'Scrappers' and the Reality of Being a Junkyard Hound


Spike TV

Spike TV, the channel for guys who like a high percentage of the things they see to be on fire, premiered Scrappers last night. The series looks at the recently booming scrap metal industry. For me, it's the first reality show with a basis in my reality. I've never danced with the stars or been a bounty hunter, but, well, I kind of love scrapping.

And Scrappers captures what I love about it: The nicked-knuckle frustration and constantly questioning if the job is worth it ("@#!$ getting hurt all day, for a 12-dollar refrigerator?"), the rush when it turns out to be, the people you meet. Oh God, the people you meet.

The show suffers a bit from reality television's easy out: drama derived from characters' buffoonery and interpersonal bickering rather than from actual events—always easier to film an argument, which is essentially talk, than to wait it out and capture something happening. So we get a whole segment of fighting over Darren's mistake of a door not being able to close. But we do get a sense of the hunt. And if anyone who's ever swung a hammer is wondering why these guys are using vans and not flatbed trucks, it's because the reality is that scrapping's largely a jerry-rigged industry. And a lot of the pros who do it are boneheaded amateurs like myself.

I recently held a temporary labor job cleaning out a lab. Part of that involved discarding lab equipment from the 1970s built with so much metal that, had it all been a car, it would have elicited comments like, "Wow. They don't make them like this anymore." They told me to load the pieces into the trash. I thought back to my summer job as an apprentice plumber when I would toss old fittings and pipe scraps into a bucket and cash them in at a scrap yard. So I hauled the pieces down to the loading dock for trash, but put a few choice metal pieces in my car nearby.

Then I took them to a scrap yard near my house. Only a small amount was brass or aluminum. "This is iron," a man in suspenders told me about much of my haul. "I need nonferrous metal if you want real money. Anything that a magnet doesn't stick to, I can take."

"Go to Chelsea," a man who didn't work there but who just seemed to be hanging out said. He turned his head to make sure no one heard him. "The prices are always higher in Chelsea."

I left with $11.86 and some advice from a guy who hangs around scrap yards in his free time. I also started carrying a magnet. Now, at work, I was focusing on things it didn't stick to, prying them out of the pieces I was throwing out.

For the next trip to the junkyard, one in Everett—closer than Chelsea—I asked my roommate Peter to come along. "Show me your scrap metal face," I said as we headed out. Peter dropped his smile and suddenly looked both frustrated and suspicious, like he was waiting in a long line to pay a parking ticket he didn't feel he deserved. "Perfect," I said. Then I handed him a tape measure to wear so we'd look like we knew something about brass or life.

Scrap yards are typically located in rusty, Brooklyn-looking sections of cities, the types of places where bands in skinny jeans pose for their album cover photos looking all wan and pensive; places photography students "discover" and decide to shoot for their final class projects, only to discover that everyone else in class chose the same location. We pulled in, past a crane tossing fridges and junk iron, driving on a path of flattened, dirty metal. I parked next to a line of red bins and told Peter to watch out for the fishhook sticking up off the ground. They had to cut open my aluminum tubes. No offense taken. I didn't know what was in them either. It turned out to be just a little water, so 40 cents a pound. Little brass, some junk iron. We made 69 dollars and ate burritos to celebrate.

The reality is that scrapping is addicting. When you know the price of metal, you see a kind of value in everything—though not a wholesome one. You become a kind of urban naturalist: more aware of your surroundings, but not in a good way. That's a cool lamppost—wonder what it's made out of. It's like in cartoons when two people are starving on a desert island and one person looks at his friend, who suddenly becomes a rotisserie chicken. I was like a kooky old prospector biting into gold.

For the third haul, I filled my car. That night I spent extra time at home disassembling different types of metal, so that individual pieces would fetch the highest price. The next day, I made 228 dollars.

The moral line of lots of scrapping is fuzzy at best. On trash night, pickup trucks creep through my neighborhood with plywood sides holding in file cabinets and kids' bikes. It's the market fueling recycling. But what if someone could have used that bike for, you know, a bike. Everyone's heard reports of copper pipes being ripped out of houses. That's clearly wrong. But I was told to throw this stuff out—so it was fine, right? Scrapping is interesting because it hovers between blatantly making money through what economists call "information asymmetry"—that is, what people at a scrap yard would call "ripping people off because they don't know the price of their trash"—and making money through the actual skills required to know what in a washing machine is worth money and how to get at it; that is, skills that demonstrate an investment of human capital. Then there's the productivity advantage of owning a truck. This oscillation between a trade and opportunism gives the industry a Wild West feel: in a way, anyone can do it. The challenge is turning a profit.

Part of scrapping is feeling useful. It keeps you busy. You get money. You're being resourceful. But in a society in which we're supposed to be self-made, there's still something not entirely accepted about salvaging. It's not full out creepy but it's not exactly respected: the lurking about hunting for nonferrous carrion. A scrapper is a kind of cousin to the lady that looks for bottles in your trash. You're fine with it...sort of. Growing up, a "scrapper" was some who, when they were fighting, put less emphasis on how they looked and more on how they did. A scrapper wasn't necessarily someone who fought dirty; just someone who did whatever it took. Even if it wasn't pretty.

I did one more scrap run. Made $36, but then the source dried up. That's the problem with scrapping: the work is not the hauling-in, but the finding. And sources dry up.

Still, every once in a while I'll toss a magnet on something, just to see what it's made of.