Trash Landing

The Mulherns make merry with ghosts of Christmases past.

Of the nearly 500 Christmas decorations Mary Mulhern has rescued from dumpsters over the past twenty years, the recently acquired Mr. and Mrs. Snowman are her favorites. Made from aluminum cans covered with cotton batting, their cheery faces fashioned from bits of felt, the happy snow people show no signs of their close brush with a trash compactor.

"I always look things over," says 42-year-old Mary, who's been "picking" from dumpsters since she was a teenager in Brooklyn and junking with her husband, Carl, for the last thirteen years. "The snowmen were in perfect condition and clean. Someone had made them, spent time on them, and then they just threw them out. Can you believe someone would just throw them away?"

She touches the pair gently and steps back to admire them in their place of honor on a bookshelf. All the bookshelves--most made from waterbed headboards also pulled from the trash--had been cleared of their usual book-and-knickknack contents several weeks ago to make room for the extensive Christmas display that the Mulherns have been assembling annually since their first holiday together in 1984. The decorations span decades and include several old, intricately tinted glass balls hanging from Christmas lights--the thirty or so strands Carl found over the years and which he spends nine hours arranging in a rectangular, crisscross pattern on the ceiling--next to such contemporaries as a plastic Garfield skiing in a Santa cap and an Oreo-cookie man with jingle bells. Nine shelves are rimmed with red and green garlands and more lights; each shelf holds carefully aligned holiday items and wine goblets, glasses and candy dishes filled with ornaments so tiny they'd get lost if hung with the others.

"My mom stopped putting up a tree after we kids moved out," says Carl, 51, who came to Colorado from Oregon in the Seventies. "One year she started putting out all the ornaments all over the place, and the traditions just stuck. We have all these cats here, so it never made sense to put up a tree just so they could knock it down. And we have so many Christmas things we've picked out of dumpsters.

"Hell, we have so many things we've picked out of dumpsters, period."

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans threw out about 200 million tons of garbage in 1995. According to Mary and Carl Mulhern, most of that was made up of Christmas ornaments, clothes and toasters.

Their tiny apartment--where they live nearly rent-free in exchange for managing the eight-unit building--is bursting with those items and more, and its location near Fitzsimons is ideal because of its close proximity to Carl's favorite picking spot, near 11th and 12th avenues. "There you've got Denver dumpsters and a lot of private apartment buildings," he explains. "That adds up to a variety of trash." Picking takes care of all the Mulherns' needs but rent: Money collected from recycling cans and other metal pieces buys food for them and their five cats, and the goods they've amassed furnish the apartment, clothe them and provide for hobbies and entertainment. "I can't think of anything we've wanted that we haven't eventually found in a dumpster," says Carl. "You wouldn't believe what people throw away."

To prove it, Mary opens their bedroom to inspection. The closet is stuffed with sweatshirts, slacks, jeans, down-filled parkas, even a black leather jacket, all in good condition. "Some of it looks like it's never been worn," Mary says. "Some of it I have to sew or get out stains." They periodically load a few trash bags full of clothes and donate them. "I took three lawn bags full of sweatshirts--just sweatshirts--one time to Goodwill," Carl says. "There's enough used clothing that's been thrown out that you could cover the entire planet and everybody'd have several outfits, I swear."

Bedding is another popular throwaway. The Mulherns' bed was created from a waterbed frame turned upside down and filled with a foot-high mattress made up of a stack of 21 quilts, some of which the couple found intact, and some of which Mary made by stitching together sheets. She embellished her creations by cutting cartoon characters out of coloring books or sayings from T-shirts and making iron-on patches out of them. "Here's the Ghostbusters," Mary says, pointing to a quilt block. "And here's Snoopy." Another quilt block reads, "Don't Take Life So Seriously--You Won't Get Out Alive."

They remember where they got each blanket, including the one they nabbed the first time they went picking together. "Remember, Carl?" Mary asks as they peel each layer back. "Remember when we got this one?" Carl nods. "I remember," he answers. "That was a good picking."

Next to the bed, covering an entire nail-riddled wall, hardware gadgets of every shape and size, including a twenty-pound monkey wrench and a dozen hammers, hang above coffee cans filled with doodads, doohickeys and thingamajigs that Carl says come in handy when he's fixing up apartments--another good source of secondhand items. "You know how sometimes when you move, you've gotta travel light?" Carl says. "We've gotten some great stuff when people just didn't want to take it with them." He pulls down tools that are nearly brand-new--"This is a Craftsman," he says of one wrench--and then points toward a shelf heaped high with what appear to be metal paper-towel rolls. "Vacuum-cleaner parts," he says proudly. "I take apart all the vacuum cleaners I find that don't work and I save their parts. That way, when I find the bodies, I can make a vacuum cleaner at any time. I like to give them to people who don't have one." He's also found working sweepers, which is why he and Mary have two electric models and one manual for their four-room place.

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