The Secret Value of Junk

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It's Saturday morning in Half Moon Bay. I'm cruising a few garage sales with my son, who is almost 10 years old. This being Half Moon Bay, the weather is foggy and cool. Everything you touch is damp.

At one driveway I linger checking out a stereo receiver, but eventually I pass. Now where's my son?

I find him at a table of garbage: common rocks, used nails, rusty cans, scraps of chain. An old guy with stubble beard and wool cap is watching my son's every move.

The boy fingers each item, frowning, pondering, curious. The old man's face reacts to each touch. The boy fondles a bedspring; the old man smiles. The boy rattles a coffee can filled with screws; the old man listens. The boy disdainfully drops a dirty hinge; the old man flinches.

Like everyone else at the sale I gave the offerings only a glance -- but my son and the old guy are on exactly the same wavelength.


After a long study, my son selects four springs from ballpoint-pen size to bedspring size, and one thin chain.

The old guy gives thought to the price, rubbing his chin, clearly not wanting to take advantage of the boy but also not wanting to give away what might be his only sale of the day. Finally he says, "A buck. That's two bits each for the springs, and I'll throw in the chain for free."

I hand the man a dollar.

The springs and chain will never be used. I think we all know that. What I am paying for is what I am too practical to understand, a dollar for the great mystery of hardware, for the encounter between two minds, one old and one young, who share a magic bond: they know the secret value of junk.
With a perspective, this is Joe Cottonwood.

Joe Cottonwood is a general contractor and author of fiction and poetry. He lives in La Honda.