During a recent move, one of the first boxes I carefully padded and taped contained a collection of dirt-covered bottles. They’re literally garbage—I began collecting a decade ago when my friend Riley, a professional treasure hunter, found a map of Seattle’s dumps from the turn of the century. Having discovered certain bottles, depending on their age and origins, are valuable to collectors, he acquired a bottle probe, a cylinder of metal on a long slender pole. This instrument is pushed into the ground so that by tapping the pole and resting an ear against the cylinder, a treasure hunter can hear what objects underground are made of. We set out on a treasure hunt that took us to parks, roadside ditches, and one very accommodating man’s front yard.

One day, we dug a seven-foot deep hole in an especially viable dump, complete with shelves for our beers. In addition to medicine, liquor, and condiment bottles of varying vintage and rarity, we found doll parts, bones, shoes, and a variety of mysteriously intact 1940s light bulbs and syringes.

At one point, we heard a beeping sound, and emerged from the hole to find other treasure hunters had surrounded our little archeological site with metal detectors, picking up our leftovers like nurse sharks. Surprised by my hunger when I bit into a sandwich, I looked at my phone and realized we had been digging for eight hours. It was so much fun I’d never have known. We filled up the hole and walked home with our wagon of antiques, so caked with dirt the colors of our clothing were indistinguishable from each other. We passed by another friend’s apartment, and he yelled, “This used to be a nice neighborhood!” before joining us for a drink. None of the bottles I found were terribly valuable, but laying them out on the floor of the punk house where I lived then, I loved my friends and loved my life. I understood the adage that the best things in life money can’t buy.

Riley & Sarah

Riley & Sarah. Photo by Mary Anne Carter.

When Riley moved to Greenpoint, NY, to stay with his girlfriend during her photography MFA, I felt like a family member was leaving. We went for one last ride in his giant, rusty gold 1960’s boat of a car. I cried a bit, and we agreed to write to each other.

As Riley mostly detests social media and texting, it was an especially definitive departure. However, our analog correspondence turned out to be more comforting and much more fun than any possible Gchat conversation. Seeing the handwriting of someone you love can almost make you feel like they’re in the room, especially if their letter is accompanied by a smashed doll head whose metal eyeballs are rattling around inside it like gumballs. My response to the doll head was a mix CD, with special instructions on when and how it should be listened to. I remember listening to the one he sent me afterward, alone in my living room one night with a tall can of the kind so often accessory to our adventures, and though I’d just been through a particularly unwanted breakup, at that moment I didn’t feel alone at all.

Riley mostly hated NY, which surprised me. I expected him to love how old and teeming with stories the city is, its abandoned subways and archeological layers of garbage and dirt. All cities are living organisms, as are ecosystems, but some environments are much more palpable as meta-organisms than others. If Seattle is a temperate forest, New York is a tropical rainforest. I could observe the interrelated systems and symbiotic relationships on a single street corner for days. Riley liked two places there—an old cigar shop with a walk-in humidor, and the Bottle Beach on Dead Horse Bay. It made me feel special that in a place with so many things to like, he liked me enough to take time to write to me.

Mary Anne & Sarah at Bottle Beach. Photo by Marcus McDonald.

Mary Anne & Sarah at Bottle Beach. Photo by Marcus McDonald.

Sarah at Bottle Beach. Photo by Mary Anne Carter.

Sarah at Bottle Beach. Photo by Mary Anne Carter.

The Bottle Beach is where all of the garbage dumped into the water around NY over the past 400 years washes up. This beach, scattered with graffitied husks of powerboats and a mosaic of ceramics, bottles, plastic and dead horseshoe crabs, is where Riley found the doll head.

When Riley moved back to Seattle, the city seemed alive in a way it hadn’t since he left. Our adventures resumed and haven’t stopped since. I hope they never will. Last October, on a trip to NY with my girlfriend Mary Anne, I was most excited to visit the Bottle Beach he described so evocatively. I told him he planned to visit, and he gave me instructions on how to find the best treasure, bits of gold, coins and rare marbles.

It was a sunny day and bottles and shards of China glittered, for miles, it seemed, like jewels. I tried to identify the strange low-growing plants between the tall beach grass and the sand, eventually realizing they were actually decades of washed-up pantyhose. We wandered the beach for hours, climbing around the wrecked boats and picking up the most intact bottles. It was a little sad—these treasures were mixed with the chemicals that made the water too toxic to swim in.

There was something else, a weird longing—as we waited for our Uber back to Manhattan, I knew what I’d really hoped to find there was back in Seattle. No two people ever walk on the same beach, we are always apart from each other as close as we may be. I knew my real treasure was Riley, another fragile human with a life more finite than any of the beautiful discarded objects in my bag. I was eager to get home and tell him about the experience—I had no gold, but I did find a little bottle I thought he might like. I felt lucky that my walk on the beach was colored by his experience of it.

At his apartment he spread out a bag of silver he found on the Bottle Beach—really worth something, pawnable, something that could be made into jewelry. He told me he had sometimes made rent with the gold he found on the beach. I’d had no idea the place had such utility for him, and I admired that. That admiration made my old dirty bottles even more beautiful, the convergence of two lives’ Venn diagrams, something like the way a piece of glass sparkles when the sun hits it just right.



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