My friends and I were moving our small art space in Taipei to a new location recently, and we were on the hunt for some new furniture. On a Facebook group devoted to reuse and recycling, I spotted a photo of a decent-looking leather couch. This group posts photos of usable goods they see being thrown out on the sidewalks.
It was 1:00 AM. “Should I go?” I texted my two other main collaborators on the space. It was late, the address was in another part of town, and there was no MRT. But why not?
“I’m feeling impulsive,” I said. I hopped into a taxi.
On the way over, the taxi driver kept starting and stopping unpredictably. I felt ill on the highway, perhaps a sign of things to come. Arriving at the Nanjing Fuxing MRT station, I searched around for the exit where the couch had been sighted for a good fifteen minutes, hoping that nobody had gotten to it before me.
I eventually found it at around 1:30 AM, in front of a luxury high-rise. It was almost completely intact, and would be perfect for the new space. After chilling out for a while, since nobody seemed like they would bother me, I called up Lalamove, a 24/7 app that connects delivery drivers with customers, even for moving services. A driver was soon on his way.
When he arrived, though, the building’s night guard insisted that we could not take the sofa. The trash people were going to pick it up in the morning, he said.
“It’s only going to get thrown away,” I protested. “I can still use this!” I told him that we were young people trying to make a small art space, and we needed to pick up what we could. That this was a form of recycling and was ecological.
He insisted that it would be troublesome for the trash people to come over. I pointed out that this happens all the time—trash people are called to collect trash and arrive to find it’s already been taken away.
He insisted that it wasn’t my property. Well, it wasn’t his, either, it was just trash at this point—but he was committed to defending the trash of the rich people who had discarded it. He claimed that this sofa had been entrusted to him and so he had a responsibility to see that it was thrown away.
The truck driver, a young guy of around my age, tried to argue my case as well. Seeing as the security guard was primarily a Taiwanese Hokkien speaker, which I’m really far from fluent in, he tried to intercede on my behalf.
But no luck. The security guard started insisting that he was going to call the police if we didn’t go away. I had to laugh at that; I’ve had more than my fair share of run-ins with the Taiwanese police over my years as a journalist, and I doubt they would have bothered. In general they appear reluctant to do much of anything, frankly. When I told him that, he eventually said that if the trash people came in the morning and said I could have it, that was fine. I paid the driver—he insisted on taking only half his fee—and told him to go home and sleep, it was late.
Alright, then. By now I was rather incensed, both at rich people who throw things out, and at the people who aren’t rich, but who, like this security guard, were so bent on protecting even the garbage of rich people, and ensuring that it would end up where no one could make use of it. This security guard couldn’t be making much. Where was his compassion for a fellow member of the working class?
Did I mention that it was winter, and that it was raining? The day after all this happened was the coldest day of winter yet. All I had on me was a comparatively light jacket, since I’d originally thought I would just rush across town, grab the couch, and head back.
Heck, it was cold. But I’ve slept in Times Square or on the Keelung Harbor during winter before, when I’d missed the last train or bus and didn’t want to pay for a hotel.
Originally I’d been hoping that after an hour or so, the security guard would see that I was not giving up. He might realize how this situation could reflect badly on him, too–say, if media got wind of him making a young person with no money wait out in the winter cold until morning for a couch that had been thrown out from a luxury high-rise?
It was a kind of stand-off of pettiness, like the time a 7/11 clerk got angry at me for taking photos of hot dogs in a 7/11. I’d been amused by the fact that 7/11 offers three different types of hot dogs, two of which are instant microwaveable meals, and one of which comes on a roller—but apparently, 7/11 has a policy against taking photos of the merchandise.
Almost no store enforces the policy, but this fellow certainly did. He, too, had threatened to call the police, pretending to dial a pay phone while I laughed at him. I told him that this was the kind of thing that would end up in a tabloid like the Apple Daily, which loves to report on these kinds of stories. I meant that comment more in the spirit of “Dude, man, you have to watch out, if you do this to other people, eventually you’re going to end up in the Apple Daily.” I think he took it as a threat, though.
See, that’s the thing I can’t stand. Working-class people who are bent on carrying out the will of the rich and powerful to a T. Why were these characters trying to protect the sanctity of hot dogs, or the eventual contents of a landfill?
