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Coupling

Talking trash

Can a spendthrift and a saver agree on what to toss?

By Jennifer Campaniolo
March 6, 2011

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When Mike and I moved in together, we’d been dating for seven months. Our relationship’s beginning had been filled with extravagant restaurant meals and acts of spontaneous generosity, like the time Mike surprised me with a pricey skirt I had been admiring in Banana Republic or when he bought me a plane ticket for a family funeral in Florida. But when we started sharing closet space, I discovered another side to my profligate partner. It began one weekend when I was wiping the counter.

“That’s the dish sponge you’re using,” he said. “Use the counter sponge.” I stared at Mike, a question bubble hanging in the air between us.

“The dish sponge becomes the counter sponge, and the counter sponge becomes the floor sponge,” he said, as if explaining a simple math problem. “And then the floor sponge becomes the toilet sponge.” A brief “ewww” escaped my lips. I would have thrown the sponge away after a month, or whenever the scrubby side was used up. But it was his apartment I had moved into, so it seemed wise to observe the native tribe’s customs.

“Oh yes, the hierarchy of sponges,” his ex-girlfriend, a friend of a friend, would say later, shaking her head, “Good luck with that.” I’d soon learn it wasn’t just personal frugality that drove Mike to save twist-ties and his polo shirts from the ’80s. He rarely threw anything away. If he did, he’d make a big show of it: “Look, Jenn,” he’d say, calling me into the room to watch him pitch a stretched-out rubber band into the trash. For me, throwing things away was a cleansing ritual. Without guilt, I tossed new lipsticks when the shades weren’t quite right, a half-used bottle of body lotion because I’d bought a new brand, skirts I was tired of looking at, day-old leftovers.

One day when I was home alone and in the mood for one of my clean sweeps, I decided to move all the old mail, coins, and other everyday debris heaped on top of Mike’s dresser into a bag for sorting later. I wasn’t prepared for the fallout that ensued. “What happened? Where is everything?” he asked, as if he’d come home to find the apartment had been robbed. “Jenn, please do not throw my stuff away.” I had grown up in a family of compulsive redecorators, and what I was up against was starting to sink in. If we ever bought a piece of furniture together, I’d better really like it, because I was going to be looking at it for a long time.

When it came to food, if I didn’t want him to scrape the brown parts off of an old carrot and then add it to that night’s salad, I would have to avoid buying too many carrots. It took me awhile to get the hang of this, since I loved filling the refrigerator with fresh food. Mike had been influenced by a grandmother who lived through the Great Depression. He also had a strong environmental bent. Rather than leave his mark on the world, he wanted his carbon footprint to be child-sized.

Mike’s attachment to old things could also be explained by his love of wabi-sabi, a Japanese concept meaning “beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” I would come to appreciate this when facing him at the breakfast table wearing smudged glasses, my hair sticking up. He’d smile and say, “Good morning, cutie” without a hint of insincerity. At least I knew I wouldn’t be thrown over for a newer model.

Mike and I are married now, and like most committed couples, we’ve had to compromise. I’m careful to respect his green lifestyle while defending my right not to have to eat anything that’s sprouting a second life. He tries to respect my wishes by not salvaging the sock with the hole in the toe from the trash. His waste-not-want-not worldview has proved handy during the economic downturn. I’ve had four pairs of shoes re-heeled at the cobbler instead of rushing to Macy’s, and I’ve collected clothes I would have thrown away and sold them for cash at a consignment shop. I even adhere to the sponge hierarchy – most of the time. I draw the line at the floor sponge becoming the toilet sponge. That’s just gross.

Jennifer Campaniolo is a writer in Brookline. Send comments to coupling@globe.com.

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