mad max for a day

It was the annual municipal clean-up day in my Budapest neighborhood (a.k.a the Jewish quarter) last Friday. Each district has a different date for the clean-up, when residents may throw out–non-hazardous, non-organic–waste (especially large household items) and simply pile the unwanted stuff in front of their building in the street. It is an old “tradition” loved by some, abhorred by others due to the fact that it has a tendency of turning parts of the city into an urban wasteland out of a 1980s dystopian movie. If the wind is blowing, the cinematic effect is near perfect with paper scattered all over the streets.

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Admittedly, I am a big fan of lomtalanítás (as it called in Hungarian). I enjoy seeing my neighborhood in an unusual light and I am a sucker for free vintage stuff. If one is willing to climb piles of debris, dig into unsavory looking bags and touch objects of dubious origin, one is to find amazing pieces of personal history such as letters, postcards and photos, newspapers and travel brochures from decades past as well as books, clothing, rugs, furniture and any household item imaginable. Of course, not everything is worth saving; there are things that I only photograph and leave there:

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I once found a photo taken on the 101st birthday of a woman along with her medical records and postcards written to her in front of the building next to mine. She seems to have died soon after her birthday and the family simply threw her belongings out in order to clean the apartment and sell it. I pick up such personal things out of curiosity and respect: I simply cannot bear seeing pieces of someone’s life scattered on the pavement. This time I brought home a box of slides with pictures of a family’s Christmas and skiing holiday from 1982.

Clean-up days are interesting not only in terms of the past but what they reveal about present social conditions. The system of city-wide clean-up days has been, in fact, highly controversial in recent years, which has to do both with growing poverty and with dramatically rising anti-Roma sentiments in Hungarian society. There are Roma families (especially in unemployment-stricken eastern Hungary) who survive by collecting and selling scrap metal and discarded usable household items. A unique economy has emerged around clean-up days: impressively well-organized groups (mostly families) come to Budapest days or even a week before the actual date to claim, reserve and guard buildings in desirable streets. They used to camp out in front of a given building or street section for days, but this year they rather marked the reserved territory with a hand-written or even neatly printed sign. This change of tactics is due to an increasing intolerance toward loitering and homelessness on the part of the authorities.

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Last year, I talked to the person sitting on a camping chair for five days in front of my building and he said that they mutually respect it if a building has been claimed. (I suppose it was not a coincidence that he himself was not exactly small…) Strong male family members claim the buildings in advance, the women (often with children) and older men appear on the day of the clean-up and guard the pile in front of their buildings. The group “in charge of” a given building has the right to preselect the things being dumped. Others are allowed to dig into the general pile but are not allowed to touch the things selected and set aside. One major downside of this informally emerged system is that the non-organized scrap metal and junk collectors who work alone cannot compete with the established groups. If there is a conflict on the day of the clean-up itself, it is not among groups but between a group and a lone outsider breaking an unwritten rule.

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The men drive around in their run-down trucks and vans and collect appliances and other things made of metal from the piles belonging to their group, the women set up stalls and sell retro and antique objects found among the discarded stuff for a few bucks. It varies what “stall keepers” consider sellable and what they leave in the general pile up for grabs. Some select only intact and unique objects, others try to sell chipped vases and water-damaged books.

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As a hobby waste enthusiast, I have had only good experiences with the “professionals.” I respect them and the rules of the game, and–I have the impression–they respect me for not being afraid of getting my hands dirty (even if they often wonder and ask why I pick up or photograph certain apparently uninteresting or valueless things). I am, of course, not the only “lay” person rummaging through waste, there are many others, most of them either very poor or very hip: those who need it and have no other choice and those who find it unique and different.

The dystopian chaos lasts only for one day. The garbage trucks and cleaning teams are out at the crack of dawn the next morning and life is back to normal by noon.

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This year’s might have been the very last city-wide clean-up, as there are plans to change the system–for one single reason only: to get rid of the presence of the Roma. I do hope that it is not going to happen. Cancelling the municipal clean-up out of barely veiled racism will not magically cure Hungarian social ills after all.

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