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Frugal Treasure Hunters Furnish Apartment

by Guest Contributor Shaun Randol, originally published in the Queens Tribune

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Sarah and I have been living in New York for two years now, albeit in university housing. As such, we had no need for the goods of everyday American living—standard furnishings like bed, dresser and microwave were provided. And since cramped dormitories hinder the collection of stuff, moving into our new one bedroom apartment in Astoria felt like a move from rags to riches. With hardwood floors, an actual stove, and a hallway separating the bedroom from the living room, our new digs is a veritable mansion.

We hardly considered, however, that moving into a new apartment costs more than just the three month’s worth of rent due upon signing a lease. For newly minted graduates, moving in often means starting from scratch—buying furniture (bed, table, chairs) cleaning supplies (broom, toilet brush, Windex) and the accoutrement of a wellstocked kitchen (spoons, ketchup, sugar) takes money. Having just come out of graduate school with degrees and a pile of student loans, we are, to put it mildly, financially strapped. Furnishing a new apartment then, is a costly task—one that tests patience and inspires creativity.

One of the great pleasures of moving into a new apartment comes with, ironically, the amount of work required to make the place “home.” Arranging dishes in the cupboard, deciding where to hang posters and dusting off books for the bookshelf, while sometimes tedious and laborious, are satisfying tasks.

For us, however, this pleasure was short-lived.

It took less than a day to move in and put all of our belongings in their proper places, which, in essence, just meant putting our boxes in this or that corner.

Since we’re both broke, that leisurely shopping spree to K-mart is out of the question. We now realize how much of everyday American living (and consumption) is taken for granted. For example, it was two weeks before we were able to purchase a shower curtain. Prior to that, a cardboard box lined the bathroom floor and acted as both floor mat and sponge to sop up the water splashing from the shower. Even now, six weeks in, our bedroom has no curtains; a combination of paper, bed sheets, and duct tape makes for suitable, if motley, window shades.

It was a challenge, that’s how we saw it.

“We’ve done pretty good for ourselves so far,” Sarah says, sitting on one of our new (used) chairs. “Free. Free. Free. Free. Free,” she announces, pointing to the coffee table, microwave, bookshelves, four chairs, and a butcher block-kitchen-rack combination. She’s right. Slowly our apartment has morphed from a squatter’s hideaway to what we proudly think of as home. This is due in no small part to the throw-away life-style of our neighborhood. We viewed ordinary material goods—bookshelves and chairs for example—as luxury items, while our neighbors, thankfully, saw the same as, well…trash. Sarah and I now know the true meaning of “one man’s trash, another man’s treasure.”

Friday is trash day; ergo Thursday night brings a goldmine of free treasure. Walking home from the train on one Thursday evening I found a chrome trash can, a shower caddy and a well-used floor fan—the cast aside detritus of what we only half-jokingly deride as an affluent, throwaway society (after all, we want the same stuff!). Not every potential find is a keeper, however. One night, for example, I was tempted to take home a toaster oven that had been tossed to the curb, but I could not determine if the urine smell was coming from it or the couch it was propped against.

I left the toaster.

But our proudest furniture find came on our first morning in the neighborhood. We awoke (on a borrowed air mattress) and headed for the grocery store. Halfway down the block we came upon a coffee table, seemingly straight out of an Ikea catalog, sitting on the sidewalk. Dumbfounded, we quickly snatched it up and scurried back home. It’s amazing what one can do with a coffee table.

Throw a towel on it: drying rack for dishes.
Remove the dishes: instant ironing board. Remove the towel altogether: dining table.
Remove dinner: Scrabble board.

Sarah is adept at fashioning shelving out of disassembled, discarded furniture and milk crates. Her assemblage of plastic crates and a mélange of elongated, particle boards into a bookshelf is remarkably attractive architecture—low-slung and long, it resembles a 1970s stereo cabinet.

We have come a long way in making our first apartment into a comfortable home, but more needs to be done. For now, we will forsake purchasing lamps in order to refill our Metro Cards. We’ll pine for a real bed and scrimp for an internet connection. In the meantime, a house down the road is being renovated, and I’ve got my eyes on a discarded door—I think it would make a fine dining table.

Fortunately for us, we’ve already found the chairs.

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