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.
In fact, they have multiples of things most people have only one or two of: three flyswatters dangling on a living-room wall, dozens of bath towels neatly folded on a kitchen shelf next to five coffeemakers, two working-condition electric IBM typewriters and a manual Royal, fifteen decks of cards stacked together on the TV stand, three or four clocks in each room, and eight sets of speakers suspended throughout the apartment, including a pair of car models that flank the toilet. "I hate it when you're listening to an album and that one song you want to hear comes on and you have to go to the bathroom," Carl says. "This way, I can still listen to it."
Carl is serious about his music--he has many records, tapes and CDs and two stereos complete with phonographs, but no working CD player yet--and he thumbs through his collection affectionately. "Doors, Steppenwolf, Beatles...Oh, yeah, here it is: Elton John, taped from a promotional album I found that had only two songs on it," he says, popping the tape in. "It's from before he was famous." The room's four sets of speakers blare the pianist's rendition of "Johnny B. Goode" while Carl punctuates the air with his fist in time to the music. "You can't go wrong with Chuck Berry," he says. Mary pipes in, "I have a Yanni tape. I love Yanni," to which Carl shakes his head. "Uh, Mary," he says, only half trying to cover up a grin. "Sorry, but Yanni got ate."
Carl was working in the kitchen at the White Spot at the corner of Chester and Colfax on February 3, 1984, when Mary and their mutual friend Francine stopped by for a bite to eat. "I was spiffing myself up at that point," says Carl, who until then had worn the standard garb of the biker he was. "Cowboy hat and boots, nice belts. I was a real looker." Mary thought so, too, because when the ordinarily quiet, shy woman saw Carl, she says, she turned to Francine and said, "That is mine."
"I don't know what came over me," Mary says now. "I just knew, right then, that I wanted to be with Carl." First, though, she had to get past his 68-year-old mother. "She didn't want me to move out," Carl says. "Mom got kind of used to having me around. She didn't want to meet Mary for a long time." Adding to the problem was Mom's reputation as a gunslinger. "Everyone told me his mother answered the door with a gun in her hand," Mary says. "That's right, she did," Carl says. "And the whole neighborhood knew about the time Mom shot a cop's spotlight. Apparently, some drunk had tried to break in, and the cop put that spotlight on me 'cause he didn't know what was going on, and next thing I knew, I heard the Henry. I turn around, and there's Mom, shooting off that .44. 'Stay away from my son,' she told that cop."
Mom came pretty close to telling Mary the same thing, but a shared interest in crocheting and Carl's insistence that Mary was there to stay--she'd moved in three months after meeting Carl--eventually put things right. "She never did try to shoot me," Mary says. "I finally went over to their place, because I wanted Carl, and I figured, well, if she shot me, that wouldn't be as bad as not having him."
Having each other was different from getting married, though, and since neither was interested in a legal commitment at the time, they moved in together and are now common-law mates. Like Mr. and Mrs. Snowman, they both felt they'd been treated like garbage by their former partners--Mary because her husband was an abusive alcoholic who once hit her head so hard it damaged her retinas, and Carl because he always picked "psycho women." They both have offspring, but they get sad whenever the kids are mentioned, because some of them are grown and don't keep in touch and some of them live with relatives.
"Carl immediately showed himself to be the kind of guy who did things, like cooking and cleaning up and helping out. I wasn't used to that," Mary says.
"And I just wanted a companion," Carl says. "Luckily, she was willing to go along for the ride. We have so much in common, especially what we appreciate in life, that it was a perfect fit."
The couple that picks together sticks together, and Mary and Carl almost always hit the dumpsters in tandem. He's 6-foot-3, which enables him to look right into the garbage containers to determine their pickability, something her 4-foot-11 frame is not equipped for. And after thirty years of experience, he can ascertain the situation rather quickly. "My first rule is, I never bother with dumpsters that are more than half full," he says. "Mainly because then there's nowhere to put the stuff you're moving around, except on the ground, and that makes a mess."
Which brings him to another rule: Don't make a mess. "Some of these guys open up bags and throw smelly food all over the place," Carl says. "I go around after these guys and try to clean up, because they give us all a bad name. A lot of pickers don't know how to pick," he adds. "You have to get your hands in there and squeeze the bags for cans."
The Mulherns don't climb into the dumpsters "unless I see something that's worth getting dirty for," Carl says. To stay clean and keep from getting cut, they always wear gloves. He also carries "The Captain," a hook he rigged by taping the slide bar from a baby crib to a broom handle. "I just stick that thing down there and pluck out a bag," he explains. "And then we feel around the bag to find the cans." They load the cans into their 1974 Ford LTD, which Carl converted into a pick-mobile by fastening four bed frames to the top of it. "That thing'll hold a lot of stuff," he says. "I moved someone's whole apartment with it." The car can handle about 35 pounds of aluminum, which the Mulherns trade for 25 cents per pound.
"If the cans are there, we can put the car at capacity in about four hours," Carl says. "We're talking about soda cans, mostly. You have to know which other ones are aluminum so you don't waste time. A lot of cat-food cans are good, your Fancy Feast and such, and Hormel's potted-meat products come in aluminum cans. Other than that, it's lawn-chair frames, pie tins, the metals strips in doorways and other scrap parts."
