Hippie Christmas, or, How To Find Beauty In A Big Pile of Garbage

“Blow up your TV
Throw away your paper
Go to the country
Build you a home
Plant a little garden
Eat a lot of peaches
Try and find Jesus on your own”

John Prine, “Spanish Pipedream

As I prepare to leave Eugene, the first trickle of the university’s fall students are arriving in town. The final summer leases and sublets are expiring, and people are moving into new houses and apartments with friends they haven’t soured on yet. 

Others are leaving town for good, their time in college and Eugene finally up, backing up their trucks to move on to new opportunities or, more likely, back home with their parents.

In their wake, the streets and easements of the neighborhoods around campus are full of other people’s discarded stuff. Stuff is the only word I can use to describe it–just a bunch of couches, chairs, tables, shelves, electronics, decorations, knickknacks, trinkets, appliances, bedsheets, clothes, shoes, and whatever else the outgoing tenant has deemed unworthy of taking with them. Sometimes, the stuff is left behind purely for practical reasons–the international students can’t take their Ikea nightstands on the plane with them, after all–but often, it’s just because there’s not enough room in the truck, and it’s simply not worth packing the bookshelf when it’s just easier to buy a new bookshelf in a new town. 

So the bookshelf gets left behind on the curb for anyone to take. And for a few months out of the year, the neighborhoods around campus are filled with bookshelves and everything else, free to anyone who isn’t too proud to pick through a college student’s scraps.

They call this time of year Hippie Christmas, I guess. And despite all its negative connotations, I absolutely adore it.

As far as I can tell, the term “Hippie Christmas” originated with the student population of Madison, Wisconsin. Apparently, the leases on campus-area apartments in Madison are designed to expire all at once every year on August 14th, with new leases coming into effect on August 15. Effectively, all the students in Madison move in and out on the exact same day, meaning that everyone just gets rid of tons of stuff at the exact same time–literally a million pounds of random college student garbage ends up in a Wisconsin landfill every August.

Eugene is obviously a little more leisurely than that. The students here move out in stages. There’s a little crush of UHauls, pickups, and minivans that show up toward the end of every month as the leases expire one-by-one. Hippie Christmas, in Eugene, is more of a season. If someone misses the first post-finals flurry of move-outs, they only have to wait a few weeks for the next batch to leave.

Lately, I’ve been paying closer attention to the piles as they appear and disappear. Already, the summer’s last stragglers are packing their things and leaving furniture on the curb. Piece by piece, the apartments are emptied, and everything that doesn’t fit in Mom’s truck or Dad’s Subaru doesn’t get to come back. By the end of August, the turnover will be complete, and a whole new batch of people will fill all these apartments, including mine.  

Right now, my greatest regret is not being in a position to take home this perfectly good propane grill I found on the corner of 17th and Mill Street.

It’s all so wasteful, in a way. I know most people tell themselves that the stuff they leave out will magically get recycled or reused by someone, but most of the stuff that gets set out is going to end up in the dump regardless. The entire tradition of students leaving out their old dorm room furniture because they know someone will eventually take it lays bare our worst excesses. There’s an entire industry dedicated to churning out this shitty college kid furniture that holds up for no more than five years, and most of it ends up right there on the sidewalk, baking in the August sun until the city finally caves and decides to haul it away. 

One can learn a lot about people by studying what they leave behind when they move. We can learn what people believe to be disposable, what they think is just detritus left behind in the wake of all tenants. All summer long, you can walk through the neighborhoods south and west of campus and walk through microcosms of people’s lives stacked up on the sidewalk. And in a place like Eugene, those microcosms often end up raising questions one never thought to ask.

These refuse piles as a form of expression, too–especially in a college town. It’s a way for someone to let go of little bits of their past. They can let go of as much or as little of themselves as they want, but they’re always going to leave a little something behind. In our capitalist, consumer-based economy, this is as close as people get to shedding their skins. Nothing says “fresh start” like ensuring that you’ll have to get a whole new living room set upon arrival at your destination beyond Lane County.

In one pile on the southeastern side of campus, there was not only furniture, but boxes of miscellaneous things. There were string lights shaped like horses and posters of the boys from One Direction. On top of one of the bookcases, there was a stack of chemistry textbooks in ascending order of difficulty. There were hula hoops and beanbag chairs and stuffed animals and all kinds of stuff in bright pink and blue and pale yellow colors.