It really wasn’t about the couch. It was really just about this sort of class rage. Wanting to demonstrate that my will was stronger than this man’s irrational urge to defend the garbage of the rich and powerful. Man, it made me mad.
It’s not like I had anything else to do. I still had my cell phone. Believe it or not, I even wrote two articles that night, sitting out in the rain on the couch on my phone as I waited for the trash department to arrive at dawn. The security guard was as dogged as I. He came over and looked at me many times, sometimes smoking.
I had some lines rehearsed in my head, about asking him to have a bit of humanity, and how people without money cannot even take the garbage of the rich. But I didn’t say anything, in the end. Most of the time, I just glowered at him.
At 4 AM, a man on a scooter–another young person–rode by and asked if he could take the couch. I said I wanted it and explained the situation. He seemed rather aghast when I explained to him the security guard’s response, as well. At this, the security guard, who had heard, came out again and glowered at both of us.
At 5:30 AM, a bourgie-looking group of two young couples walked by. I wonder where they had come from, where they were going. Probably somewhere more fun than sitting on this couch for an entire night in the winter.
At 6:00 AM, the security guard got off his shift. He told the next security guard about the situation. But I noticed that this next security guard seemed much more friendly to me than the first guy.
6:55 AM, the trash truck finally arrived. I explained the situation and asked if I could have the couch. “What?!” said the trash man. “You should have taken it before I got here. You should always do that. Now that I’m here, I’m obligated to take it.”
This, of course, was completely counter to what the security guard had told me—that I needed permission from the trash man to take it the sofa.
At that point I hardly cared. It had never really been about the couch, and at least it’d be a story. But I managed to convince him finally, and he left.
Now to call a truck. Nobody responded at Lalamove, it was too early in the morning. But about twenty minutes later, to my surprise, the driver from before called me and said he could be there in an hour. He hadn’t slept either, apparently, and had just been driving around all night. He said he would be up for helping–and I would only have to pay him the other half from last night.
I was surprised. “So that’s how this story ends,” I thought. A heart-warming conclusion–of class solidarity between young people triumphing over trash.
Well, that’s what I thought.
Things started to go south when the driver arrived and almost immediately crashed into the sign of a scooter shop. To be sure, the sign was located unusually low, and stuck out over the road.
Things got awkward. Someone called the police, who showed up a while later; the driver explained the situation. The police left. The scooter shop owner showed up, and the truck driver explained again.
The driver asked me to go to the police station with him as a witness. Well, okay. He had been nice enough to come by to help me, and this had happened. It was now 9 AM and I had been up all night, but whatever.
In the truck, which was full of cigarette smoke, I realized my new friend was, in fact, a bit…dodgy. As we drove away, he nearly crashed again, this time into a utility pole. Also, he drove while texting with both hands and controlling the steering wheel with his elbows–and his truck had a stick shift. This was somewhat amazing, but also deeply terrifying, particularly when he got on the highway.
When we got to the police station, the police had no idea what was going on. Having Googled the relevant legal regulations, he wanted to check if he would have to pay the full damages for the sign, because the sign seemed to be lower than what was legally allowed; otherwise it should have cleared the truck.
The Taiwanese police by and large usually do not try to do anything about these sorts of disputes, and try to get the two parties to settle things on their own. I’ve even seen them do this with sexual harassment cases. It can be infuriating. This time was no different. The police sent him off to a government office to track down the legal records.
I had never been threatened with having the police called on me, only to wind up in a police station with an entirely different person–all in the course of one night. By this point, my truck driver friend had forgotten about me and my couch entirely, but I was tired and wanted out. I asked him if he could drop me off on the way.
He did that. We struggled with the couch, getting it into the space, we wished each other good luck, and then he was on his way. A part of me wanted to befriend him for the misadventures, another part of me was terrified of what I might get sucked into if I did.
I actually did run into him a few more times after that. For some reason, he happened to be the Lalamove driver who responded to me whenever we needed to move furniture. Though he always claimed to be nearby, he somehow managed to be an hour late each time. Fearing the possible consequences, I didn’t stay in touch after that. I was sure that next time it wouldn’t be a street sign that was threatened, but a pedestrian or something.
Well, I got the couch.
It’s a nice couch. Admittedly, though, I’ve already forgotten which of the couches in the space it is, since we picked up, like, five or six free leather couches in that month. You’d never believe what the wealthy just throw away.