Interviewsand Articles


Conjure Woman : Mongo Notes

by Cindy Hawkins Legorreta, Dec 21, 2019



Meredith Sabini’s story, “The Dumpster” [w&c #16] touched a lot of readers—Cindy Hawkins Legorreta, for example. Cindy sent me a note describing her passion for prowling the streets of NYC in search of castaway treasures. She sent a photo of herself "goofing  at the textile bin" of Wearable Collections, where she has volunteered for over 15 years. Cindy was, I learned, a veteran scrounge and master at the art of mongoing. Was I familiar with the term? She explains... — R. Whittaker

Mongo, for the uninitiated, is New York Sanitation Dept. slang for finding objects in dumpsters. It’s used also as a verb: “Hey, look what I mongoed!”
     I’ve been involved with textile rescue here in NYC for many years and never cease to be amazed what dumpsters and toss bags can hold: a gold-trimmed, antique salt cellar wrapped in a mildewed tea cozy; a fur-trimmed, nipped-waist jacket with Joan-Crawford-style shoulder pads; a Peter Max design retro shirt; a Japanese wedding kimono; hand-crocheted afghans; heavy “real McCoy” Scot’s wool blankets—and on and on. But more than the items themselves, everything—and I mean everything—has a story to tell. Would that I could learn how each item came to be discarded: a person died, there was a fire/breakup/divorce. They moved. There was a flood. So intriguing.
     In an odd way, I consider these finds treasures of history. And as a longtime dumpster diver, I’m glad to report my niece is continuing the family tradition. She came home the other night with a bag someone had left out with the trash in our nabe. Inside were four beautiful, vivid flamingo Hawaiian shirts, reminding me of Montgomery Clift in that scene in From Here to Eternity. —Cindy, NYC    
Getting a note like this one is one of the rewards of doing the magazine. And in this case, it didn’t take long for an idea to pop up. I wrote back to Cindy, “I’m wondering if there isn’t a column or feature in the magazine for more stories of your adventures along with a few reflections and photos? A few days later, an email arrived...

By all means! Feel free to share my notes and thoughts. I know there are many others out there who DIY, taking parts from found objects, making art projects from street finds, re-using and passing along. Without sounding too noble about it, Richard, I think this sort of mindset is a good thing for the planet, right?
     I have to tell you, a friend now accompanies me on my expeditions in the pre-dawn and together we form quite a tag team. Maybe three/four years ago, on recycle days for cans and bottles, I was out walking and spied some detergent bottles bagged up and set out. I sensed they probably contained liquid soap residue and, soap costing as much as it does, doing frequent loads of laundry can be pretty pricey—including well-intentioned laundry of clothes for donating to the needy. I was right, of course, and I started focusing on these empties. After awhile the word got around with our local street recyclers that the “soap lady” was out and about.
     The organization I volunteer with, now for fifteen years, Wearable Collections, just last year took in two and a half million pounds of used clothing and textiles, keeping it out of the landfill and moving it to other venues where needed. That is enormously exciting! (I found an old photo of me goofing at the textile bin.)
     —On the scrounge in NYC, Cindy

Junkyard Princess here in NY! A while back I found some old lithographs from a well-known South American painter, Guillermo Silva Santamaria, surrealist. No fooling! My gallery opened the back, shook out the dead bugs and dust, replaced the cracked glass, cut a new mat, put in fresh backing, glass and hang wire. After the makeover, this beauty’s worth about $750. I still giggle to see it; we just love finding art on the street, especially something so amazing, an artist whose work is whimsical—and collectible!
     And about two months ago, in a blinding predawn sleet storm, I went out on my mongo walk. In the semi-darkness I looked down and saw what I believed to be a fridge storage rack. I picked it up. It was, in fact, a menorah, with tall, spiky, candle-holder arms and a star of David. It made me think, “If Giacometti designed Judaica, this is what he might have done.” At first horrified at the thought that anyone would throw this out, I soon felt a smile start down around my ankles. Then, grinning ear to ear, I took it home. Now I’m looking to conjure a pedestal base on which to stand it for a really impressive display.

     This little menorah can’t relate its history, but I’m certain there is one. It cannot tell me where it’s been, but one thing I do know: it’s destined for the Ivy League. Giacometti must be smiling, somewhere.
     It’s simply astonishing to me that such magnificent pieces wind up face down in garbage cans sharing space with beer cans and coat hangers.
     Heavens to Murgatroid!!
     Purchase something?? Never!! Keep a sharp eye out everybody! Artwork can turn up almost anywhere And it’s no less precious or delightful for its origins!! —Still scroungin, ‚Ä®Cindy on Union Square 

My nickname “conjure woman” is an affectionate one, given to me by friends, since I seem to have the power to turn up items tossed by others at just the perfect moment when someone else needs them.
     For example, now it’s mirrors. I keep finding them on the street, leaning forlorn against black bags piled high for DSNY [Department of Sanitation New York] collection. My neighbor, a retired gardener, is redoing a corner of his Gotham apartment with plants, up to the ceiling near a window. And with those plants, mirrors! All found on the street. Placed behind the plants, they make the room look twice as large. As mom used to say, “Hey, you can’t beat the price!”
     I’m seriously considering turning my love for rejected items into a small business. Couple of months ago, I passed a trash pile outside a small brownstone. The custodians had bagged everything, but the “night crazies” had ripped and strewn everything all over the pavement. So, having my battered, trusty shopping cart (Rocinante) at my side, I took two large black bags I always keep when I’m “on the scrounge” and re-bagged everything neatly. But in the process, I came upon a small, drawstring leather pouch lying beside the cans. My nose for treasure twitched, so I dropped it in the cart.

