First published in my Substack newsletter, Unsorted but Significant, June 2023.
SOME YEARS AGO, when we lived overseas in Beijing, we had an apartment that was brimming with odd things we’d found fascinating and brought home for second lives — to the point that a Chinese decor magazine did a feature on us with a headline that said, “Living in Amusing Space.” A friend of my wife eventually confided something along these lines: “When I’m in your home, I feel overwhelmed. I feel like every item in here is speaking to me all at once, and everything wants to tell me a story.”
This stuck with me for two decades, and it’s exactly how I feel every time I walk into the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, an enchanted place where things — the things of my community, things that were near and dear and/or incidental and irrelevant to the people of western Pennsylvania — go to await strange and thrilling reincarnations. It is an amusing space for sure. And like the best amusing spaces, it’s far, far more.
There are many secondhand stores in the land, and a lot of antique shops too. This is not either of those. Not quite. Those breeds are full of things that are designed to — for lack of a better word — “pop.” They’re highly curated with profit in mind — stores brimming with things that happen to be “pre-owned” (a euphemism if there ever was one).
The Center is different. It is designed with sustainability in mind, of course, but also for education. Classes come here — entire classes — to stretch their creative muscles. It’s a place for kids from around Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods to learn about how everything doesn’t need to be bought and then thrown away when something new and shiny comes along. Or, put another way, shiny doesn’t have to be new at all.
For obsessives of miscellany like myself (this space isn’t called Unsorted But Significant for nothing), the nonprofit Center is a delight-inducing assault on the senses. You can find bins stocked with tiny plastic doctors. You can encounter an entire barrelful of used wine corks from homes and bars and restaurants, ready to be deployed into everything from trivets to handmade bulletin boards. You can happen upon vintage photographic equipment of all stripes. Just up the aisle are photographs themselves — the kind which that sort of equipment spat out during the administrations of Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan as Gen-Xers and Millennials smiled adolescent smiles into the business end of cameras.
My favorite part of the Center — the word “store” doesn’t do it justice — is a rescued library card catalog (it astonishes me to be old enough to have to link those words to their definition) with drawers that are labeled with the contents of each, including little plastic people, “fake coins,” “metal bits,” “ear plugs” and “patriotic.”
These all come from donations — from businesses, recycling partners and regular people who just have stuff they recognize might not be quite ready for the garbage collector.
I’ve been back here a half dozen times, most recently for a sit-down with the place’s executive director, Ash Andrews. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and their attitude about sustainability is as deeply humanistic as it is environmental and educational.
“We might get 10,000 corks at once,” Andrews says passionately. “And then the shop floor has to change its shape for a month or two. … The shop floor is always morphing and changing based on what is happening in Pittsburgh. If there’s an article in the City Paper that talks about spring cleaning, we’ll look out because we’re about to get tons and tons of donations for folks who want to see their materials go on to see a new life.”
A new life. That’s why we’re here today. Can things have new lives? Can things have lives at all? And if so, what might that mean?
I’VE BEEN READING LATELY about animism, whose oversimplified (by me) definition is the notion that everything — every physical object — has a soul, or at least an essence. I’m not a religious person, at least not when it comes to organized religion, and I never have been. But I’ve always believed in souls in one way or another.
When I’ve heard or read about animism, it’s usually in one of two contexts — animals and the natural world, things like rocks and rivers and mountains and oceans. What has always fascinated me most, though, is the possibility that the items we own, the things that accompany us through life for a while, possess something eternal about them as well. And that perhaps something of the “lives” they have lived stays with them wherever they go.
It has been a circuitous and sometimes arduous journey that I’ve undertaken over the past decade, going through the house where my parents left a half century of their things when they became too old to live there. Decisions about everything from prized heirlooms to 1996’s federal income tax returns can be fraught when they’re imbued with the essence of events and places and actions and beloved people who are now gone. Is that animism? Projecting? Both?
I’m sure it’s relevant to my rather sentimental outlook on these matters that I grew up in the the 1970s and 1980s. That was a time when disposable culture multiplied the items around us exponentially (I once profiled a man who took this situation to extremes), and consumer culture took root to the point that shopping became a leisure activity rather than an errand. These days, immersed in our “retail therapy” ethos, we can barely remember a society when that wasn’t the case.
But reuse and sustainability — the kind that the Center for Creative Reuse espouses — becomes another thing entirely when you start thinking about the — what? — essences or echoes or yes, even souls that these objects might contain.
This is particularly true when you scour gatherings of objects that are — or, more accurately, were — deeply personal to someone once.
Going through baskets of 1970s and 1980s instamatic-camera family photos, unanchored for reasons unknown from the families that produced them, feels both comforting and transgressive but most of all vaguely melancholy. It feels a bit transgressive to rifle through pre-social media photos that depict not only happiness and possibility but day-to-day glimpses into Pittsburgh’s households just piled up, with no identities attached to the faces that stare out at you. I came across a basket of such photos in Penang, Malaysia, in 2015 and the whole notion haunted me until I wrote about it. I still haven’t gotten it out of my system.
Then there are the trophies — youth, middle school and high school sports trophies all arranged on shelves, all still gleaming, each forgotten and forsaken by the people who worked so hard to earn them (or their parents, perhaps). It’s hard not to lose yourself in reverie about the path that each award took to end up in this team that sits there crossing all sports, from Penn Hills girls’ basketball to Shaler boys’ baseball to unmarked swimming trophies. It feels a bit like I’ve often felt in cemeteries while researching family history — that each stone connects to a significant story, and together they are the stories of a community. Same deal here. It would be fascinating, though of course impossible, to create a newspaper sports section full of the thrills of victory and agonies of defeat that these trophies could tell.
