Michael Shirley doesn't scavenge anymore. At 55, he has had a 32-year career as a graphic designer, high school art teacher and camp director. But he well remembers "a Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn-type childhood" in Northeast Washington. He spent a lot of it at, and in, the Kenilworth Dump.
From 1942 until protests closed it in 1968, the Kenilworth Dump was where all of Washington's commercial and residential waste went to die.
A flat, wooded, 100-acre site nestled between the Anacostia River and Kenilworth Avenue, the dump took in hundreds of tons of trash every day. The trash was burned every afternoon by the District government.
But before the bonfires were lit, Michael Shirley and his pals from the nearby Kenilworth Courts apartments would take whatever they wanted. They called their stomping ground "Lansburgh's," after the upscale downtown department store that closed in the 1970s.
"Goin' to Lansburgh's," one boy would tell another, with a wink. They'd congregate beside the piles of discarded sofas, bedding, toys and clothing and go to town.
In fact, many of the goods they took were from the real Lansburgh's (as well as the Hecht Co. and the now-gone Woodward and Lothrop).
The stores were tossing the stuff because it was slightly damaged. Shirley and his friends didn't think a small nick on a sofa leg was much to worry about.
"It was like a sale at Wal-Mart or something," Shirley recalled. "Every single day, in the summertime, the kids went there. At 6 a.m., we'd hit the dump. Then we'd fish. Then we'd play basketball. The dump was part of our itinerary, like a camp schedule."
Michael and his friends knew who would be tossing stuff when -- 3 p.m. for the department store vans from downtown, a little later for the Giant and Safeway trucks, Saturdays for station wagons from the suburbs. The fire-setters would stand there "and tell us, 'OK, you got five to ten minutes to get what you want.' We didn't hesitate."
Michael Shirley, the second of eight children of a bricklayer and a housewife, helped himself to "every single thing in my boyhood bedroom: the lamps, the curtains, the bed, the bedding, everything."
Then, a couple of months later, he'd help himself again. "It was an update, man, just like you update your car," he said, with a sly smile.
Often, the boys would find cash, especially under the cushions of discarded love seats and chairs. "There were fights all the time over the chairs," said Michael, who favors a shaved head, a graying goatee and a broad grin.
"I was ashamed at first," he said. "I didn't want anybody knowing I was going through people's trash.
"But after a while, it wasn't trash any more. It was treasures."
Shirley's mother took a slightly different view. "My mother lo-o-o-ved that dump," Shirley said. But she didn't like her son putting himself at risk from the law. So she advised him to use the neighborhood stockpile to feather his future.
"My mother said, 'If you're going to steal something, steal a book,' " Shirley recalled. He found his first art books in the Kenilworth Dump. They inspired his career.
Yet the dump was living on borrowed time, and Michael knew it because he could smell it.
"I'd be sitting in high school class [at Spingarn High School, about two miles away], and these huge clouds of black smoke would pour right in the windows," he said. The Kenilworth Dump was shut down by Mayor Walter E. Washington in 1968 after a 7-year-old boy burned to death in the fires there.
Shirley was at art school in Ohio when he heard the dump had closed. "I really got sad, " he said.
Burning trash in the District is illegal now. The city sends trash from private homes to a processing plant outside the city. Commercial trash is picked up by private contractors. A recreation and community center sits where the dump used to be.