Bella Fontana

A weekly column about life in Bellefonte, PA, reprinted from the Centre Daily Times

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Riff-raffing is a trash tradition

Donald Trump may think he has perfected the art of the deal, but I reserve that honor for riff-raffers, the folks who cruise the streets in their trucks and vans the night before the borough's bulk pickup.

They don't just get things at a good price; they get them for free.

As soon as residents start dragging their stuff out to the curb, the riff-raffers are there, sizing up other people's trash with a practiced eye. Some of them specialize in appliances or scrap metal or building materials. Others are generalists: They go for variety.

Last year, I had everything out by late afternoon -- the rickety office chair, the Selectric typewriter still in semi-working condition, the wicker porch furniture -- and the riff-raffers passed all of it up.

I felt rejected. My stuff was not good enough.

Long after dark, I could hear the trucks going past. By morning, some of my items had disappeared, but not the office chair or the typewriter. And along the way, I had gained a dust buster.

Twenty years ago, when I moved out of my apartment and bought a home, I heard the buzz on the street that the borough would be picking up riff-raff the next week. I had a different meaning of the word in mind then, more like the way I look hiking around town in sneakers and a hooded sweatshirt.

I discovered that riff-raffing is an honorable tradition in this town, maybe a cut above dumpster diving, though I have been tempted in that direction more than once myself. Call them salvagers or scavengers or even gleaners, riff-raffers are an important part of the recycling chain in our throwaway society.

The other day when I was in the Bellefonte Variety Store at the corner of Pike Alley and North Allegheny Street, I asked Mrs. May, owner and manager with her husband, how the shop cats, Riff and Raff, got their names.

She said the family was sitting around the campfire one night trying to think of names for the two strays they had just acquired. They played around with names of appliances, since that was the business they were in, but when her daughter-in-law came up with Riff and Raff, the names seemed just right. Some of the family members were riff-raffers themselves.

Like the cats who have found a new home, I am hoping that someone this year will have a home for a tiki light, a vintage TV set and almost all the parts of a gas barbecue grill.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Tiny things hit home in big ways

A Saturday in town could be just an ordinary day or, if you add it all up, an extraordinary one filled with pleasures that defy the putdown implied in the word "feel-good."

May 7, was that kind of Saturday for me.

First thing in the morning, a boy in a baseball uniform came to the door collecting for Little League. His father smiled from the sidewalk as I asked, "Are there girls on the team? Do they get to play?"

When he answered "yes" to both questions, I stuffed a dollar in his canister, thinking of the old days when the game was strictly for boys.

At the market, the bakery lady ran after a customer who had asked for sticky rolls. She had found one last package in her van and was happy to sell it to him. The egg lady eyed my torn jeans, which she could use for a rug she is weaving out of old ones -- as soon as I find time to get a new pair.

Cutting through the cemetery, I wondered why the caretaker stopped his mower. He wanted to make sure that nothing got thrown out at me from the blade.

On Howard Street, I looked over items at a yard sale and found out from the homeowner how to identify good cast iron. I may make a fortune yet.

Back on my street, two little boys took turns with a bike. One was barefoot -- a sure sign of warmer weather after a bone-chilling spring.

At evening services, Deacon Tom read a letter to mothers everywhere, thanking them for all the little things they do. And little things are what this day was all about, at least until I got home at 6 p.m. to watch the Kentucky Derby.

Jeremy Rose, riding Afleet Alex, the sentimental favorite to win, fought his way to what looked like the lead. As everyone now knows, he came in third in a breathtaking finish.

When I had Jeremy in senior homeroom, I missed him one morning when I took attendance. He came up to me later and said, "Mrs. Bechdel, you marked me absent this morning. I was there."

It's true. I didn't see him in the back of the room that day, but I couldn't miss him in his green-and-gold jockey silks riding a gorgeous horse in the country's biggest race.

For one Saturday in May, it was great to look past the irony and suspicion of our times and enjoy life's simple pleasures without apology.