Like the love poem scrawled on the back of a phone-message slip.
Trashballs are transparent one-inch plastic orbs that contain objects including found snapshots and poems, business cards, and transit tickets.
One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Two-Bit ‘Trashball’
WASHINGTON, April 28 — Christopher Goodwin doesn’t collect trash. He curates it.
Many afternoons find Mr. Goodwin kneeling on some gritty sidewalk here, appraising a faded A.T.M. receipt, a tuft of dryer lint, the scraps of a torn-up letter. Neat streets he doesn’t mess with. His own neighborhood is a bore. “It’s obscenely clean,” he says dismissively.
Litter speaks to Mr. Goodwin, 37, a studiously disheveled art school dropout, and, to his patrons, apparently, who drop their quarters into a couple of gumball machines around town that dispense plastic capsules containing pieces of trash personally selected by the artist.
Tom Jennings — who as a child bought miniature football helmets from similar machines — estimated that in the last year he bought 50 of Mr. Goodwin’s capsules, called Trashballs.
“There’s an element of gambling to it,” said Mr. Jennings, 42, a data technician. He has cracked open the orbs to find ephemera as varied as a crumpled-up Polaroid snapshot from the 1970s, a Danish coin and a canceled 1981 stamp from the African nation of Djibouti.
Trashball started as a quirky art installation at a bar here in late 2005, and has since inspired a surprising number of devotees. More than 3,000 Trashballs have been bought.
Success has not changed Mr. Goodwin. Though he has recently announced on his blog that he will ship internationally, he is not raising his price of 25 cents a Trashball. (He pays about 4 cents each for the capsules.) Nor does he plan to quit his day job as a truck driver for a junk hauler.
His boss, Frank Coyne, admires Mr. Goodwin’s commitment to recycling. But the volume of trash transferred from the company truck to Mr. Goodwin’s car sometimes makes Mr. Coyne scratch his head.
“It sort of hit home why he took a job like this,” Mr. Coyne, the owner of Junk in the Trunk, in Chevy Chase, Md., said of Mr. Goodwin, who previously worked as a contract-proposal editor for a military contractor. “He’s not your usual trash hauler.”
Though some admirers see Trashball as a critique of America’s wasteful ways, Mr. Goodwin views it as archeology, a divination of who people are from what they leave behind, even if it is just because they are too lazy to toss it in a wastebasket.
High-intrigue junk — like the yellowed pair of wisdom teeth he recovered in Maryland — or items too big for a Trashball capsule are posted on his blog, guyclinch.blogspot.com.
“I’m interested in being able to construct a story around someone’s life based on their refuse,” he said on a recent afternoon at Busboys and Poets, a cafe and bookstore with a Trashball machine wedged between the men’s and women’s restrooms. “The most important thing for me is the secret history of objects.”
Like the love poem scrawled on the back of a phone-message slip. The Western Union telegram dryly announcing the birth of a baby boy, 9 pounds, 7 ounces. The page from a girl’s diary that abruptly segues from softball games and Easter gifts to a series of stark phrases: “Today mom was mean. I am sad mom hit me a lot. I am sore all over Dad is in California.” Though some Trashballs are commentary and others a snapshot of some stranger’s life, many hold just trash: candy wrappers, ketchup packets, cigarette butts.
“One man’s trash is another man’s trash,” Mr. Goodwin warns on signs atop the Trashball machines. “Still ... you might get something good.”