Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

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Photo by Ryan McClain

Photo by Ryan McClain

It was what has become a typical Monday since I was laid off. After spending a day trying to keep myself busy, I was more than happy to accompany my girlfriend on a trip to Boston Latin Academy. A kindergarten teacher, she had been given a pass to the ExCL recycling center located in the basement of Latin Academy and wanted my help carrying whatever treasures she found. Sure, it doesn’t sound like the most entertaining way to spend an afternoon. But it was a welcome break from my weekday routine.

Neither of us had ever been to ExCL — formally, Extras for Creative Learning, a nonprofit offering free supplies and materials to members including teachers, families, students, and artists. As the son of two teachers in the Boston Public School system, I’m familiar with educators’ hunger for classroom supplies and the lengths they’re willing to go to for coveted objects like pencils, notebooks, and copy paper. I had heard tales of ExCL, but as an intern-architect, I was never particularly interested in the place. It seemed to have little to do with me or my chosen profession.

After we were buzzed into the building, we made our way down a short flight of stairs to a large open room in the basement that was full of “stuff.” And I mean full. Shelves and bins lined the space, overflowing with items from yellowing lined paper, to rolls of felt, to unused pipettes. Like a combination office-supply warehouse and flea market, a collection of chairs, desks, and filing cabinets sat beside 55-gallon drums filled with rubber bands, scraps of fabric, yarn, and lemon-juice bottles — with boxes of audio cassettes, old educational VHS tapes, and CDs by unknown artists stacked in the far corner.

My initial thought was, “Where did all this stuff come from — and who’s going to use it?”

We had barely finished checking in before my girlfriend disappeared, a teacher-turned-treasure hunter abandoning me for her quest. Left to wander on my own, I was busy looking through a pile of 12″ records, hoping for a rare Sun Ra or Thelonious Monk, when a nearby shelf caught my attention. It held a pile of what I realized were manufacturers’ glazing samples — something you see all the time in an architecture office, but that I never expected to find in the basement of a Boston public school. I walked over to get a better look.

This is when things got a little weird.

Picking up the top sample, I noticed the label, which bore the name of my previous employer — the same employer who had created this window of free time for me on Monday afternoons.

Looking over the rest of the glass, I discovered that nearly all the samples had come from that same firm. I searched for more. Nearby, I found stone and tile squares, strips of wood flooring, and upholstery samples. All together, this collection would have made a respectable library for a small office.

I went looking for my girlfriend — only to find her making a pile of three-ring binders, nearly all of which came from some part of the construction industry. The spines were still labeled with the names of elevator manufacturers, construction firms, and all types of materials suppliers.

I looked back at the samples and felt an odd affinity with these inanimate objects — we were all in that basement for the same reason, all casualties of the recession. I was there because my current state of underemployment allowed me to go on scavenger hunts for recycled goods at four in the afternoon. These samples were there because firms found themselves with a rare opportunity: enough free time to clean out and organize their libraries.

As we left, we passed a sign saying, “Staff only beyond this point.” I couldn’t help but wonder if they were making room for more offerings from the design industry. Maybe I’ll suggest that they build a holding-pen for discarded junior designers and recent grads: “Young design professionals, for your creative repurposing! (Limit 2 per customer).”

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