entries, calls for roommates, children's drawings, and letters pieced together after having been torn to pieces. Discovered in public places, each item suggests a larger story that it's up to you to imagine. The Web site: www.foundmagazine.com includes found audio snippets. Subscriptions: $22.21 (3 issues) from 3455 Charing Cross Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48108-1911.

Lynda Barry, a pioneer of alternative comic strips, is the creator of Cruddy and The Good Times Are Killing Me. Her forthcoming book, The One Hundred Demons, will be published in September 2002.






Pay Now Save $5!

Utne Summer 2016Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $31.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!




Facebook Instagram Twitter flipboard


Copyright 2018, All Rights Reserved
Ogden Publications, Inc., 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, Kansas 66609-1265