Sperrmüll

Wednesday, August 16th, 2000

According to my big German-English dictionary, Sperrmüll means “bulky refuse” - kind of a bulky definition, if you ask me. Sperrmüll is basically the kind of stuff that Americans would take to the dump. It’s stuff that you don’t want or need anymore, big stuff like furniture or household appliances, or smaller stuff like stereos or televisions, or really small stuff like flowerpots. It’s all the stuff that you can’t sell or recycle or just put out for the garbageman. It’s not necessarily garbage, or even junk - it can be really good stuff. It’s just stuff that, for some reason or another, you need to get rid of.

When you have some “bulky refuse” that you want to get rid of, you get in touch with the city sanitation people and tell them what you have. They then tell you when they can come and pick it up (and they don’t just dump it - they take the good stuff and give it to charitable organizations). They come really early in the morning (like, at 6:30), so usually the night before, you get all the stuff that you want taken away and you put it out on the sidewalk in front of your house.

That’s the point at which your stuff becomes free game. All the people who pass by and see the Sperrmüll are free to stop and look through it and take whatever they want. This isn’t weird in any way. It’s not like going through people’s garbage; it’s more like going to a yard sale where everything is free. I think that, in certain neighborhoods with single-family houses, there is a certain “etiquette” about going through your neighbor’s Sperrmüll - like, you don’t want to be seen doing it. In close-knit neighborhoods, Frau Meier probably wouldn’t be caught dead taking Frau Müller’s flowerpots out of Sperrmüll, no matter how much Frau Meier had always admired and wanted those flowerpots. It just wouldn’t be seemly.

It’s not really like that where I live now. In fact, as Jeremy and I were putting out our Sperrmüll this evening, one of our neighbors from upstairs was moving some stuff out of the cellar, and he wound up taking our old oven and a little table. There were some people who stopped on the street and asked about some things when we were out front stacking everything up. And after we had finished putting all the stuff out and gone back inside, a girl from upstairs rang our doorbell and said, “I know this is pretty cheeky, but does one of the televisions out there work?” Jeremy had to tell her that, unfortunately, they were both broken, and she thanked him and went on her way. So there weren’t any Sperrmüll hang-ups around here.

As I started to write this it was still light out, and I could look out the window and see the corner of the bright yellow wardrobe in which my underwear and pajamas have lived for the past 4 years. The yellow looked nice against the color of the sunset. Now that it’s dark the Sperrmüll activity outside seems to have wound down, but when it was still light, there were cars and cyclists and pedestrians stopping constantly to look through the stuff. It was kind of fun. It’s interesting to see what people take, and I had to resist the urge to keep looking out the window to see what was going on.

Experiencing this Sperrmüll, if you can say such a thing, has somehow made it a bit easier for me to part with my stuff. The kitchen table isn’t the only thing I’ve managed to get attached to in my apartment. There are hundreds of memories associated with everything I own. I’m sure I’m far too fixated on material things, but that’s the way it is. Tonight I had to put out a little table that originally belonged to my first housemate when I first moved to Freiburg. The table was a tiny wobbly thing, about the quality of something someone would make in a woodworking class in high school. I would never have taken it with me because, to be honest, the thing was falling apart, but somehow I felt bad about putting it out on the street (and yes, I feel bad for the stuffed animals in toy stores that nobody buys, too - go on, laugh).

As it turned out, the same neighbor who took our little oven took that table as well, and it gave me a great sense of relief, not just about the table, but about everything. I felt like the cycle of life and existence was suddenly revealed to me. I know that sounds way too esoteric for a pile of old furniture, but it’s true. Jeremy and I got most of our furniture from Sperrmüll. We would walk along some evenings after we first moved in, and if we came across a pile of Sperrmüll, it was like stumbling upon a hidden treasure. We would look it over to see what was still good and what was junk, what we could use and what we didn’t need. If we found something, we would schlep it home, and it became ours. And now we’re giving it back to…wherever. Now we’re moving out, but someone else around here is just moving in, and they might stumble across our Sperrmüll and see something that they need or like, and they’ll take it home and it will become theirs. For a while, anyway.

Nothing really disappears. It just moves on, changes, is transformed. There’s still a reason for it - whatever “it” may be - and it still serves a purpose. Even if, several years from now, the table winds up as wood chippings that are used for whatever people use wood chippings for, it’s still providing someone with something that they need. It’s still giving something to someone. Everything has a purpose and a place.

It’s the Zen of old furniture or something. And the thought makes me happy.

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