Even given that minor melancholy, I feel this collection of objects is, in the end, optimistic. It’s hard not to feel optimistic talking to someone like Ash Andrews, who functions, effectively, as an agent of reincarnation. Each of these things, its previous life and use left behind, is ready for the next chapter. And that chapter could be utilitarian, it could be creative, it could be something that no one has dreamed of until they walk the aisle of the Center, see something deeply, aggressively miscellaneous and are struck by inspiration. It’s a place of possibility, of fresh outcomes for the forgotten.
MY FATHER LOVED what he called “found poetry.” He’d stumble upon newspaper articles that were noteworthy in odd ways, and he’d parse them and remix them into something else entirely, something that was almost art. Check that. It was art. The one I remember most was a news article from a wire service (curiously, the wire service that I would go on to work at for most of my adult life) that appeared in many of the nation’s newspapers, including The Pittsburgh Press, in late April 1969.
It documented (that’s probably a generous term) the comings and goings of a dog belonging to the Lee Danyluk family of Lyons, Kansas, whose tags, or the sound thereof, somehow managed to change the channel of their early remote control TV set. My father, captivated by this mildly surreal slice of life, took the article, broke up its paragraphs into verses, and turned it into a found poem. He then typed it up on a piece of paper, attached a clipping of the tiny news article as his “source material” and tacked it on the back of his study door at 4-year-old Teddy level. There it would become one of my earliest memories as a reader.
I wish I still had the actual piece of paper. But the fact that more than 50 years later, I remember not only the story but the name of the family chronicled (that’s probably also a generous term) in it — enough to track down the damn thing in a newspaper database — is testament to something relevant to these proceedings.
My father took something typically destined for the daily dustbin — an inside page of a random daily evening newspaper — and reclaimed it, repurposed it, reincarnated it into something else. A “watercooler item,” as they used to be known in the news business, became a fleeting, minor piece of art and thus found fresh life. And in that transformation, he kind of yanked it into eternity — to the point where I’m making you read about it here, a half century on.
That little tale helps explain for me why the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse feels so captivating. That second wave of American disposable culture in which I came of age transmitted to us an unremitting message from marketers, manufacturers and advertisers: that there was no afterlife of things, nor should there be. We should discard, discard, discard, and then buy, buy, buy. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The pull toward novelty was strong while I was growing up. It’s so much stronger now in the age of Amazon and frictionless deliveries within days or even hours. But as I go through years upon years of my parents’ things even now, years after they died, I notice in their leavings all kinds of instincts toward reuse — from the VERY SMALL BOLT my father carefully taped into part of a paper-towel roll and labeled in capital letters to the crayon-colored plastic margarine containers my mother carefully salvaged as child drinking cups that became part of the landscape of my lunch as a small boy.
It was all practical, sure, but in a way it was philosophical, too: the possibility that what someone had made for one purpose might become something entirely different and equally useful in another context. These are microscopic, daily decisions, seemingly without meaning. But when you start adding them up, something sort of magical begins to emerge.
I think that helps explain why I feel overwhelmed when I walk the aisles of the Center for Creative Reuse. Here are all these objects — all these things that did one thing for a long time, perhaps even honorably so, and then outlived their usefulness. But here they are in their own purgatory — a kind of delightful purgatory, yes, but a purgatory nonetheless — waiting for what might be next, whether it be artistic or purely practical or just plain weird. But the important thing — to me, at least — is that this is not the end of their lives as useful things. It’s only a waystation.
The landfill is always spreading. The next purchase is always looming. And as we navigate that brightly colored dystopia, there is something comforting in that prospect of renewal, even for a cork or an old VHS tape or a tiny plastic figure of a doctor. Instead of disposable endings, it speaks of the possibility of enduring tomorrows.
All those little inanimate souls, each containing a past life — even if it’s one that a customer’s imagination imposes upon them. Each peering out of a box or a bin or a barrel or a bucket at the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, waiting to begin the next chapter. In object purgatory, hope always springs eternal.
“It’s like the idea of of driving down a highway and having different exits that you could take. Our culture currently is on the main superhighway. We’re all going somewhere really fast, and we’re not thinking about it all that spectacularly. However, if you’re looking off on the sides, there’s a ton of exits that we could take. There are a ton of different routes that are available to us. They might not be the fastest, the fanciest and the shiniest routes, but they’re going to be more interesting and maybe more personal. … And we think of creative reuse here as one of those those little roads that twist and turn and that bring more meaning to people’s lives.”
— Ash Andrews, executive director, Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse
Ted Anthony, a journalist based in Pittsburgh and New York, has reported from more than 25 countries. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects his writing here.
Related reading by Ted Anthony:
Where the Spirit Might Dwell
In undoing the architecture of my late parents’ everyday lives and deciding what to discard, was I committing a small…
Close, But No Cigar Band
The curious, tobacco-inflected correspondence between my adolescent grandfather and Mark Twain.
The Century Club
Nature, memories and the lonely death of Jay Gatsby. Notes from the woods on my father’s 100th birthday.
©2023, Ted Anthony.