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The Transfer Of Treasures
By Nancy K. Crevier
Newtowners may not realize it, but there are treasures at the transfer station, including three men who have more than 50 years experience between them, working for the town.
From the 10- by 10-foot cement block cubicle that they call “home” five days of the week, transfer station attendants Bob Calabrese, Ron Botsford, and John O’Hara have a clear view of the comings and goings of Newtown and Sandy Hook residents as more than 100 tons of trash a week is deposited at the Ethan Allen Road transfer station off of Route 25.
Windows on three sides of the small building situated beside the main trash receptacle look out on the recycling stations, the truck scale, and off into the distance to where townspeople bring metal, brush, and demolition materials to be crushed and hauled away. A collection of salvaged action figures decorates the front window, and two life-sized, scruffy mechanical parrots perched on the edge of a desk squawk when tapped on their heads.
“First one [parrot] showed up, and then two more in a different load,” chuckled Mr Calabrese. The trio of vocal birds provided amusement to people who stopped in to buy permits or ask questions. “One of the parrots was borrowed for a play, I think,” Mr Calabrese said, “and hasn’t come back yet.”
The exterior of the building is plastered with multicolored signs that specify how to get a permit, what is accepted at the transfer station, the hours, and the various costs for permits, from the yearly $90 permit to the $10 one-time-only dumping permit. Nonetheless, said Mr O’Hara, every time the door to the office creaks open, someone wants to know that very information posted outside – even as they lean on additional large-print signs placed on the counter.
Sometimes, Mr O’Hara said, a visitor to the office wants to leave them an item the giver just cannot bear to throw out. “That happens especially, we’ve noticed, with people who grew up during the Depression. It might not even be something that is good. They can’t throw stuff away,” he said.
Those people, though, are in the minority. There are many, many other items trucked in to the transfer station that the men recognize as having value still, and some of them are rescued before they end up crushed and carted away.
Â “You’d be surprised what we find here,” Mr Calabrese said.
“I got divorced in 1980,” Mr O’Hara said, “and I think I furnished my whole place with stuff thrown out here.”
Regularly, the attendants come upon snow blowers, generators, and like-new lawn mowers that need only the smallest amount of TLC to get them going again.
“One guy left a lawn mower that he said the engine was broken on. It was only the blade that was loose,” Mr Calabrese discovered when he took a look at it. When he found a self-propelled lawn mower in the trash, he grabbed it, and started it up. “It was absolutely fine. I gave it to the guy up at the Goodwill truck, and I guess it’s cutting grass for someone now,” he said.
Mr Botsford recalled a resident coming into the office, shaking his head about the pickup truck he had followed from the center of town. “The guy in front of him had towed a riding lawn mower hooked up with just a string of clothesline, all the way here,” he laughed.
“I brought [that mower] home. It just needed a battery, and I’m mowing my lawn with it now,” he said.
Mr Calabrese recovered a two-year-old Martin acoustic guitar in the trash. For a $32 nut, the guitar was back making music. “I gave it to my brother-in-law,” he said. He made a gift of yet another perfectly fine guitar he found, too.
Wheelchairs and walkers in good condition frequently are placed just outside the office door, said Mr Calabrese. They are quickly snapped up.
“We get lots of decent bicycles, too,” Mr Botsford added, “some of them like brand-new. We set them off to the side and people take them.” There are also two residents, he said, who will collect any bicycles left at the transfer station. “I don’t even know who they are, but they fix them up and give them to kids who need them,” he said.
What is most amazing to the men is the amount of electronic equipment thrown out. Televisions, in particular, end up in the electronics recycling shed.
“When people started swapping out their televisions for the flat-screens, we started getting hundreds of TVs that are still working,” Mr O’Hara said.
Mr Calabrese brought home a Sony television that a resident dropped off, explaining to the attendant that he was dumping it because after about an hour, it was not possible to change the channels.
“I thought, that would be good for my son to play video games on, anyway,” he said. When he got it home, he put new batteries in the remote controlâ€¦ and has been watching all the channels ever since.
He has even recovered a new printer, still in the box, still in the plastic.
Plenty of odd things turn up at the dump, especially after Halloween, Mr Calabrese said. “We see mannequins and all kinds of stuff then,” he said.
In the 1970s, when the landfill was operational, and garbage was crushed and buried, Mr O’Hara said he turned up some unusual things. Most memorable to him is the bag of false teeth.
“I could see down over the tracks of my machine, and all of a sudden there’s this bag of teeth. I had to get out and look, of course,” he laughed. Whose grandfather, he wondered, was searching for his false teeth?
It was also in the days of crushing and burying garbage that Mr Calabrese recalled a case where buried treasure stayed buried treasure.
“A woman came in here, all upset, wondering if she could dig through the garbage. She was dressed in that bright yellow rain gear, head to toe, and ready to dig in. Her mother-in-law had been housesitting and decided to buy some new curtains for them. So she put up new curtains and tossed out the old ones, she told me,” Mr Calabrese said.
What the mother-in-law did not know was that sewn into the hems of the old drapes was nearly $15,000 worth of jewelry, her daughter-in-law’s hiding place.
“That jewelry was gone, though. She looked for about five minutes. It was buried under tons and tons of garbage,” Mr Calabrese said. “What are you going to do? The mother-in-law thought she was doing a nice thingâ€¦”
Their main responsibility as transfer station attendants, said Mr Calabrese, is to guide the public and answer any questions. Their assistance often includes ferrying people back home when they lock their keys in their cars, he said.
“That happens way more often than you would think,” he said. Dogs are the common offenders in these instances. “The owner gets out to toss the bags of garbage, the dog jumps up on the door and locks the car. We’ve given people rides home to get extra keys. We can’t leave them sitting there, in everyone’s way,” he said.
No matter how much guidance they offer, though, Mr O’Hara said there are people who just will not listen. He pointed out splashes of white paint smeared across the ceiling of the port protecting the trash receptacle.
“A woman asked me if she could dump paint and I told her no. She did it anyway,” he said. When the garbage was compacted, the buckets of paint spewed the contents sky high.
They also spend a fair amount of time retrieving recycling bins that slip out of the owners’ grasps and slide into the receptacle.
They have honed their people skills over the years, said all three attendants. The phone rings on a regular basis with residents inquiring about what the transfer station does or does not accept, when the station is open, or who can use it. “We get a lot of people from Monroe and Trumbull who want to come here. Or people come in here all upset about the elections, or the economy, or whatever and want to vent. We keep our mouths shut, and just agree,” Mr O’Hara said.
“Demolition dumping issues are our biggest problem,” Mr Calabrese said. “You tell people the cost and they’re ready to tear your head off. It’s so expensive. You need a thick skin to work here,” he said.
Even so, “I would say 99 percent of the people who pass through here are wonderful,” Mr O’Hara said.
In the office, Mr O’Hara leaned against an office chair – one of several disposed of at the transfer station and that now furnish the office – and gazed out the window through a pair of binoculars – also a treasure gleaned from the trash. “These are our ‘cheaters.’ They come in real handy,” he said, whether checking to see if a car up at the brush pile has a permit or making sure residents’ kids and dogs stay in the vehicles when bulky waste is being dumped.
People will throw away items in perfect condition, reiterated Mr Calabrese, but despite the temptations to which they sometimes yield, “You know,” he concluded, “you can’t get in the habit of dragging stuff out of here.”
Trash picking at the Newtown Transfer Station is discouraged and no picking is allowed in the electronics recycling shed, Mr Calabrese emphasized, due to hazardous waste concerns.