NEW YORK — Rotting garbage piled along the curbside, decades-old furniture decaying in the rain, discarded cigarette butts everywhere you look -- New York City can be a filthy place.
To many, it's a disgusting downside of living here. But to Justin Gignac, it's treasure.
The 26-year-old spends his evenings collecting garbage, neatly packing the refuse into clear plastic cubes and selling them on his website for $50.
If the idea of displaying trash seems repulsive, consider this: He has sold more than 800 and the cubes are in 41 states and 20 countries.
"If the city ever gets cleaned up, I'm screwed," he says.
Gignac doesn't have to worry too much. On average, the sanitation department hauls away about 50 million pounds of garbage a day, and it's mostly on the street corners.
In one week, New Yorkers throw out enough garbage to equal the weight of the Empire State Building, and there's always an interesting scrap of paper or ketchup packet left squashed on the street.
Gignac considers his work art, but it's also more of a social experiment, and he's certainly not the stereotypical starving artist -- he has a day job at an advertising firm.
The idea for the cubes came to him when he was in a class at the School of Visual Arts, talking about package design.
"I think packaging is really important," he said. "You can sell anything, even garbage, if it's packaged right."
Early mornings and late nights are the best garbage-picking, before the street sweepers and residential cleaning attempts begin. Gignac throws on a pair of gardening gloves and grabs a garbage bag.
He is discerning about his trash: He collects only what's on the street, no digging into bags. Nothing slimy or wet makes it into a cube. No used condoms, latex gloves, or rotting foods. No cigars (they smell even when the box is sealed) and nothing that looks as if it could be infested with some kind of critter -- he's really squeamish.
"I know it makes no sense," the Connecticut native said. "I squeal like a girl when I see cockroaches. So why do I feel compelled to collect trash?"
Gignac has found movie scripts, handcuffs, old photos and some of model Heidi Klum's mail. Cigarette butts are most prevalent.
"You can tell a lot about the city by its garbage," Gignac says.
In Greenwich Village, there's a lot of comedy club and tattoo parlor advertisements. Times Square is rife with playbills and ticket stubs, and near universities there are a lot of political fliers. In the summer, Gignac finds more bandages because women are wearing more sandals. In winter, there are lots of coffee cups.
He takes requests and does special editions for major city events, picking up trash at events like the Republican National Convention or the World Series.
"People get crazy around playoff time," he said. "They'll take anything, a tissue on the ground near where their team was playing."
After an hour of roaming the city, Gignac lugs the bag up six flights to his immaculate and fairly spacious apartment in Greenwich Village. He lights a candle, sits on his Pottery Barn sofa and starts rifling through the bag.
The smell is surprisingly bearable, mostly because the trash is dry, and the process is fairly sterile, but there is an undercurrent of grossness about the whole thing.
Wearing his gloves, he arranges an empty coffee cup, a small red pencil, an M&M and some plastic wiring into one of his cubes -- they are about the size of a small bag of movie popcorn, leak-proof and odor-proof -- throws in his traditional label, "Garbage From New York City," then seals the box with a sticker that has the date he went out and found the trash.
He never mixes days. "I don't want my garbage-picking credibility damaged," he said.