Golden Alleys

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  4/17/2003

Around dawn, the invasion begins.

Old men hobble in with canes. Mothers bring their children, whose small hands help. Immigrants come on rickety bicycles, the heavily clad homeless move in with pushcarts, even the well-off prowl the area from the commanding view of their SUVs.

All are scavengers descending on the "Golden Alleys" - what they describe as the city's most lucrative, easily accessed trash heaps.

In a given week, but especially now, as the neighborhood's wealthy residents begin their spring cleaning, the back alleys of the Back Bay attract a legion of foragers, hundreds of whom compete for anything from bottles and books to unworn clothing, jewelry, and cash.

Cruising between the BMWs and Mercedes parked along the narrow road the city calls Public Alley 418, Francisco Rodriguez pulls his bicycle by one of the corridor's many mounds of trash bags. The 42-year-old immigrant from Honduras, who has spent the past nine years fishing through the trash here, eagerly boasts about his booty: VCRs and DVDs, working laptop computers and cellphones, his bicycle and all the clothes he's wearing, diamond-encrusted jewelry, and once, he said, a pair of gloves crammed with $9,000 in cash.

"Tell me, why in the world would anyone throw this stuff out?" said Rodriguez, who used the money to buy a Greyhound bus ticket and spend three months living at a hotel in Miami. "This is the best place to come if you're poor."

Everyone who trolls these alleys has a story to tell, including the garbage men.

For them, the scavengers are like the enemy, making an already difficult job more difficult. Unlike most city neighborhoods, where trash is stowed neatly in dumpsters, residents of the Back Bay have long refused to use the large receptacles. There's just no room for them and the parking spots that are so valuable; a spot behind Beacon or Marlborough streets can fetch as much as $300 a month.

The lack of dumpsters means easy access to hundreds of trash bags,
most of which are in piles along the alleys. Around dawn on Mondays and Thursdays, collection days in the neighborhood, the scavengers arrive well before the garbage trucks, often slitting open the bags and leaving a trail of milk cartons and other rubbish littering the alleys.

"They make our lives a living hell," said Chris Buckley, 26, while tossing bags into his Waste Management truck on a recent Thursday in Public Alley 418, between Exeter and Dartmouth streets. "Sometimes we just want to throw them in the back of the truck."

The mess left by the horde of trash pickers rankles residents even more. They also complain about the ruckus: bottles breaking, loud arguments over the loot, brawls in the middle of the night. And, the city sometimes slaps residents with $25 tickets when inspectors find the alleys in disarray.

Then, there are the rats.

"It's a terrible mess, and it only makes more work for the maintenance staff," said Buddy Earle, whose Earle III management company oversees about 40 properties in the neighborhood. "But there really isn't much we can do. They're not breaking any laws, and the police won't do anything."

Of course, not all the neighbors find the scavengers such a nuisance. Some even admit to scoring their own spoils from the alleys' trash.

Mary, a 59-year-old artist who would only give her first name, said she's amazed the things she sees people toss. Once, she found a throw rug, which she now uses in her Marlborough Street apartment.

"It's like a parade here on certain mornings," she said. "But I don't mind. It brings different people to the neighborhood."

Some of the scavengers have made a business out of the trash. Jeffrey Martin, a 44-year-old native of South Boston, said he once found a good color TV. "I plugged it in at a Star Market," he said, "and it worked perfectly." Then he sold it on the street for $75. A friend of his, he said, looks for pills, specifically Percocet, which he sells for $5 apiece.

Recently, a man in a Toyota 4-Runner drove slowly down Public Alley 418, stopping to inspect a children's toy atop a black bag. In his car, bottles filled several crates.

"I'd rather not advertise this," said the man, who wouldn't give his name. "The more people who know about this, the more competition."

Shortly after he moved on, Mary Luz Cortes, her husband, and their 3-year-old son drove up in a cluttered jalopy. The 31-year-old from Dorchester said she's been picking through the neighborhood's trash since she was 12, when she would walk here with her mother.

Almost every day, she said, she finds something to bring home. On this spring day, her prize: an unopened box with what seemed to be a pricey decanter and liquor glasses.

"This is good, like a gift for us," she said, showing it off as her husband smiled.

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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