It was a pile of junk that screamed “I’m a grown-up now.” Little more than the molted shell of someone thrust into adulthood, whether they liked it or not. When they arrived here, they were only a child; now, a few years and a couple of unprecedented disasters later, they’ve become an adult, and their vision of adulthood does not include horse-shaped string lights or plastic toys.

This is happening all over the city, all summer long.

If you’re clever enough, you could say this photo of a sofa is an example of “Absurdist Deconstructionism” and say that it represents the fracturing of the American nuclear family, and someone would probably fall for it.

Even the way that someone tosses out their furniture can be a form of expression. Some people are neat and organized, laying out their refuse in tight little piles so as not to make a huge mess. A few go as far as setting up their discarded furniture as if it was in a living room, which couches arrange in perpendicular lines around a coffee table. 

But most just sort of haphazardly drop their shit anywhere on the grass, knowing that it’ll get picked through and scattered all over the place no matter what they do. That’s how the West University neighborhood spends the summer being littered with mattresses and broken dresser drawers.

Most of the time, that’s just an example of frivolous college kids just trashing the stuff their parents bought. But as the pandemic continues to put the squeeze on people and the American rental market teeters on the brink of another catastrophic collapse, it’s becoming more apparent that some of the piles out on the street aren’t just frat boy detritus, but stuff abandoned by people who were facing eviction if they didn’t get out in a hurry. 

Are these the broken remains of a fraternity live-out, or the remnants of someone’s fragile life left behind after an eviction? You decide!

And it will be picked through, because all summer long, the scavengers are circling.

Not far from my apartment, in front of a building that’s much nicer than mine, there’s part of a red sectional sofa sitting on the grass next to a round, wooden table. The sofa is missing one of its sections, and I’m not sure what kind of monster leaves behind half their couch when they move. 

I will wonder what happened to the other half of this sofa for the rest of my life.

Anyway, I had just taken that picture of the table and half-couch when a beat-up old Ram truck pulled up and stopped in front of the building. A middle-aged man in a Mariners shirt left his truck rumbling in the middle of the street while he investigated the table. He gently turned it on its side in the grass and looked closely at the underside, then rapped the top of it with his knuckles a few times.

I accidentally startled the man, probably because he was examining the table so closely, so I held my hand out and introduced myself and explained that I didn’t want the table or any trouble, that I was just a writer from the neighborhood, working on a piece about Hippie Christmas, and that I just wanted to ask him something. For some reason, this bewildered him, but he cautiously agreed.

“I don’t know, I just saw this table and decided to stop and look at it, that’s all, it’s nothing,” the man said. He sounded nervous, or stressed, or maybe just over-caffeinated. Probably all three. I asked him why he stopped for this table, specifically.

“I was just admiring it, really. It looked like a nice old table when I drove by. It’s pretty old. Oak, I think. Got ruined, looks like. Shame, ‘cause it’s made real good. Probably the only reason it survived this long.”

I asked him how he knew all that. He said he does a little woodworking as a hobby, and he likes to find old furniture to restore as projects. But to fix this one, he said, would probably be too big a job for him. 

“Do you get all your projects off the streets?” I asked him.

“Yeah, usually,” the man said. “Just, whenever I find one. I don’t know. They’re easy to find here all around, so I usually don’t think too much about it. I’m just on the way home, and I saw this table, and I thought it might be a new project. I’ll probably pass though. Damn college kid treated this nice oak table like it’s some cheap Ikea shit. Ruined it.”

“You think there’s a reason people would rather get rid of their stuff than take it with them?”

“No, not really, man. Like I said, I don’t think all that much about it, I was just passing by.”

I sensed that the man was getting weirded out, so I thanked him and let him go. It occurred to me that no one had ever asked the man where he sourced his wooden furniture, and he just didn’t know how to answer. We shook hands again, and he made it a point to get away from me as quickly as possible. As he got back in the truck, I asked his name.

“Reuben,” he said. “Like the sandwich.”

Reuben drove away, and I went back inside to type up our brief and curt conversation. When I went back out a few hours later to walk the dog again, the table had disappeared.

