The garbage of higher education

After all the college students have gone home, their material culture remains.

Published June 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The last thing I learned at Hampshire College was a brief lesson on the physics of a falling recliner. There was no curve to the chair's trajectory, only an instant between the maintenance crew barking "Heads!" and a wrenching crash three floors below. The faux leather behemoth landed on its feet, its foot rest popping out like a road-kill tongue.

When we were sure the air was clear of falling furniture, I went over to investigate. The recliner was done for. Its back had split apart from the seat. Still, its upholstery was flawless. It had been in working order before it was dropped from the dorm stairwell.

My friends and I were on campus a few weeks after graduation to scrounge furniture for our apartment. This was the final rite of what my roommate Brooke calls "Hippie Christmas": that time of year when college students at Hampshire and the other colleges in the area go home, abandoning boxes upon dumpsters of stuff -- jeans, shoes, dog-eared books, ratty toys, lamps, binders, futons, underwear, rugs, cosmetics and the occasional stereo speaker or computer. Some of this junk makes it into college-provided charity bins. But students leave an equivalent amount behind in their rooms, despite cleaning fees. The sheer volume of it all is astounding.

Brooke and I first set off for nearby Smith in her battered Plymouth a week before graduation. After a few false starts, we found the college's giveaway bins in dorm lobbies. The first house yielded boots, jeans and a complete set of plaid flannel sheets. Brooke couldn't help exclaiming out loud, though we were trying to be furtive, "I can't believe this," she sputtered, checking the tag on a shirt. "J Crew. Eddie Bauer. This stuff is almost brand new!"

Sifting through students' leavings has an anthropological appeal. You start to see patterns. A surprising percentage of Smith refuse was made up of brand-new items, tags still attached. Mount Holyoke students gave away clothes more worn than Smith's, but dressier. It was a change from Hampshire, where the hippie and punk populations wear their clothes until colors fade, seams melt apart and there are no more salvageable parts to incorporate into another makeshift dirndl or anti-corporate patch. The stuff that hits the free bins is mostly unusable. (There is something charmingly earnest in the way Hampshire students commit their rags and underwear to charity, loath to throw them out when they're sure someone can use them.)

Even Hampshire, though, supplied plenty of barely used items. One day I picked up two stylish steel post lamps in working condition. As far as I could tell, they'd been abandoned because something had melted onto one bulb. Seeing these kinds of lightly damaged rejects -- clothes with torn seams, chipped dishes -- I wondered if students discarded objects because they didn't know how to fix them. Will people of my generation always consider replacement first, or will they grow up to repair things?

As we wandered through the emptying dorms, trying to look like Smithies, Brooke grew visibly nervous. I was surprised. Her plucky confidence had convinced me this was something people did every year. "OK, if anybody asks," Brooke suggested, walking backwards like a tour guide, "my sister goes here, and she told us if we walked in this direction we'd find something to eat."

The lie was too complicated to repeat to the concerned-looking Smith students we met. We knew we weren't doing anything wrong; we stuck to the free bins and trash containers and avoided anything that seemed too good to be true. Still, I got the feeling we were under surveillance. It wasn't clear whether we got looks because we seemed to be preying on wanted belongings, or because our watchers thought anyone diving excitedly into a barrel of unwanted pajamas should be closely monitored.

While there are social routines for buying, there are none for gathering free things. So little in our society is free for the taking. (Think of hotel shampoo bottles, or Abbie Hoffman flinging dollar bills on the floor of the stock exchange. Then try to think of another example. I can't.)

Being confronted with whole rooms stuffed with free jackets, cargo pants and tank tops inspired gluttony. Brooke picked up five pairs of khakis, almost identical. I stockpiled flannel shirts, convinced I would make a bean bag out of them. I ended up with enough to clothe every garage band in Seattle.

We developed the routine of expert plunderers: appraisal, entry and quick retreat. We sang pirate songs, slinging garbage bags of booty over our shoulders. A gray-haired father rounded the corner carrying a plastic tub of towels. We subsided into giggles.

In the last house we hit before returning to the car, Brooke blew our cover. Squealing, "Ralph Lauren!" she pounced on an oxford shirt. A girl stopped on the stairs above the bins. "You know," she said, looking down on us, "those are for the needy."

"Well, I need a wardrobe for work," I muttered as we left.

As we dragged our huge bags back to the car, I thought about what the girl had said. Putting it that way -- the needy -- implied that she saw an unfathomable gulf between college students and those who live off others' leftovers. She presumed that Brooke and I shared her social standing and purchasing power. We weren't well-dressed; how did she know we didn't need a discount on clothes? Granted, I didn't need it this time around. At another time, I might have.

Despite years of attempts to open higher education, the culture of private education presumes that its participants are all equally privileged, that none of them come from the ranks of the needy. My college prep school had a fantastic curriculum that incorporated community service and cultural diversity. But there was no place at school to talk about diversity of privilege and class. My friends who depended on financial aid were hard-pressed to explain, when teased about their clothes or snubbed for where they lived, that their families did not value fashion and prestige over education and survival.

The girl who chewed us out seemed to think that the clothes she abandoned would pass right into the hands of the needy. (I had presumed the Salvation Army would resell them.) Had I interfered with her chosen compensation for taking more than her share? Would the needy have appeared out of the alleys to take her clothes, a horde of orphans with grateful hands outstretched? I'd wager she wasn't thinking of the workers kept needy by the companies that made the clothes in the first place.

On the last day of Hippie Christmas, a Hampshire administrator passed me and my roommates as we rummaged through a knee-deep slurry of clothes. "I just can't believe all this. I think of people everywhere else ..." she said, at a loss for words or plans.

Hampshire's physical plant workers, meanwhile, had their directive: to clear everything out of the dorms regardless of method. As I wrestled a chair onto a third-floor fire escape, three of them watched from across the quad. "Throw it over the edge!" one shouted. "Naw, I want this one!" I called back. It was tempting, though, to think about the spectacle of wooden legs splintering, the seat exploding in the crash. These are the fever dreams of excess.

My roommates and I filled the 11 rooms of our duplex with good furniture that day, and there was plenty to spare. I wondered why the phys plant guys didn't secure the best leftovers for themselves. Then it occurred to me that smashing the houses of the spoiled kids they worked for might be more appealing than lugging dangerously heavy furniture down three flights to furnish their homes with someone else's trash. I was too shy to ask if this was the case. But the maintenance crew was clearly pleased, if a little bemused, that someone else was doing the hauling.

By Gillian Andrews

Gillian Andrews is a recent graduate of Hampshire College.

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