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THE PICKER : A Woman Finds Treasure in the Trash of Balboa Island

May 11, 1990|LESLIE HERZOG | Leslie Herzog is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

She came riding through the pre-dawn drizzle into the soft glow of the Balboa Island alley street lamp. Her knee bumped into the white plastic shopping bag that swung from the handlebars as she pedaled down the slick asphalt.

"I like to go pickin' in the rain," she said as she stopped behind a duplex, eased off the seat and straddled the bike bar. She took a small flashlight from her pocket and focused the beam into an overflowing trash can. "This is like heaven. There's no competition in this weather and the pickin's are primo."

Pushing aside a food bag, she pulled an orange ski sweater from the trash can.

"Look at this," she said, holding it up. "It's practically new. And if I don't like the color, I can always dye it."

She stuffed the sweater into the bag that bulged with loot she had already collected.

"I found four pleated lampshades tonight," she said, flipping her damp hair back from her face. "I've been looking for those for a long time."

She hopped back on her bike seat and rode back into the night, weaving from side to side down the alley, stopping at three more cans before turning the corner.

Deborah Alexander used to be a homeless woman. She would canvass Newport Beach alley trash cans and dumpsters like other people go to the office. But last year, she moved into a Costa Mesa apartment and got a job as a waitress, and now her pickin' is one part recreation and hobby, another part compulsion.

"This is my only therapy, my freedom time," said Alexander, 28. "I sneak out to pick. I can't sleep unless I make at least one run. Then I go home and relish over what I got. It's like Christmas every day. Wherever there's pickin's, there's fun."

In the eyes of police, she's a scavenger, a person who digs through dumpsters or garbage pails and takes refuse illegally. In the eyes of the homeowners, she's like a cockroach that comes out at night to feed on their garbage. But in Alexander's view, she's an honest "picker" who turns one person's trash into another person's treasure.

And the pickin's are good in Newport Beach.

"These rich people throw out beautiful things instead of donating them to churches and it's a shame," she said. "All it may need is a little fixing. Once it's all shined up, other people will want it."

In the four years she has picked in Newport Beach, Alexander has found rings, diamond earrings, books with money in them, antique spool beds, silver trays, stereo equipment, Tiffany lamps, watches and a lot of expensive clothing, some with price tags still attached.

"It's plentiful out there," she said. "Some middle-class places in Costa Mesa are OK. But there's jewels in Newport, and high-tech stuff."

Yet, not everything she finds is pleasant.

"Some of the things are scary, too." She said she's been under windows where battling couples are throwing out each other's belongings and that she's found hypodermic needles mixed in the trash.

"You can really tell about a society like this," she said. "I don't go digging too deep."

Alexander's schedule and routes coincide with trash pickup days.

On Balboa Island, she usually starts at 3 a.m. to beat the trash trucks, driving down from Costa Mesa with her bike in the trunk. Working with a flashlight and wearing rubber gloves, she works her way down each alley until daybreak.

She wears a bungee cord around her neck to lash her treasures to the bike. Sometimes, she carries a knapsack and luggage carrier, all the time making frequent trips to the car to unload her booty.

And on some daytime forays, which she calls "stroller scans," she cases the alleys while pushing her son in his carriage.

"Nighttime is good," she said. "But any time can be pickin' time. No one wants to go to the store with me because it takes me an hour to go three blocks. I'm always scanning the area wherever I go."

One of the best pickin' times is Labor Day weekend, when people close up their summer homes, throwing away silk dresses and other "good pickin's." Spring cleaning months are also lucrative, and she always watches for garage sales, because people tend to throw away what they don't sell, rather than donate to charities.

Unlike other scavengers who seek recyclable items--which police in many cities cite as a problem--Alexander sticks to garage-sale type goods that she can sell or give away.

"Lots of people are doing it for lots of different reasons," she said. "Some want food; some want drugs. Some just want the cans and papers. Some are ripping people off. The last thing I'd want is to be mistaken for one of those people."

Alexander has been stopped and questioned by the police several times but has never been cited.

"It's like a domestic call these days. They just ask what you're doing. I don't go on people's private property and I don't leave a mess. I try to be courteous. If I have to wonder if it's trash or not, I don't take it, or if it's that good, I'll ask."

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