There’s a Supreme Court case, California v. Greenwood, where six of the nine judges ruled that people’s trash is considered public domain, and therefore not subject to privacy or personal property laws. The case was centered around a suspected drug dealer, who was arrested after the cops searched his trash and found evidence of drug paraphernalia, but was more widely interpreted as a go-ahead for people to comb through people’s trash without fear of serious punishment. Dumpsters and landfills, Sandra Day O’Connor and her ilk decided, are the domain of the people. 

There’s no better metaphor for Reaganomics, is there?

I’m glad Reagan’s dead

The people around here take that to heart. Every day, as I’m walking through the neighborhood, I’ll see the people with pickup trucks and vans cruising around, looking for decent stuff to score off the street.

What’s really remarkable is how fast the stuff gets picked up once it’s left outside. 

The other day, while I was walking my dog, I passed by a really nice patio set that someone was throwing away – one of those ornate ceramic or stone ones that look much prettier than they feel to sit on. I wanted a picture, but I didn’t have my phone on me. By the time I came back, no more than ten minutes later, the table and two chairs had been whisked away. 

This is common, because the first rule of Hippie Christmas is “finders keepers.”  Once, after coming across a pair of bookshelves that would replace the last bookshelf I got off the street, I stood next to them for about 20 minutes, waiting for David to come by in his pickup to help carry them back to my place, which was exactly two blocks away.

Another time, I found an old-school science desk–one of those with skinny metal legs and the little chambers beneath the table for supplies–on the street maybe four or five blocks from the apartment. But instead of leaning on David for his truck again, I just picked it up and lugged the whole thing home. It took a half hour for me to get it there, but I’ll be damned if I’m not typing this out on the desk right now.

I’ve furnished just about every apartment of mine with other people’s stuff I’ve found on the sidewalk. There’s no way I would’ve survived the last five years if I had to actually go out and buy furniture. Everything in my current apartment was either taken off the street or given to me – I can’t point to a single piece of furniture in here that I’ve actually bought. 

The campus neighborhoods aren’t the only place this happens, of course. Eugene, as a whole, just sort of dumps its leftover stuff on the sidewalks. People are always giving their shit away in Eugene, and especially in the Whiteaker. It’s sort of incredible, I think, to live in a place like that. It makes the whole city feel like a free box at a yard sale, constantly being recycled via the street. That gives this city this aura of sustainable community spirit – a kind of informal mutual aid. It’s easy to feel like everyone is reusing and stretching out the lifespan of all these consumer goods. The stuff people give away isn’t always useful, and it’s often junk, but it’s there for anyone who might want it. Any drive through town has the potential to yield something cool that someone just decided to give away.

It’s weird, because I feel pride in having a fully furnished apartment that cost zero dollars. I feel like I beat the system. All these other suckers paid a pretty penny for their futons and computer desks, while I just put my back into it. And that feels nice.

It’s nice, until I look around my apartment and realize that all of my coolest stuff was, at one time, someone else’s junk. It’s nice, until I realize that so many people are living off the discarded remnants of other people’s lives. It’s nice, until I realize that Hippie Christmas is just the logical progression of trickle-down economics, where the people on the street can only get their hands on what the wealthy choose to throw away.

Somehow, people have convinced themselves that furnishing a home with discarded furniture and decorations scraped off the sidewalk is a better option than demanding a life in which they can afford semi-decent furniture that hasn’t been exposed to whatever biological horrors await a sofa’s upholstery on the corner of 15th and Ferry St. 

In a just society, there wouldn’t be unofficial holidays where people gleefully rummage through dumpsters hoping to find something valuable in a college kid’s trash. In a healthy country, students wouldn’t generate tons of waste over the course of their time in college, and there wouldn’t be such a thing as “disposable furniture” that’s only designed to last a couple of years.  In a slightly less cynical world, we wouldn’t write-off people trying to score basic home goods to attain a semblance of comfort and normalcy as “hippies” instead of calling them what they are: “desperate to save as many dollars as possible.”

But maybe that’s as good as we’re going to get right now. Maybe our best hope of a socialist utopia is just exchanging our trash back and forth with our neighbors forever, or at least as long as it takes to make it next year’s Hippie Christmas. It’s better than getting lost in Ikea, at least.

So Happy Hippie Christmas, Eugene. Let me know if you’re in need of a couch, a bookshelf, or a nice parka – I have to get rid of mine by the end of the month. 

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