Overland Park & Leawood

Caravan of collectors trolls JoCo streets before heavy-trash pickup days

The safe lies somewhere in the middle of a flatbed full of washers, wheels, furniture and various discarded metal.

It is not the biggest item of the day of searching for metal at the curbsides of Overland Park. But it is by far the most exciting. Chris Queen, who with wife Nancy and daughter Heather strained to lift it up onto the truck, can hardly stop thinking about it.

The people putting things out on their driveway for the biennial large-item pickup day offered it almost as an afterthought. It had been obtained from a storage unit a while ago, but never opened, they said.

“That safe is the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me while we were scrapping,” said Queen, of Overland Park.

Scrapping is the word for it. Or junking. But never garbage picking or dumpster diving. There is no contact with kitchen scraps or any of the foul things most people think of as garbage. One recent weekend was one of Overland Park’s large-item pickup weekends — one of several arranged by various Johnson County cities for residents who want to get rid of items too big and bulky for normal trash days.

Large-item pickup only happens once a year or once every other year for most neighborhoods. Most of the time that day is a Saturday. But often, the refuse is out on Friday. On that magical night, all kinds of items — toys, fencing, office furniture, even a few appliances that work — are available for the taking. It’s a kind of curbside Christmas Eve for scrap metal seekers, second-hand curio dealers and even a few dilettantes just looking for replacement lawn furniture.

To spend an evening out on large-item eve is to view capitalism at its most basic. People with more money than time throw out items that often have the potential to be fixed up and used again, or broken down for scrap metal. People who have weathered layoffs, furloughs and wage cuts, or who just want to make enough to afford a vacation, scoop them up and, if they’re lucky, make a good profit.

The big trash days start in April with Merriam and continue through the spring. With careful planning, a determined scrapper can go out almost every weekend during that time.

The flatbeds heaped to the gills with lawn chairs, bicycles and refrigerators may be the most common sight, but junk hunters come from all walks. Bill Hooking, a retired schoolteacher, looks for good wooden boards that can be transformed into benches and tables to be sold at a friend’s Ottawa antique store.

Marianne Ross and her daughter, Katy Ross of Overland Park, had a similar plan for the old wooden door they were trying to lash onto the roof of their small car. The Rosses have a booth at The Ridge Antique Mall in Shawnee, where they sell vintage items and antiques.

Marianne points out a painted wooden chair they’ve already loaded into the back seat. The paint is yellowed and cracked, “a wonderful patina,” she says. They won’t have to do much more than clean it up a bit.

A Paola man, who did not want to give his name, carefully goes over a curbside pile in search of things he can fix up and resell at one of his garage sales. Windows repurposed as dry-erase boards and refinished furniture usually bring in $1,500 to $2,000 per sale, he said. One year, he made enough money to go on vacation to North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Then there are the people who are experiencing the darker side of capitalism but are optimistic enough to put in backbreaking hours to improve their situations. Mauricio Lozada of Lenexa is one of those. “I’m trying to survive the economy like everybody else,” he says as he and nephews Glen and Steve Robinson of Overland Park, wrestle a lawn mower onto an already crowded truck.

Lozada, an apartment groundskeeper, will have to unload his haul to make room for more items on a trip back. But that’s OK. It’s still early, and one trailer full will bring about $130 at the metal recycler in Kansas City, Kan. “It’s my vacation day,” he says with a smile.

Kristina Lee of Blue Springs goes out with her family most weekends. On a recent day, her mother, Brenda Hastings of Raytown, drove as Kristina, her son Keaton Kennedy, 15, and his girlfriend Autumn Nagrete helped search the curbs and load the bounty. Grandbaby Kase Kennedy rode along in a back seat.

Lee recently lost a job at a criminal records center and her mother was laid off from her job as a casino waitress in 2008. Now the family pulls together, delivering newspapers, shopping estate sales and storage lockers, hoping for a decent find. Brenda also drives a school bus.

“I started doing this because of my two older children,” said Lee. “My oldest got into some trouble as a latchkey kid, and my second-oldest was headed down that road,” she said. Worried about the third child, “I just decided to suck it up and live more mediocre to be with the kids.”

Thoughts of what could be in that safe are all the more tantalizing for the Queens because of their own hard times. Chris is a mechanical engineer who removes X-ray equipment from hospitals, but business has been slow, he said. Nancy graduated nine months ago from training to be a certified nurse’s assistant and has done home health care and child care. She’d like to continue in nursing school, but for the time being that is out of the question.

Right now, her main job is working the morning shift at a Burger King. She and her daughter are also exploring the idea of their own business, Cake Pops and Flip Flops, getting their name out there by supplying school parties.

“We are just very poor,” she said. Utility shutoff to her home is a real possibility, she said.

It’s not something Nancy Queen dwells on, though. In fact, she often talks about what a blessing large-item pickup days have been.

“It’s not my dream job, but I’m just thankful for the opportunity because we have been unemployed and in a bind. It’s a blessing to be able to go out and do this extra,” she said.

