In Amsterdam there is a movement of objects that is unlike any other city in which I have lived. Every Sunday and Wednesday evening, the inhabitants of Amsterdam can place what they no longer need next to the trash disposal which is closest to their house. By midnight the streets become a display of various objects, placed there either because they cannot fit through the narrow slots of the trash cans, or because people intend to set them in motion. The latter is the most common reason why lonely chairs and tables are lined up along the sidewalks; one of the many unwritten rules of this old city is that once something is left on the street without supervision, it is free property that anybody can claim. It is easy to spot when someone is giving up their apartment because of the large accumulation of refused objects that has been piled up in front of a house. Such large accumulations of objects turn into complete showrooms of furniture and personal belongings. Unlike the IKEA showrooms that are carefully composed by a skillful interior designer and given the names of scandinavian nouns and verbs, the sidewalk showrooms consist of less organized compositions of unpredictable, random things– ranging anywhere on the scale between junk and treasures. These objects are more likely to be one of a kind, unnamed and unnumbered, and dependent on local serendipity to set them in motion.
The inhabitants of Amsterdam are quite accustomed to this tradition, so most people do not frown upon picking up things from the street. There are, of course, always people who prefer untouched objects that continue to smell of plastic foil and protective cardboard wrapping many months after they have unwrapped and assembled them. I, however, praise the system. Ever since I was a child I have had the tendency to look down and around in the search of objects that have been lost or deliberately misplaced by someone like-minded. Most children do this, and most children grow out of it at a certain age due to their parents’ overruling contempt for picking up things from the street. My parents never expressed any concerns or contempt regarding the matter, so I never grew out of the habit. Instead, I always keep my eyes open for the next finding.
The abandoned objects are of little danger; only once did I come across an abandoned collection of vinyl records that, once I held a sun-bleached Peter Gabriel album in my hand, I noticed smelled of urine. From that day on I promised myself to join the group of people who prefer objects in protective wrapping and foil. I avoided heaps and piles and junk for months, until the day that I passed a beautiful bookshelf on the corner of a small bridge in the northwest. I brought it home by balancing it between my shoulder and the back of the bike, happily reunited with my old hobby.
The quality of the objects, as well as the way they are displayed, depends on the region where they have been abandoned. Within the more wealthy areas of the city, I have found clothes smelling of fabric softener neatly folded, ironed and wrapped in exclusive designer paper-bags as if it was a service they provided. In other less fortunate areas of the city, I have seen enormous piles of worn rags and broken furniture all piled together in one big creation not knowing. But both polarities are equally important— one finds both junk and gold in most piles. The true value of the goods first becomes clear when you pursue the consequence of curiosity, to take a closer look. For those who care to do so, the activity becomes integrated in the gaze of the traveler within her route, whether she travels by car, foot or bike. This objective elongation of the gaze is, however, most convenient for those who are upon bike, which is the most common means of transportation in Amsterdam, both because of the heightened view of the situation, as well as the speed which allows you to pass through different areas within a short amount of time. After some years your selection criteria become quite strict. I have now stopped picking up chairs of any kind. However unique they might appear to be there is a certain limit to the amount of seating you can fit into a small space.
As well as the selective precaution, you also establish a sensitivity for what you can carry by bike or foot, and for how long you can endure their weight. Many times have I given up the transportation of an object for the sake of my own health (I once was in danger of falling in front of a large truck when balancing a small glass-top table in between the frame and the front of my bike at the peak of the rush hour). However, these failed attempts of transportation only contribute to the movement of the objects within the route they are to be found– their destiny is also altered by failure. When someone changes their mind and leaves the object behind somewhere along their route, it once again becomes free property. If such a garbage can is placed within the view from your apartment, you will notice the efficiency of this rotation. Here is a story from last Sunday:
Twenty to five in the afternoon a young girl places a plate of wood up against the side of the trash can. The plate has so far served the purpose of a basement door. Ten past five, a bearded man picks it up with the intention of using it as a desk in his new studio. He manages to bring it across town for about 3 km, until he finds a wider plate that is better suited for his way of working. He leaves the first finding in exchange for the second. The abandoned plate now rests there for approximately two hours until it is picked up by an old man who needs a table where he can place the electronic goods that he sells at the weekend market. The man carries it to his house, but forgets it out of fatigue, and it remains leaning against the wall next to his door overnight. The woman on second floor is the first person to see it the following morning as she goes out to fetch the newspaper. She assumes that it is deliberately abandoned and drags it up the staircase into her home. The board is given the function of covering up the side of her fence against the gaze of her neighbor. The plate has now come to an end in its travel of means and miles, until any given Sunday when things are once again set in motion.