Adventures in Trash
By Ted Botha
New York: Bloomsbury, 2004
Paper back: ISBN: 1582344523 Price: $23.95
According to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, the word mongo was coined in New York in the 1980s. It refers to trash, or more specifically, to treasure found in trash: books, artifacts, furniture, even food. Ted Botha’s book explores a whole culture, and various subcultures, that revolve around mongo.
Those obsessed with mongo often live on the margins, sometimes by choice, sometimes by misfortune. The “canner” who collects aluminum cans and glass bottles out of others’ garbage bins for recycling, says Botha, is looking for mongo, as is the old woman driving around the city, examining discarded and often broken furniture on the sidewalk. They may be unemployed, addicts, or psychologically disturbed; or they may be quiet citizens from the suburbs, enthralled by the quest.
Botha classifies mongo collectors into different types. “Pack rats” scour and accumulate for accumulation’s sake. “Survivalists” look for high-quality mongo, like used bed sheets rejected by wealthy Long Island households that can be resold at the flea markets and sidewalk sales of Manhattan. “Anarchists” live off the excess of restaurants and groceries, scavenging food from cartons and garbage bins. They’re usually younger people who are involved in anticonsumer and antiglobalization movements and subsist in the precious few low-rent spaces left in Manhattan. “Visionaries” assemble street-found mongo into ingenious works of art and interior décor that belies their trashy origins.
Most book collectors have seen the eccentric and disheveled devotees of mongo who lurk at the edge of the book trade and salvage treasures, which end up on the shelves of more respectable dealers and in private and institutional libraries. Botha’s chapter “The Dealer” profiles Steven, a street bookseller whose stock consists of discarded books and magazines found among the garbage of museums, luxury apartment buildings, estate sales, and failed stores. He makes remarkable finds and lives by a code of rules that exemplifies guerilla bookselling, such as “Good books can turn up where you least expect them” and “Time spent looking for the right buyer could be worth a lot of money.” Some of these rules also reflect the hard life of mongo collectors existing on the edge of society: “Never get too attached to a book, or for that matter, to anything” and “Most people think that if you collect off the sidewalk, you’re a bum.”
There are profound characters here, and Botha is sympathetic to many of his subjects, but he doesn’t dig deep. An admitted mongo aficionado, he’s more interested in the uses of mongo—especially for art and interior design—than the stories behind the people who collect it.