Did your mother ever tell you, “Don’t touch that! If people threw it out, there must be a reason!”? Well, there is a reason: people are pigs.

No, really. They’ll throw anything out, there doesn’t have to be anything wrong with it. Except that they don’t need it today. Or they’re moving to a new apartment, and the object in question is totally worthless because it’s currently located in the old apartment.

And there’s no time when they toss so much, or with so little thought, as those two magic moments: May 1 and October 1. Moving day in Chicago. That reckless time when everyone is starting fresh. Or like it says on my calendar, Trashing Day.

I was never particularly shy about finding good stuff “out back.” From time to time I would come in and tell my husband to get up and help me carry home a nice armchair. But that was just serendipity. My systematic observance of Trashing Day really started when we moved away from Lincoln Park. Ravenswood is nice, but when we settled there I noticed a precipitous falling off in the quality of the garbage–most of it was, well, garbage. So I decided, come May 1, I’d go back to the old neighborhood.

I’ll never forget that first big haul. I started out around the Fullerton el station, and by the time I worked my way down to Clybourn and Armitage, I had my arms full. Shopping bags overflowing with pillows, planters, rugs, and lamps, I slowly made my way back to Lincoln, where a merchant friend was nice enough to let me put my finds in the back room for a few hours.

There were five or six more trips to the back room as the day went on. I covered most of the residential side streets between Sheffield and the lake, from Armitage to Belmont. That was the day I got a beautiful dog-eared cactus, six hunter green and matching floral throw pillows, a collection of greenish rag rugs, cream-and-sage eyelet batiste curtains, a pottery table lamp, and a brass urn. Plus many lesser items.

Now Trashing Day’s become a regular thing, a highlight of my whole year. It’s a time when wonderful surprises are the norm, when anything is possible. And it’s a celebration that anyone can take part in. Here’s what you do.

Identify the weekend closest to the end of the month. Go on Sunday, not Saturday.

Go on foot. It might seem like a car would be really handy for a job like this, and maybe it is, but it has its drawbacks. On moving day people don’t want you blocking the alley. It’s hard to drive and rummage, and a day spent trying to park is never fun, even when the streets aren’t full of moving vans.

Focus on renters’ areas, especially ones where residents have high incomes but high job turnover–as in sales, marketing, and other yuppie-type jobs. Clue: Look for those three-ring binders of corporate training materials and piles of glossy promotional throwaways. Three-flats are the best–enough space to accumulate too much stuff and accessible black bins in back. In multiunit buildings and high-rises the Dumpsters are often secured under lock and key.

Look for bins with their lids up, the ones overflowing with colorful stuff, or with items stacked up outside them. Ignore bins filled with wood and plaster: construction debris means home owners or that repairs are going on between stuff-tossing tenants. And piles of empty boxes mean the good junk is gone: the new people have already moved in. Don’t forget to look in the bins next to the lid-up one: good yuppies can fill three bins when they move.

Remember, fashion first. My wardrobe really picked up when I stopped getting all my clothes at the resale shops. Not to knock the resale stores. You can find quite usable things there and occasionally something very nice. But for a high volume of really excellent stuff, the odds are just against it. The people who are out there spending indiscriminately, stocking up on must-have, adorable, eye-pleasing, graceful things, constantly redoing their “look”–these people don’t have the time or the inclination to cart their used stuff to Goodwill or Village Thrift. They just toss it. In fact, often they can’t seem to find the time to use it first. Doesn’t quite look right, the hell with it, don’t think about it too much, put it in the alley.

Don’t go for “treasures.” Go for regular stuff, everyday, ordinary nice things. I hardly ever buy wrapping paper or ribbon anymore. Or office supplies. Or disposable razors. (No, I don’t take the used ones!)

Plastics are especially good. They’re light and most stuff wipes right off them. Dishpans, wastepaper baskets, tubular clothes hangers, those expensive Rubbermaid Servin’ Savers. In fact, just about anything Rubbermaid makes you’ll find in the alley, usually with the price tag still on it. (In May 1994 I collected over $100 worth of domestic plasticware with tags, and I was very picky and only took things in newish condition and “my colors.”)

In fact there’s a whole class of housewares–curtains, curtain rods, area rugs, sheets and pillowcases, mugs, and kitchen paraphernalia–that, like window shades, somehow mysteriously “won’t fit” in the new place. A lot of this kind of stuff people just don’t seem to take with them anymore, period. As if plastic buckets were “meant” to be tossed, like plastic knives and forks. I’m convinced some of them only bought the bucket and mop that day, to clean up the place so they could get their security deposit back.

Don’t be shy. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t be afraid to rummage around. I used to be a bit circumspect about my activities, but that wore off fast. Now I say “Hi,” “Nice day, isn’t it?” or “Crappy weather for moving!”

Don’t pretend you’re not doing it (dropped your token in there by mistake or something). I have down what I’m going to say to the small-minded jerk who gives me a hard time. “No way, pal. This beautiful lamp (rug, tank top) stopped being yours when you threw it in the garbage.” That’s my speech–but I haven’t had a chance to use it yet.

What to take: twine, scissors, small screwdriver, measuring tape, dry socks, a cap or visor if rainy, gloves if chilly. Keep your keys and cash or an ATM card (to pay for lunch or a taxi) in a pocket, not a purse; a woman with a purse digging through the garbage gives the wrong impression. Above all, take plenty of shopping bags–the jumbo-size department-store kind are best–double bagged, folded neatly, and carried in a lightweight shoulder bag. Also take plastic bags for quarantining yucky stuff (it’s amazing the wonders mere rinsing off can perform). But beyond that, live off the land. If you need to pad something look for clothes or bedding to wrap it in–and pick items you like; no reason to take stuff you won’t want to use later.

Don’t worry about the competition. Those guys with shopping carts are looking for different stuff than you are: scavengers for aluminum cans, the homeless for warm clothes and usable food, lady Dumpster divers in station wagons for tasteless trinkets.

Don’t worry about getting out early to beat the rush. Whatever time you arrive, trash will be there. Take your time, enjoy. And don’t miss the gardens. A lot of the prettiest horticultural work in the city is in backyards visible only from the alley.

If you’re much of a recycler, you’ll see things you don’t want to see. Cans, bottles, newspapers, foam polystyrene shipping peanuts–it’s all in the trash. But what you’re doing–taking it out again–that’s patriotic, especially if you take plastics, which are produced by heavy industry (fractional distillation of hydrocarbons mined from petroleum deposits, to be exact). You’re helping rescue the earth–not to mention your apartment.

But be tough. Don’t worry about all the stuff you can’t take. It’s sad, but let it go. If you take stuff just ’cause it’s a damn shame to see it there, you’ll soon be up to your ears in stuff that you don’t like (though it would be nice for someone), stuff that isn’t your size or color, or stuff you have no use for. Then you’ll start thinking of it as junk.

The things you do decide to take, the good stuff, will make wonderful additions to your home–and at a wonderful price. Sure, some of the stuff won’t work out. You’ll get it home and it won’t fit right, or it won’t go with your furniture, or it’ll turn out to have some weird defect.

Tell me that never happens to people who shop at Field’s.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.