So what does it take to be a scrapper? First of all, optimism. Despite the long hours in the heat, the scrappers are generally upbeat about their prospects. If there’s nothing in one pile, well, the one around the corner could be the mother lode. An evening of hunting can go from bleak to awesome in a matter of minutes, if you’re lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

The first big hit on this recent night out in northeastern Overland Park was a dismantled metal storage shed brought to the curb by Mark and Judy Goodwin. The Queens load it onto the flatbed and thank them enthusiastically. The Goodwins warn them to beware of the black widow spiders they thought they saw when they were tearing it down.

The shed proves to be the icebreaker, with the spiders providing a little gallows humor. Soon, Nancy is jogging up to knock on the door of a house where a humidifier looks like it may be on its way to the curb. Phone numbers are exchanged and, after a bit of chatting, Nancy returns to report that the humidifiers have been spoken for by another scrapper. But the lady of the house may have a washing machine later.

“Nancy is a force of nature,” says Chris. “I tell them at church she’s like a snowball. She rolls downhill and people stick to her.”

Within a few blocks, Nancy and Heather are eyeing the “fine furnishings,” their tongue-in-cheek name for discarded furniture. Although they are primarily out for metal, they’ll often stop for something that would be a good gift for any of their eight grandchildren. Nancy said she’s furnished much of her house with findings from large-item pickup.

To Nancy and Heather, this “treasure hunting” is the most fun of the night, but Chris scoffs a bit as they look over a pile of board games for the kids. This is taking time and space on the truck that could better be spent on stoves and washers.

“You scare me,” he jokes. “You ever watch that hoarders show?”

But treasures come in different forms. A few doors later, a resident was rolling the safe out on a dolly.

It is smallish — about the size of a large microwave oven — black and heavy, with a combination. Chris points out a few scratches and dents on the front, where someone has tried to open it and apparently given up.

From the moment the safe enters the picture, speculation begins. How should it be opened? A blowtorch? Cut off the hinges? He jokingly considers the stethoscope method used by countless yeggs in old movies. “The thing about that is, you have to know what you’re listening for.”

But with his training dismantling X-ray machines, Chris is confident he can eventually see what’s inside.

For the rest of the night, Chris allows himself to daydream. Maybe it’s full of bearer bonds. Or diamonds. A million dollars, maybe.

Or, more likely, he says, he’ll open the safe only to find one piece of paper inside. On that paper will be the combination.

Whatever is inside, the safe will go down in scrapper lore as one of the epic finds. Metal hunters have many stories about particularly good hauls. There was that night the Lees were looking to replace their broken dryer. For hours, nothing. Then at 9:30, just as they were getting ready to call it a night, they turned up a working washer and dryer.

There are all kinds of stories about good treasure nights. The gold necklace found inside a discarded box, the collector’s-item Xbox and controller, the seven barbecue grills, the box full of remotes that sold for $1,000. “Last year I got a beautiful oak dresser. That’s what I would call a treasure,” Nancy said.

Nancy and Chris figure their best night ever brought in $944. The Lees say their best night was around $1,780.

Most of that comes from the metal, which brings about $150 a ton at the recyclers, said Chris. Copper is another matter. It’s about $2.76 a pound, so most scrappers take pains to pick up anything that might have copper tubing and to cut cords off vacuums and televisions. Of course the cords bring less at the recycler because of the insulation still on them. But if you collect a 50-gallon barrelful it can still add up to something, Chris said.

There are many stories of kindness as well. Despite a reputation — deserved or not — of suburban disdain for the pickers, the homeowners on this recent outing were nothing but friendly.

Lozada told of a woman who brought out a working microwave for the house he hopes to someday buy. She then went back in for some toys and even some Gatorade, he said.

Kristina Lee has a similar story. At one house where they were picking up a lawn mower, the homeowner came back out with a covered dish of eggplant casserole, she said.

The Lees follow big trash days wherever in the area they may happen. But large-item days are rarer on the Missouri side. Johnson County, however, has always been a bountiful hunting grounds, Brenda and Kristina agreed. Some of the best items can be had in wealthier subdivisions in Overland Park’s southern reaches, they said.

“They actually throw so much good stuff away — a lot in hopes somebody will want it and use it,” said Brenda Hastings. The Lees like a particular subdivision in Blue Valley that they believe is unknown to other scrappers. “They throw some absolutely good high-dollar furniture out there to the curb,” Brenda said.

The Queens’ favorite neighborhood? That’s an easy one. Nancy loves to hunt around the area where she grew up, the area she’s working tonight. Northeastern Overland Park. The evening’s drive is punctuated by taps on the horn to people who know their truck or friends walking down the street.

Of course, it also helps to have a lot of stamina. Scrappers start mid- to late-afternoon on Friday or even Thursday before pickup day, to get the jump on the competition. And sometimes they continue on into the night, as more people put their items at the curb.

The Lees make a family outing of it, packing up a sack lunch and heading out for the day. There have been times when they’ve even found a quiet place to sleep in their truck, rather than make the long drive back to Blue Springs half empty.

