the Mabel Fitzwater story

Driving up Hampton can be a challenge during rush hour as the left-hand turn to our street had no turn signal. So if the traffic has a break, boom… the street before it, is a shortcut home. It was raining that night, as it had been for a week straight. Me and my son played in the puddles because we needed fresh air and adventure. I was already wet when I saw the dumpster sitting in the roadway. 

The house sat above the street almost a floor up on a hill. Without a driveway, the dumpster sat in the street and I could sense it in my pores, something was there that needed my attention. I jumped inside the neat dumpster which had a carefulness to it. A dismantled old closet was tucked away on one side and a mattress lay between me and the real trash, 6 big black bags. Common sense and my dumpster diving skills would tell me there was nothing to find, but pulled in I was.

Bag 1 was just broken wood and tile, Bag 2 had glassware, old antique stuff, barely broken. I put it aside to open a bag of old clothes. Curious stuff, so I put them in my trunk. Two bags, but not a story. I knew the story was still there and three bags to go. Two were also just trash, nothing curious.

The sounds of the men caught my ear. Across the road the old carpenter at their Union hall smoked cigarettes under an awning and looked out into the rain. There I was on top of a pile of debris under a lamplight digging into neighbor hood trash. This had been a working class hood and the danger rose on my senses. I knew I could be seen at any second and who knows the results. The final bag must be something important. 

Tearing a careful hole with a careful beam of light from my headlamp, I saw the old papers that dated back to the 1920s and I knew I had my story. With an athletic leap I was into the street and driving home with 3 bags of mystery.

Imagine a Christmas mess, after the children opened presents, ate breakfast and left the house to play, this was the state of my living room. I just pumped full of adrenaline. Pushing aside the coffee table, sorting and exploring, laying out, 3 bags of trash into a semblance of order. With a pot of tea boiling away, I descended into the world of Mabel Fitzwater. 

I often describe it as if someone took a closet, that had been locked up for 4 decades and just tossed the whole thing. The clothes were all dated back to the 1960s. Nothing older than 1980. All owned by one woman. Some still had tags on them. A pair of slippers, belts, ascots and two pairs of sunglasses were in the first black bag with pant suits, dresses and slacks. A rare historical look at a woman’s personal style. *

I would learn in 2022 from family that I was right. After Mabel died, they shut up the house and left her things exactly as they were. On Sundays her two daughters would have tea in the kitchen and talk about things, then shut the empty house again. This went on for a couple decades until the house was sold and emptied, the same week I took the 3 trash bags.

Lew Blink

The second bag was mostly glassware/hardware. Crystal, coffee cups, wine glasses, display pieces and hardware odd knick-knacks. Kitchen utensils, vintage sewing stuff, dog collars and many other odd items. The majority was unbroken, as if carefully placed in a bag and put into the dumpster rather than thrown. It however wasn’t the story. The last bags contained paperwork dated from 1887 to the 1930s, throughout the 1960-70s, and only a few dates past that. A treasure trove of information.

Viewing old paperwork is putting together a puzzle piece. Names appear over and over, like George Gittens, Jennings Stubbs, Norman Fitzwater and Mabel. She bore many names too, as a Mrs. Jennings, Mrs. Fitzwater and Mabel Gittens. I knew she was the owner of the collection, and these were her memories. Her prized artifacts from the past. 

Based on all this information and some extensive online digging, I wrote an article about Mabel. The Article was a prototype, an experimentation at finding the heart of Dumpster Archeology through the life of this woman. The intention was to honor, and yes, if I found a half a bottle of Irish whiskey and know Mabel once managed a bar, than my inclusion of her walking to a liquor store, doesn’t seem out of character. This is how history works, one looks at the information and forges a narrative where individual details matter less than capturing something beautiful.

So how do you tell a story about a woman you don’t know?

A photo of Mabel links to a chapter entitled: the Queen of Dogtown: Mabel the Glamorous
the above woman is not Mabel!

Mabel the Glamorous, Queen of Dogtown.

The original article was written very early in the project and was a prototype for what I would do with the Project. Honoring a Dumpster Dived Soul became a very specific personal thing and since the objects were the focus, the Artistic mediums shifted. Since that Article didn’t work out, new ways will be found. First up is a look at Mabel’s things.

Part 1: Mabel sings a tune

part 2: George Gittens, father of the queen

part 3: Dream Manager

part 4: the Scrapbooks of Mabel