Winter weather makes for prime picking. "You have less competition," Carl says. "You don't have to work so hard, and you always end up finding more. Most pickers don't like to go out when it's snowing. Of course, you're gonna freeze, but a lot of times, it's worth it."
Carl doesn't like to be bothered when he's picking, so he chooses his sites carefully. "I'll run into this other picker every once in a while," he says. "Some guy on Social Security who supplements his income with a little bit of picking. But mostly we pickers keep to ourselves."
The Mulherns have had some trouble with what Carl calls "wisemouths"--neighborhood punks, gangbangers, drunks looking for a fight. "It all comes down to attitude," he says. He relies on that and his knowledge of karate to deal with the troublemakers. "These gang kids usually run around here on their own, and they'll say, 'I'm gonna go get my gang,' and I'll say, 'Okay, I'll be right here.' That usually shuts them up. One time, two kids come down the alley and the one says, 'I got a bet--we're trying to see if my ass is as ugly as your face.' So I jacked him up against the wall and started pulling down his pants, and he says, 'What are you doing?' and I said, 'I want to see your ass so I know what I'm up against.'"
Carl stands up and starts walking around the living room, lunging against invisible opponents. "You want to go to hell," he says to the air. "Well, we'll go there, then, and we'll have a little party on the way."
Settling back down, he adds that most passersby do no more than heckle them. "Hey, I'm not ashamed of what I do, and neither is Mary," he says. "I look at it this way--at least I'm not pimping women or selling drugs to kids. We're making an honest living."
"You're not going to get rich doing this, that's for sure," Mary says. But still, that possibility is always there, as though every dumpster has the potential of a scratch lottery ticket--pick at the surface, and you, too, could be a winner. "You never know what you're going to find," she says. "We've known enough people or heard enough stories about big finds that it keeps things interesting."
The best tale is of Harold, whom Carl describes as "a non-entity kind of guy" he used to have coffee with. "You know, he was nondescript, a quiet picker," he says. "We met at this diner a couple times a week, and then he just up and disappeared. Then one day he drives up to the diner in a Mercedes, and we were all like, 'Hey, where'd you get the car?' Turns out he had picked up a locked gym bag from a dumpster, busted it open and found $200,000 inside."
And then there was Gerry, the thirteen-year-old Carl used to pass every morning on his rounds ten years ago. "I was picking up cans east and west, and he was going north and south, and we always met up at this corner on Colfax," Carl says. "And one day, there was this coffee can with a lid on it, just sitting there on the curb. Well, the can was no good, so we all just left it there. A million people must have passed that coffee can and ignored it. I mean, for days. So one day, the wind kicks up and it starts rolling, and Gerry picked it up. There was $15,000 in that can." Carl says Gerry used the money for college. "He was a smart kid," Carl adds. "That was a hell of a pick."
Of course, the pickings are usually much, much slimmer. Mary's best find was $500 in food stamps two decades ago. "My son was little, and he was picking with me," she says. "He came over to me and said, 'Mom, I found some play money. Can I keep it?'" A couple of years ago the Mulherns came across more food stamps. "It was a freezing cold day, and we weren't finding much," Carl says. "We were about to give up when we opened this suitcase, and there was $365 in stamps. I said, 'Let's call it a day.' Oh, that was a happy day."
But for the Mulherns, most days have been happy enough. "I felt like we've been so blessed and we've gotten so much, that I wanted to give something back," Mary says. That's why, one night when she was crocheting and watching the news--almost every night, Mary crochets and watches the news--a story caught her ear. "This organization was looking for people to make blankets for sick kids in hospitals," she remembers. "I've made so many blankets I've lost count, but that seemed like the perfect way to do something for somebody else."
Using yarn she'd picked, she had already made more lap blankets for Carl than he could use, and anyone she knows who needs a blanket gets one. "I crochet when Carl watches football, and I crochet any time we get into a fight," she says. "She crochets faster after we argue," Carl says, laughing. "She can make a whole argument blanket in about an hour."
After Mary found out about Project Linus, she started making even more blankets and donating them to the Parker-based charity. These days she makes about five blankets for Project Linus every few weeks; the organization supplies the yarn. Carl counts out the stitches for her--"I'm no good at the patterns, so I need him to help," Mary says--and they both choose the colors. "She makes a warm blanket, I'll say that much," Carl says. "Come to think of it, she is a warm blanket."
"Awwww," Mary says, smiling at him. "Even though I make some argument blankets, the one thing we've learned in thirteen years is never to go to bed mad." "Yeah," Carl agrees. "I just go in and slap her on the butt while she's sleeping, and then she rolls over and gives me a kiss."
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They also like to give things they found picking that they know the other will enjoy, like the owls Carl has added to Mary's collection--including her "pride and joy," an owl bank imprinted with the words "Nobody's Perfect"--and the plaque she gave him one year that reads "I love you in big ways/I love you in small ways/I love you this minute/And I'll love you always."
But this Christmas, as on the other twelve they've shared, the Mulherns won't exchange gifts. Carl will cook his specialty, Cornish game hens, and Mary will crochet, and they'll invite the neighbor kids over to see their holiday decorations. "It's fun, because the children always ask Carl if he's Santa Claus because he looks so much like him," Mary says.
"We never have enough money to buy something," she adds. "Hey, I get him and he gets me, and that's the way it's always been. And if you ask me, that's a merry Christmas.