On a Sunday afternoon this summer on my way to a coffee shop, I parked my car on the side of West Beaver Avenue, a road that cuts through a leafy neighborhood adjacent to downtown. The residents are primarily college students, you know, real salt of the earth inhabitants. Rather than measure worth by monetary gain, stature is gauged by seconds spent standing upside-down atop a keg, or by swiftness of movement after lighting a couch on fire in the middle of the street. The simplistic beauty of this lifestyle reminds me of late 19th-century America, when men and women lived off the land and daily alcohol consumption stood at about a liter per capita.
I live a half-mile away from the student neighborhood in a subdivision known as College Heights. The neighborhood, for the most part, houses professors and their families. It’s kind of quiet. It is famously where Joe Paterno lived for most of his life. The houses and the inhabitants are old, the structures and the humans dating back to the 1930s.
Trash pickup here is on Monday mornings. Yellow bags rest on yellowing lawns. There is nothing else to the curbside landscape. The opposite is true in the Beaver Avenue neighborhood. Trash heaps, nearly every week of every week, are like free stores. I’ve seen skis, computer speakers, mattresses, dressers, desks, lamps, Dodge Vipers and actual vipers. Whatever does not work for you will work for someone else. One man’s venomous snake is another man’s treasure.
Peak season for unearthing treasure starts around late July and ends in late August, after everyone is settled into their new dwellings. It was July when I parked on Beaver Avenue and saw a hill of goods two or three houses down. An older man already hovered at the curb when I arrived.
“Pretty good scoop,” he beamed in a voice that sounded more like Yosemite Sam than not like Yosemite Sam.
He said he lived next door. I envisioned him lifting his blinds ever so slightly, peering at the outside world through a telescope, waiting for the opportunity to pounce on a so-called “good scoop.”
Problem is, a good scoop is like a delicious steak. You see a steak at a restaurant and think you can handle a 16 oz. cut, a salad and twice-baked potato. You’re eyes are too big for your stomach. When evaluating roadside treasures my eyes get too big for my room.
Enter the mobile A/C unit resting on the grass like a rusted, wind-producing filet mignon. It was approximately the size of a La-Z-Boy and weighed just as much. But man did I need a mobile A/C unit. The central air blasted in the basement of our house but faltered in the upstairs rooms. I figured I’d better grab it before Yosemite drew his derringer, staking a claim.
I heaved it into the back of my Honda CRV. As soon as I got home, I carefully mapped out the dimensions of my room, which, size-wise, follows the blueprint of the Soviet-era collective apartment. You can fit a cot, a Vladivostok-oak dresser and desk combo, a washboard and a flask, leaving just enough space to prominently display a Yuri Gagarin wall poster.
A capitalist A/C unit did not have a prayer of fitting. Although it would stand on my window sill with little trouble, its sides would have banged into my bed and/or my desk. I couldn’t rearrange them unless I wanted no space to walk into my room. So I continued to sweat, and the A/C unit found a home in the back of my car for several weeks.
During a trip to the beach in Delaware, seven other people needed to fit in my car, which seats five. My friend volunteered to sit in the trunk. Sure, I told him, but you’ll have to lie next to the A/C unit.
I became that guy. The mobile A/C unit lover. There’s one in every group. I have to think its presence impacted my reputation socially, the backstabbing conversations proceeding thusly:
“Yeah, that’s Mark. He sweats so much he needs a mobile A/C unit in addition to the car’s cooling system.”
“Yeah, that’s Mark. I hear he keeps that A/C unit because it reminds him of R2-D2.”
“Yeah, that’s Mark. He writes blogs about A/C units.”
We became a hell of a pair, me and A/C unit. We drove to Washington D.C. together, all over State College, to Mount Nittany, to Harrisburg, to Taco Bell many mores times than either of us would like to admit. Every time I looked in the rearview mirror, I saw her sitting back there, finally relaxing, not having to produce cool air for the first time in her life.
On Friday, we had to break up. My bike needed to fit in the back of my CRV. I knew this day would come, when I’d actually have to become a normal person instead of an appliance hoarder, but I had not planned for it. What the hell was I going to do with this monstrously bulky A/C unit?
If I lived on Beaver Avenue that answer would be simple. I could set it next to the curb, and Yosemite would pick it up before I fully released it from my hands. But College Heights is different. My neighbors set a couch and a few chairs on their curb a couple of months ago, and nobody wanted them. The rains quickly ruined the furniture, and the garbage men, I assume, reluctantly piled the worthless loot into their truck.
I suppose there is nothing entirely wrong with this. It sucks that the garbage men had to do extra duty, but at least chairs and a couch decompose. An A/C unit doesn’t. If no one wanted it, a rainstorm came and the garbage men took it to the dump, it would probably eventually infect thousands with mercury poisoning. In other words, I risked becoming an enemy of the state if I left my A/C unit on the curb.
I proceeded with that option anyways because I’m lazy, but for another reason, too. I have faith in the citizens of college towns. Whether young, middle-aged or old, whether student, townie or blogger, we all want free shit, regardless of how dodgy it appears. So I set the A/C unit on the ground with a sense of idealistic pride.
Maybe two hours later, I returned home. The A/C unit was gone. BOOM! The circle of life continues. I just hope the A/C unit actually fits into that lucky person’s room.