     Back home in my kitchen, I opened the bag and spilled out the jingly contents, figuring from the sound, it might be coins, a broken necklace, or some such. I saw, much to my joy and disbelief, a silver pendant with a center stone that looked like an opal. It was surrounded by delicate silver lacework and had a loop for hanging from a chain. Wow. Next, I went online and fed in some keywords to search “modern style pendant, oval center stone, sterling silver” and bingo!! This wasn’t just silver, it was Navajo silver and signed on the back.
     A colleague up at Columbia University, Steve, likes to hear about my finds, and that Monday he pressed me to tell him the details of any urban excavations I’d made over the weekend. When I mentioned the pendant, he mused, “That’s kind of interesting, because my wife’s birthstone is an opal, and I was wondering what to get for her birthday next week. Could you show me that pendant? Maybe if you’re interested, we can make a deal?”
     Well, we did. After some silver polish, a black velvet ribbon added and a gift box, Roberta, delighted, received this from her proud hubby.
     Of course, I had to feign surprise when I saw her wearing it. “Roberta, that’s stunning! My, doesn’t Steve have great taste?” Steve and I just smiled. —Conjuring on Union Square, Cindy

Our part of downtown New York near Gramercy Park has for several years been undergoing a renovation boom, especially in the older brownstones. As a veteran recycler/dumpster diver and junkyard princess, I keep a sharp eye out for abandoned clothing, appliances and household items that I can repurpose and pass along to the needy. Anyway there’s a pre-1900 townhouse just off Second Avenue, long boarded up, neglected and sad looking. I pass by whenever I’m on the way to launder clothing donations. 
     One morning my curiosity got the better of me and I stopped, picked my way down the staircase to the entry, peering in. The interior had been gutted to the studs, but I could still see through the dust on the windows. The door to the back garden had been removed, which gave an unobstructed view of piles of debris, some old gnarled trees and a brick wall with a kind of ledge in front. However, there in the midst of this flotsam, sitting on top of the bricks, was a gleaming steel pot with lid. The sun was shining on it. It looked like a cross between a stockpot and a frying pan. Even at twenty paces, I could see it was a find. My dumpster diver’s heart gave a leap.
     Some months later I went by again and saw a large dumpster parked out front. There were contracting crews hauling away lumber, pushing wheelbarrows of bricks and dirt. That lovely pot was nowhere in evidence. I spoke to one of the men, who looked like the job captain, telling him of my work in the community repurposing discarded household items. As the crew watched and listened, I told him I’d looked in and seen a pot in the midst of the garbage out back. I hoped that if he came across the pot again during his cleanup efforts, he might think of me and set it aside. Then, having given it my best effort, I thanked him and left. 

     This morning I walked past with my cart. It was a cold day. I walked quickly, eager to get home. As I approached the building I saw the dumpster outside, now filled to the brim, with a blue tarp tied across the top. Sitting over to the side, as if waiting for me to arrive, sat the pot! I saw that the door to the site was open. One of the workmen, a young man of color, emerged, calling out when he saw me.
     “Yay!” he laughed, giving me a thumbs up, “We found it, lady!”
     I placed the pot on top of my plastic laundry bags, nodded my thanks and headed home. Except for yard dirt, it’s pristine. Over 14” across, the pot is made of heavy steel, what chefs call “restaurant grade.” Given its obvious pedigree, this was one we decided to adopt. Hubby Ric is thrilled at the latest addition to our kitchen, suggesting its maiden voyage should be onion soup. (Which is cooking, as I write!) —On the mongo, Cindy

Believe it or not, I found THIS lovely item in the trash, along with papers and a passel of unmatched, (ugh) dirty socks. Those big black bags, I have learned, have a story to tell. Was there an eviction? A car break in? Contents strewn all over the sidewalk and later swept up and bagged by the conscientious superintendent?  
     Did some love-struck young man work extra hours to earn the price of this bauble for his lady—now, his ex? Was it the impulse buy of an acquisitive Gotham miss, or maybe, a birthday gift from her grandmother?

     Delicate and beautiful, it boasts silver, pearl and amethyst beads. Notice the slender rings that hold it together, giving it style as well as a fragile kind of elegance. Not immediately visible, but there all the same: a 925 mark on the receiving end of the lobster clasp making it “the real Mc Coy.”
     I wish the things I find could actually speak. How much they would reveal! —Warm regards from Union Square, Cindy, NYC

Hard to believe this breathtaking rhinestone mask was actually found, snapped in two, lying in a pile of leaves after a rainstorm on Union Square. With my “nose for truffles” I sensed something glimmering amid the compost, fished it out of the muck, picked it up and brought it to my genius gallery guy, David.
     Because the piece is unusual in several respects, it took awhile to bring it all together. We sketched out a plan, which took several weeks, soup to nuts. But like all good things, ‘twas worth the wait. First, cleaning and repair. Then, a deep, shadow box frame. Using black throughout, the mask now appears to float, midair, giving it a magical, slightly eerie quality. Several people have already gasped.
     Ain’t it a pip? —Cindy from Union Square, NYC  


About the Author

Cindy Hawkins Legorreta is a veteran scrounger and master of the art of creative recycling. Why go out and buy more stuff when, with a little initiative, a good eye and a taste for urban adventure, you can find an endless supply of treasures just by looking around.  


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