Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Cardboard Condo

But what will happen when the rain comes?

A few weekends back, on one of the first truly warm and sunny ones of this spring, I happened to swing by our local thrift store the dumpsters across from the University. There was a full scrum in progress as people rooted and poked and ferreted out treasures from the bins, which were piled sky high with a winter's worth of refuse and goodies.

My first hint that I should not have left the digital camera home came when I approached the transfer station on University Avenue only to find traffic slowed to a crawl in the right hand lane as cars and trucks queued to make the turn. Within, all was madness - dumpster divers mobbing loaded trucks even before their wheels ceased turning. Heads were bobbing around deep within the towering piles of junk, and clothes, cushions, and what all were being flung with wild abandon at the recycle platform (I use the word recycle loosely, because more and more the platform is just a plein air trash heap).

In the midst of all this chaos, parked over to the side, was the Cardboard Condo - the latest creation of one of the transfer station's more colorful, persistent and creative characters. The Prophet, as some call him, was comfortably sitting under an awning of cardboard, much as one often sees retirees resting in the shade of their scroll-out awning at the end of a long day of navigating the 35-foot land yacht.

This was the first time I encountered the Prophet's latest construction project. Since then, I have watched with interest, as no doubt many Squarebanksans have, as the Cardboard Condo develops into the Cardboard Train: a series of shopping carts filled with cardboard boxes and pieces that he wheels up and down University Avenue. The train appears to be getting longer and longer, but its longevity, either as art or as shelter, is tied to the current dry spell we are enjoying.

Certainly more durable was the willow wicket period he went through several years back. Then he fashioned a quite elaborate bent willow receptacle that he put on wheels and used to collect the odd bits and pieces with which he furnishes his digs in the woods behind the transfer station.

My personal moniker for him is Burlap Man, born of a time, oh, about 10 years ago, when he wore a burlap serape-like affair and burlap boots - even in the coldest weather. He is given to Biblical utterances and rantings - and can become agitated and aggressive if one approaches a dumpster that he has claimed as his own.

As in any place, there are untold stories in the woods of Fairbanks. Once upon a time a young child froze to death in a tent. It wasn't madness nor poverty that drove the parents to live in a tent on the edge of the city within a stone's throw of shelter, food and warmth. It was arrogance, hubris and self-aggrandizement - the conviction of a particular man that he had the skills and wherewithal to live off the land in a canvas tent through a harsh Fairbanks winter.

The irony is that, of course, now he does, and has been doing so for well over a decade.

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