Melissa was serious when she told me not to accelerate towards a red light. But so far I hadn't caught a single break. Greens went yellow at the sight of me; stop signs seemed to sprout up unexpectedly. So I could drive only in spurts, failing to pick up a strong-enough breeze through my open windows to cool the two of us down. And Melissa was right. I couldn't afford to use air conditioning.
We were navigating the Rittenhouse area. Another few hours and it would be morning; the garbage collectors would start their rounds and our expedition would be over.
We were not alone, either. There are many urban pirates like us, competing for the city's discarded loot. Our maps were posted on the internet, guiding us toward yard sales, i.e. "Cheap Stuff," by day, and curb alerts, i.e. "Free Stuff," by night.
At first, we began making these nocturnal trips with a specific goal: I need a table. I need a lamp. Lately, though, we have been scavenging for the sake of scavenging. Some things you find on curb alerts you couldn't imagine getting anywhere else. And some prompt questions about human behavior: What was this item used for? What in the world would make someone throw this away?
Some people were identifiably more serious than us, like the veteran free-loader in the black pickup who drove off from a site near 22nd and Lombard Streets just as we arrived, taking with him a heap of precious curbside treasures and leaving us to sift through the leftovers. I even spied the spokes of a bike in his truck as he sped off, his engine clanking and sputtering toward some other marked spot in the city.
Melissa and I stepped out of my car and crossed over to the dark skinny backstreet where, indeed, the curb had been stripped of its best offerings. We poked at the remains: a mattress with busted springs, a nightstand with a chipped corner, and a bookcase with a loose back.
Just as we were deciding on the nightstand, a young man wearing raggedy black clothes, a backpack and a large white bandage over his left eye sprang into the street from what I later learned was his sister's home. Glancing around, he gasped and threw his hands in his hair, his right eye wide with panic. He asked if we had happened to see his bike.
It didn't take me long to recall the black pickup. Melissa ran around the corner and spotted the truck a couple blocks away. She told us to go after him while she stayed back to guard the nightstand.
Moments later, I was zipping my car down the street chasing after the pickup with this stranger. He called himself Simon and told me the bike was a sentimental item, a present from his sister. I cruised down the street until a red light forced me to screech to a halt. We saw the truck turn right up ahead. Once our light turned green, we blitzed after him. We caught up two blocks later and shouted for him to pull over.
Max, the man in the pickup truck, understood completely. Simon had deserted his bike for only two minutes, precisely when Max had pillaged the site. I noticed Max had in back a few trash bags of linens Melissa and I had passed up an hour earlier from another location.
Simon thanked us both profusely. I watched him curiously as he rode off while also typing on his phone, seemingly oblivious to his enormous left-side blind spot.
Max and I examined a large sofa chair that happened to be sitting on the sidewalk at that very corner. We both appreciated the soft velvety fabric. He shrugged and told me he thought the visible urine stain was nothing a good fabric cleaner couldn't fix.
Thirty minutes later, two massive thirds of the chair stuck out dangerously from the trunk of my car. Melissa bought duct tape from 7-Eleven and was about to strap the chair down when two more scavengers in their own pickup truck idled over, impressed and amused by our determination. The driver hopped out and offered to give us a hand. He had a tick that made him blink uncontrollably. Sensing that we were amateurs, he advised us about other parts of the city worth canvassing, like Society Hill, where he once recovered a Macintosh laptop that still works to this day.
Soon, we were driving steadily toward my apartment in front of the large blue truck with our new chair in back. Melissa again reminded me to drive slowly. When we reached my place on Spring Garden, the two men carried the sofa chair over to my front stoop. Melissa and I expressed our gratitude, and she gave them the unused duct tape as thanks.
Morning cracked down on the indigo skies. Melissa and I slept nicely, pleased with our acquisition of the chair, and more importantly, with what we felt was a rarity: the amazing tradeoff of karma in the late hours of the night.
Unfortunately, it's been several weeks, and the sofa chair still smells like urine.
Charlie Isaac's base of operations is near 12th and