It was the morning after on East Collins Avenue in Oxford, Ohio. On Saturday night, parents, friends and, most importantly, graduating seniors sang, and partied and hugged and cried and high-fived each other in front of houses called Wigwam, Reunion, Phil Collins and The Lite House, small houses which held fraternities and sororities and non-Greek students as well. Ordinary Americans at ordinary parties, celebrating a rite of spring one block from the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
Now, it was Sunday morning. Time to clean up. Not only from the party - but from four years of college. In front of each house piles of garbage bags filled with toss-away items appeared. Many items stood alone. Bookshelves, clothing, blankets, towels, make-up kits, hats and shoes. Books and magazines and DVD movies. An old computer or two, an HP printer. A table was in front of one house. Around the corner a black chaise lounge. America's throw-away society on display. On a dozen other nearby streets the piles of goods also grew.
And then the pick-up trucks came. The vans. Older vehicles which stood out. Lean men and women, often children in the back seat. People with hard lived faces. Cars that had seen better days. People who had seen better days - deserved better days. Their eyes darted along the curbs. Whites, blacks, even a family that could have been from India or Pakistan. As the well-heeled parents and college students continued to load their U-hauls, a man, a woman, a child would leave their car and walk to the piles. They would slowly grab the obvious things - the chairs and tables. The boots, the sheets and pillows. All without saying a word. Then they would drive off. Then another pick- up would come, another van. Another driver would look over the piles and take away some additional things. A very large man - so large he had trouble walking - sat down against one pile. Slowly, methodically, he ripped open the bottom of each of the plastic garbage bags and pulled things out - a hat, a can of bug spray, a DVD - he kept. He spent 15 minutes in one place - sitting and ripping the bags - as the college kids and parents walked by. There was no conversation. Eyes did not meet. The man never looked up. Separate lives - separate universes. This was not a flea market or an estate sale - this was desperation. Poverty on display. Two Americas.
A group of men from the Family Resource Center, a local anti-poverty group, arrived at 115 East Collins to pick up a bed, a dresser, tables and chairs being donated by the students inside.
"A lot of the people you see are in real trouble," said one of the volunteer workers as they loaded the furniture into their shiny yellow Penske truck. "Things are tough here. Lots of layoffs over in Hamilton, Ohio. That's why they come here. The college kids throw away a lot of good stuff."
"Some of the people driving through here will sell the stuff they get," said another volunteer worker. "It happens every year. But this year is really bad. There are so many foreclosures over in Hamilton, you can get a house for $8,000. Not that I'd want to live there. But these people do."
One of the workers said earlier that they had picked up a bed that had been offered, and immediately took it to an 86-year-old woman who had been sleeping on her floor for six months.
"This stuff looks really good," said one of the men, loading the truck. "Thanks for donating it. It will go to good use. God bless you."
As they left, another older car followed. Inside one was a tall, beautiful young blonde woman. She walked to the picked over piles and took the sheets that were still available. And the hat with Tweetie Bird on it and the words "You're too cutie." She looked up, shrugged her shoulders, and flashed a smile my way. It was the first smile seen all day from the people walking among the piles.
Eventually, the graduating students and their parents would drive away in their SUVs and vans. Happy people - filled with a sense of accomplishment. One SUV pulling a U-hail trailer stopped for a moment as an old van pulled in front of them and parked at the curb. A man and his young son, maybe 10 or 11, walked out and jumped on top of a dumpster next to a fraternity house. The father began to pull out a chair. On top of the dumpster, his young son found a sombrero. He called out to his father, waved the sombrero proudly in the air, then put it on his head. Then he went back to looking in the dumpster.
By Brian Healy