Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Boxing Day

Lewis Thomas lab (blocking view of dumpsters)

On days when I am able to complete my swimming laps and the post-swim ablutions expeditiously I am able to catch the 7:53 campus shuttle bus leaving the so-called “South Campus” stop en route to the Butler Apartments, where the bus either terminates or begins, depending on one’s perspective, about a hundred and fifty yards from my front door.  What a convenience!  If I have a minute or two to spare I am able to raid the dumpsters just behind the Lewis Thomas lab to pick up an excellent cardboard box or two.
            I shall return to the cardboard boxes in just a minute, after pausing to note an important personal anniversary.  I have now completed a half-century of dumpster-diving on the Princeton campus.  Leaving aside those near the dining halls, academic dumpsters are of course somewhat different from those dotted around industrial parks.  The bonanza time is the end of the spring semester, with graduating seniors wanting to exit swiftly and travel light.  Over the past fifty years I have gathered, literally and metaphorically, the materials one would need to write an economic and social history of my age. 
            For instance one can reify in material culture the social leavening of the Princeton student body, and no doubt that of many other institutions often regarded as socially elite.  In my earliest years here a celebrative senior threw out of his windows high in Witherspoon Hall an eighteenth-century chair, possibly a real Chippendale.  Naturally it smashed upon impact, demonstrating in a single act a combination of philistinism and stinking affluence probably unreproducible today.   I can also vouch for the truth of the following story.  A graduate student in art history, who lived in the undergraduate dorms in Wilson College during my first stint as master there, found discarded in one of the Commencement dumpsters an unequivocally genuine Piranesi print, one of the gloomiest of the famous “Carceri” series devoted to the horrors of imaginary dungeons and prison cells.  It had a very slight tear just starting along one edge.  There was a smear stain from what appeared to be ketchup on the backside, but the paper was of such high quality that it did not show through.

            I could also write an essay on the rise of the Chinese export economy and the growing power of the American big box store.   Television sets, small appliances of every kind, dollar store cookware and crockery, every imaginable storage receptacle made of plastic or imitation wood veneer—these things overflow from the garbage bins.  Twenty years ago bookcases made of two-inch boards and cement blocks became all the rage.  I was able to scavenge enough cinderblock to lay a foundation four feet wide and fifty feet long for a particularly impressive section of the stone wall in my garden.  Now the abandoned bookcases are usually IKEA prefabs.
            However what I mainly collect these days is cardboard boxes.  I use these for storing various things, especially the steady stream of incoming books for which there is nary an inch of space on my open shelves.  I also use them as containers for my own domestic paper trash, to be collected from the street in front of my house.  Since almost everything manufactured seems to be more shoddily made than in years past, it isn’t surprising than even the cardboard box is not what it once was. It was with surprised delight, therefore, that I came upon the dumpster behind the Lewis Thomas labs.  Thomas, a famous doctor and writer, was a Princeton graduate; and our university honors his memory in its impressive and jaw-droppingly expensive molecular biology operation.  The study of molecular biology obviously requires a certain amount of valuable and fragile equipment, which in its turn requires careful packing to protect it from the robust mediation of UPS and FedEx.  So you can still find a cardboard box with aspirations to be a cedar chest if you dig around the midden of an academic laboratory,
            One of my favorite boxes is less grand.  It is a very solid and conveniently sized (10x10x15) specialty of the Microflex Corporation of Reno, Nevada.  In it no fewer than one thousand latex examination gloves, packed in ten boxes of one hundred each, leave their Malaysian sweatshop to wend their way (via the Biggest Little City in the World) to such places as the Lewis Thomas laboratory at Princeton University.  I am not entirely unacquainted with this forbidding prophylactic apparel, which I associate with the less pleasant features of my periodic visits to the urologist.  I am glad to say that it is the empty boxes, not the used gloves themselves, that show up in the recycling dumpsters.

            Speculation concerning what, exactly, our undergraduates are doing with two or three thousand ambidextrous diamond-grip latex gloves per week would be unseemly.  Yet it must be permissible to ponder the motto of the Microflex Corporation, proudly printed on their boxes: The Most Trusted Name in Gloves.  I’ve never really thought about the names of gloves in terms of trust before.  In fact I can’t think of too many gloves that even have names.  A catcher’s mitt is generally safe.  I suppose Isotoners are reliable to a point—that point being about 15 degrees Farenheit.  You can absolutely count on a velvet glove having an iron hand to go with it.  How about Ellegants?  If that’s not a name, it should be.