Nancy Queen also says she’s stayed out long into the night on occasion. Once, when she was out late by herself, she came across a cast-iron bathtub. But she couldn’t lift it herself. So she had to wait for family reinforcements.

That episode kept her out until after 1 a.m. But she still had to be up at 4 to open up the Burger King.

But the scrappers and treasure hunters emphasized that they wouldn’t be going to all this trouble if it wasn’t fun. While the children were skeptical at first of their parents’ scrap collecting, they came to embrace it once they found out how much good stuff is out there, said both the Lees and the Queens

And they enjoy the time together, said Kristina Lee. “We get really funny and crazy.”

Scrapping is not without its rules and etiquette. Don’t take something further back on a driveway without asking. Offer to help people haul their stuff out. Don’t be too noisy at night. And above all, don’t leave a mess on the lawn for the residents and the haulers to deal with the next day.

“I don’t understand the people who tear apart the televisions,” said Kristina. There is so little recyclable material inside the sets that it’s not worth the time, she said.

But although many of the same people come out week after week, there is no easygoing fraternity of scrappers. In fact it’s quite competitive.

“Sometimes it gets pretty vicious,” said Brenda Hastings.

“They’ll run a stop sign in front of you just to get to it first,” agreed her daughter, Kristina Lee.

“Oh, yeah. They’ll run you off the road,” Brenda said.

Things got especially competitive in the years after right after the housing and banking collapse, Nancy Queen said. At that time, there were more pickers on the streets just as people were hanging on to their appliances a little longer. But this year, things are beginning to turn around, perhaps because an improved economy means more people feel they can afford to replace old appliances, she said.

Almost everyone mentions the environmental aspect of scrapping. Scrappers were proud that they were keeping items out of the landfill while also making a little money.

It’s a fact the city of Leawood seized upon three years ago when it rebranded the event the “large item recirculation day.” The pickup day, overseen by the parks department, works basically the same way as large trash days do in other cities, but with a bigger acknowledgement to the recycling aspect.

Leawood residents are encouraged to put out bulky items that are at least in good enough shape to be fixed up and reused, with the idea that anyone can go by and take it. What’s left is taken by a trash hauler.

It’s been pretty successful so far, said Brian Anderson, superintendent of parks. The city pays by the ton for what’s hauled away. So far this year, that’s amounted to about $600. That’s for a quarter of the city and only includes reusable items. The city won’t pick up other items — like fencing or that metal shed the Queens picked up — on recirculation day. Homeowner’s associations take care of arrangements for those types of things, Anderson said.

But tight city budgets and changes in what can go into the county landfill make the future of large-item pickup days uncertain. Lenexa, for instance, recently got rid of the city-organized big trash days after a review of all its collection policies. Now, individuals or homeowner’s associations must make their own arrangements for large item pickup. Haulers doing business in Lenexa are required to provide one free pickup day a year as part of their contract with the city, but the city no longer reimburses them for it.

In Overland Park, the city spends about $120,000 per year to have unwanted large items hauled off, said Jim Twigg, environmental programs coordinator. “We look at it as an opportunity to help residents keep their property clean and well maintained,” he said. Anything picked up by scrappers is something the city won’t have to pay for, since it reimburses haulers by the ton.

Deffenbaugh Industries, which has often contracted with cities to haul away leftover big items, will recycle large items such as refrigerators, but not the bicycles, grills and other small metal items, said spokesman Tom Coffman.

But changes in equipment and manpower have made big trash day harder on collectors, he said. Deffenbaugh recently went to a side-loading truck run by a driver. But that won’t work for appliances, he said.

Now the smaller fleet of rear-loading appliance trucks gets overworked during big trash days, Coffman said.

“This kills us now,” he said. “It’s hard on the people and hard on the trucks.”

The weekends go on through the county pretty much without a break in springtime. “Meanwhile it’s getting hotter and hotter and our guys are getting worn out,” he said.

Coffman said an arrangement like Lenexa’s allow haulers more flexibility about when they do the pickups.

The Queens stop to drop off part of their load around sunset, before they regroup to head out again. There’s still enough time to bring in a lot more stuff. The safe goes someplace where it can be locked up until Chris can get at it.

The contents are unknown. So for a while at least, it can exist as a boon and a disappointment at the same time, the stuff of daydreams.

A mystery box of hope.

Every daydream must eventually come to an end, and so it was with the safe. The Queens did eventually get it open. It did not contain bearer bonds. It did not contain diamonds.

When they finally opened the box, they found a canvas sack. And in it...

Cat litter.

Or at least some sort of grit resembling cat litter. Nancy is not sure. “Nobody’s saying, ‘Whoopee, we’re rich,’” she said.

But that’s OK. Treasure hunting is a thing she’s enjoyed since she saw her dad bring home odds and ends when she was a kid. And besides, the family ended up last week with a nice new stove and a working dryer for her daughter.

“We’ve just been blessed.”