In this city, a pick-up truck creeping down the alley loaded with washers, bike frames, and other metal scrap is not an uncommon sight. All kinds of people collect—as this is being written, a woman, babe strapped to her back, is picking through the recycling in the alley, placing aluminum cans in the bottom of a stroller that carries another child. But Scrapper Joe, as he’s known in Minneapolis’s West Bank, only patrols the alleys when he’s broke.
“I didn’t want to become a scrapper, ‘cause I just knew I’d end up collecting a lot of crap,” says Joe, sitting on a discarded steel safe slowly sinking into the earth outside his West Bank warehouse. But there are many reasons to make one’s living as a scrapper in spite of that. One perk, he admits, is that he wakes up when he wants to. There are also endless opportunities to satisfy his curiosity, “As a kid, I started wanting to see how things work,” which meant taking them apart. Although the supply of closing factories and outdated machinery is dwindling, he still gets to discover how everything from punch presses to liquid manure spreaders are put together.
Which, Joe says, is where the real scrapping money is. Machinery in the buildings that housed Minneapolis’s manufacturing “once had value,” Joe says, “and now people pay to throw it away. There were a lot of working guys all around who had jobs in these factories. I saw them in my neighborhood. They had a certain kind of pride in their work. The city’s undergone a huge transition that a lot of people don’t even know about.”
The deconstruction site of the moment is just off of University Avenue in Southeast Minneapolis. Joe and a couple of fellow scrappers have received the okay to excavate pieces of metal in from a hulking grain elevator. He says the land’s owner hopes the site will be bought and used for the new light rail line connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul. Joe constructed two cargo trailers, made entirely from scrapped components, to haul things like a cog the size of a Weber grill to the scrap yard.
Scrapping isn’t just a living; it’s also a mode of recycling. Joe doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as garbage. He still remembers his neighbor Irwin Jacobs’s father, a rag collector who saved everything, even seed bags, telling a young Joe: “There is value in everything, ”
In the early 80’s, Joe lit out for California, where he worked construction for a number of years. There he began a career in dumpster diving, a decade before the term came into the popular lexicon. “I love collecting stuff, especially for when you need to make something. Collecting junk has a creative aspect—I’m always thinking, ‘What can I make out of this, like those trailers, or what can someone I know make out of this?’” His warehouse—where car parts, a pile of bar chairs and a kayak, among many other things, are stored—doubles as a workshop. Joe proclaims himself a “junky Jack,” the type “who can build a house without needing to build a foundation first. We can see alternatives.”
After he left California, Joe worked in Nebraska for a year, then came back to Minneapolis and bought a big truck to start scrapping. Except for an attempt at a welding business and a stint as a croupier at Mystic Lake when steel prices fell, he’s been at it ever since.
“It’s a low stress job,” He says. Well, most of the time: “You’ve just gotta get a feel for what’s dangerous. There’s always the unexpected,” he says. And physical injury is certainly a job hazard, evidence of which is the “beautiful scar across my back. There was blood on my sheets after that one.” Building factories in rural Nebraska taught Joe just how careful to be on a job site. He once froze high in the skeleton of a new building, his arms wrapped tight around a girder. He was able to pull himself together without needing to be ferried to safety by a crane, unlike some of his coworkers who found themselves in similar predicaments.
After that, the stress of working on tall buildings drove him to alcoholism. After a year, he moved back to Minneapolis and entered the local scrapping community, as much as there is one—“It’s an outcast kind of thing.” They are few enough that only rarely do they compete for the same scrap. Describing an incident with some scrap he let the other guy have, Joe says “Cyclone fence is not worth fighting over.” He sometimes attends auctions, where the scrappers often make deals with each other beforehand, either to not bid against each other, or to “go in on a scrap deal.”
But Joe says scrapping is “always feast or famine.” When times are hard, he takes to the alleys, searching among the vast detritus of modern life for scrappables. It’s labor-intensive, but he takes pleasure in the anthropology of trash. He likes to see how long it takes something to end up on the scrap pile after hitting the market. A few weeks ago, he happened upon a Circuit Trainer, an exercise machine he saw on TV twenty years ago. “I always wanted one,” he says.
Ultimately, it’s the act of scrapping that he loves. He likes to tear things apart to see how strong they are. Passing a dumpster on the way to his truck, Joe looks inside and hoists out two stainless steel sinks while discussing the pleasure of demolishing buildings. Scrapping is a form of freedom from what tall buildings symbolize, and Joe “loves watching them fall.”