A thing Larry Gorski has learned in more than 20 years of hauling away other people's garbage is that no one bothers to hide anything from the junk man. "You can't believe what goes on in this city," he says. The owner of one apartment he called on had stockpiled more than 500 bottles of his own urine, each neatly capped with plastic wrap secured by a rubber band. Some of it was in the fridge. Another place Gorski visited had a toilet built into a staircase. "It was on one of them wide stairs," he says. "He cut a hole, and when it flushed it just went into the basement, it didn't go into the sewer. He put a shower curtain around it so it wouldn't splash." The smell was overpowering. Worse, the man had called him out just to show him some old 78s. "I don't buy records," says Gorski.
Gorski's place of business is called Belmont Antiques, but it contains no antiques and isn't open to the public. Gorski spends very little time there himself. "I can't sit in the store. I'd have a nervous breakdown," he says. What gets him out of the shop are phone calls from people who need a house or apartment emptied out in a hurry: realtors, estate lawyers, out-of-town relatives of the recently deceased. If Gorski likes what he sees when he pays a house call, he'll pay his client as much as $200 a room for the right to take the contents away and resell them. If he doesn't like what he sees, he'll charge the client to cart the stuff to the dump.
The shop, located at Pulaski and Grace, is more of a depot. Once a week, he and his two helpers, Barbara Siemen and Art Aldmeyer, jam his '95 Ford pickup with junk there and drive 135 miles to the Shipshewana Auction Barn, in northern Indiana's Amish country. A lot of Gorski's stock goes to Amish buyers, who are not overly fastidious consumers. "They'll buy tables with three legs, dining room sets with no chairs, a china cabinet with the door broken off, 'cause they can make all the parts," he says. Because they don't use electricity, he adds, the Amish don't want standard appliances, but they're always in the market for small gasoline engines, which they adapt to various purposes. "They'll buy snowblowers, take the motor off, and throw the snowblower in the garbage."
On a recent Wednesday, Gorski had two places to visit. The first was an apartment whose occupant had gone into a nursing home. The contents had already been picked over by an antiques dealer, which was fine with Gorski. "If you got something worth a lot of money, I don't want it," he says. "Give me some old stuff people can afford. Usables--rakes, shovels, snowblowers, old tools, kitchenware."
Gorski waits for Aldmeyer and Siemen to climb into his truck, adjusts his black cowboy hat, then takes the driver's seat. Siemen started hauling junk for Gorski eight months ago. She'd worked in a liquor store for 26 years, but when the place closed she couldn't find a job and didn't have a pension. "Larry saved me," she says.
"That's a new one," says Gorski, laughing. "I saved you."
"You saved me!" she insists. "I probably wouldn't be here."
Before coming to work for Gorski last May, Aldmeyer put in 30 years as a carpet layer. "I had to stop," he says. "My knees got bad."
All three are native Chicagoans on the far side of 50, but the job takes them to parts of the city they've never seen before...or wanted to. "Some of the places we go I say, 'Barbara, you wait outside,'" says Gorski, who--despite having been held up a few times--has great faith in the protective power of his hat. "With this cowboy hat I can go places police can't go," he says. "People have respect for a cowboy."
Some of Gorski's calls are less dangerous than just plain weird. "At one house the lady had a goldfish," says Gorski. "It was bigger than the bowl. It had to be bent in the bowl! I said, 'Let me bring you a bigger bowl,' but she says 'No, don't touch my fish.'" He shakes his head. "A lot of them are nuts." Once he was summoned to a dead magician's apartment in Logan Square and got there before the hearse did. "From the way it smelled he must have been dead a week," he says. "They hadn't even taken the body out and they were already selling his stuff! I came away with a lot of top hats, some canes, 55 swords, and a box for sawing a lady in half. At auction it went to a guy who sold it to the Harry Houdini museum at Niagara Falls."
Often the junk Gorski trawls through represents a lifetime's worth of accumulation. "Some old people got this collector gene in the Depression where they think junk is money," he says. "One guy had like 5,000 fishing poles. There are collectors with 600 rolls of toilet paper, or 500 bars of soap. Guys collect wood, nails, blankets, jars, televisions--there are, like, 150 TVs piled up in the basement, none of them work."
If there's edible food in the house, Gorski takes it home. The same goes for sealed liquor bottles, even though he doesn't drink and can't legally resell it. "I got so much booze I could open a bar," he says. If there are any open bottles, Gorski breaks them by throwing them into a Dumpster. "You can't just toss them out. There'd be a liability problem if some kids found them."
Gorki is used to watching particular kinds of junk decline in value over time. Back at the shop he has several crates of baseball cards. At one time they might have fetched $60 at auction, but the last three times he put them up for sale they failed to attract a single bid. Gorski attributes the market collapse to the baseball strike of '94-'95. "Things went sour," he says. "People gave up on baseball memorabilia." Stereo receivers, LPs, and eight-tracks are even tougher to unload. "I try to give them away, but it's hard to find a taker. CDs will go that way someday--those are the baseball cards of the future."
Gorski learned the value of junk growing up in Ukrainian Village in the 50s. His father, a lithographer by trade, supplemented the family income by salvaging wood from the buildings torn down to make way for the Eisenhower Expressway. "Me and my sister would clean it, take the nails off," Gorski says. "My dad would sell the wood, and we would straighten the nails and sell them on Maxwell Street."
Gorski built homes in the DePaul area in the 70s but never liked the work. "The city, the contractors, the banks, and the paperwork, they're constantly on your back," he says. In the early 80s he moved into full-time junking, and has never looked back: "It was that or jump out a window."
Pulling into the parking lot at his first stop, Gorski and his team are greeted by Daniel Popuch, the antiques dealer who called them in. The second-story apartment they've come to clear out is located over a wholesaler of Italian beef. "Imagine if you lived here," Popuch says. "Your clothes would smell like this all the time."
"It's not so bad," says Gorski, who's smelled worse.
Popuch has already hauled away most of the apartment's contents and divided the leftovers into stuff he can sell and stuff Gorski can sell. Gorski won't pay for his goods until after he sells them; then he'll give Popuch 70 percent of his take. On more difficult jobs he keeps 50 percent.
While Aldmeyer and Siemen tote furniture to the truck, Gorski negotiates with Popuch while rolling up a rug. Popuch points to a black steamer trunk and says, "You get this." Gorski expresses interest in a framed poster, but Popuch says, "You don't get that." Gorski takes a pass on the drapes and a helmet-shaped hair dryer. "Then take that chenille bedspread," Popuch says. Gorski does.
An hour later the truck is half full and the crew is on their way to their second stop, a house in Old Irving Park. A woman there is getting rid of a Maytag wringer washer, which is a stroke of luck for Gorski. The Amish want wringer washers, he says, but only Maytags, because they were made with a special bracket designed to accommodate a gas motor. If this one looks halfway usable, he'll buy it and haul it down to Shipshewana, where he might get as much as $60 for it. If it doesn't sell, he'll end up paying the auction house a $10 fee to dispose of it, which is more practical than carting it all the way back to Chicago.
"I hate to see this stuff build up," Gorski adds. "I don't want to die and leave a lot of junk for my kids to throw out."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.