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Norman Reed

Norman Reed
Norman Reed. Photo by Ralph Stewart

By Duncan Pickard - August 16, 2007

"I started dump-picking out of curiosity. Then I found things," says Norman Reed, flipping through the pages of his book, A Place Fit Only for Refuse. He dons a World War II Veteran hat and sits back in a chair held together by a bungee cord. "Some of the best pieces of furniture in the house I found in the dump."

Mr. Reed is an old-timer in Oak Bluffs. He has owned his house on Samoset Avenue since the early 1950s. He has written three books, painted over 600 watercolors, and is a self-described Hollywood buff with a collection of entertainment biographies and histories that fills five rooms in his house.

A Place Fit Only for Refuse is his first of two books about the Island, and is a collection of stories of Mr. Reed's dump-picking days on Martha's Vineyard. He would frequent Island landfills and retrieve anything he could find useful. "A dump is...theoretically, the final resting place of unwanted furniture," he writes in his book. "But its stay is usually brief. Snapped up and carted away by the lucky finder who is but one of a silent legion of dump-pickers who comb these mounds of waste." The book tells the stories of that silent legion.

"One day I just decided to write a book about the interesting people I'd met at the dumps," he says. "You could tell by looking at the people that they're not poor. Sometimes there are rich people in there, dump-picking."

He continued, "From time to time, you might pick up a beautiful piece of embroidery or something. It was upsetting to think of the beautiful things they were plowing under with a front loader. They ought to have a little place where you can leave things that somebody else might be able to use, but they don't. They want to destroy everything that goes in there. Everything has to be done away with."

Mr. Reed's watercolors are inspired by nature, his family, and Hollywood. Paintings of fishermen, landscapes, roosters, his parents, and old actresses line the walls. "I like animals and beautiful scenery, like our local ponds and so forth," he says. "In the future I'll be doing more watercolors of different actresses who are now dead," he says. "Young people today missed so much not being born in the Depression. They had some fabulous films."

Also around his house, with floors clad in oriental carpeting, are photographs of old Hollywood actresses. Next to a lamp made of an old Bombay Sapphire bottle is a collection of about 10 photos of Veronica Lake. Hedy Lamarr is a favorite subject of Mr. Reed's paintings. Another table has a collection of old wine bottles called Marilyn Merlot.

He also has paintings of storefronts and people from Stoneham, where he grew up. "That's the cobbler from Stone-ham," Mr. Reed says, pointing to a watercolor of a sharply dressed man leaning against a wall. He pronounces Stoneham like it is two different words: stone and ham. "He's an I-talian from Sicily."

"I've never gotten into oils. I can't seem to get out of watercolors," he explains. "It seems to me that you have quite a bit of freedom, contrary to what most people think. You can go over them and make changes. I think the average person believes that you make one little mistake and that's it, but I've never had that problem. You can soak out mistakes with a wet rag if you have to. It doesn't do the rag any good, but you can save the painting. It takes a little patience."

Mr. Reed's second book about the Island is called A Place Where the Eelgrass Flows and is a compilation of stories from Martha's Vineyard, written in 1987. "Some people think the last word is Grows, but it's Flows," he explains. "When you go to the Little Bridge and there's a change of tide, you can see little strands of eel grass flowing away. Eel grass is very, very important. That's what's being destroyed by people building houses and things along the shore. They're destroying the most important part of the ocean, where life begins. So that got me going on that."

The book captures the sense of the old Martha's Vineyard, as Mr. Reed first remembers it. "My mother and father used to come here to visit starting in the 1940s - this was during the War and afterward," he recalls. "In the early 1950s, I was working in Michigan and I got this letter from my father that said there's a place for sale up here, and it was only $4,250 with 10 rooms, furnished with linen. I sent him $5,000." Mr. Reed inherited the house from his parents when they died, and that's where he lives today. "Not too long ago, I got a leak repaired on the front porch and it cost $5,000. That repair cost me more than the cost of the house."

Mr. Reed moved to the Island permanently in 1986. "I used to go back and forth to Dedham to visit my brother, but he passed away about three years ago, so now I very seldom go off Island," he says. "Once someone dies who you're used to visiting, suddenly you have no interest to leave. I'm very happy to be here by myself. But there's always someone in the family wanting to come and visit."

He has seen a lot of change on the Island since his first summer here. "We knew a lot of the old names, and a lot of them have disappeared. You have what's called the nouveau riche now," he says. "People who were born and raised here are leaving because they can't afford to stay, and I think that's really sad.

"This used to be known as the worst part of the Island, Oak Bluffs. But when you walk around now you don't see too many shabby houses, other than this one," he laughs. "From a real estate point of view things have improved. But we don't have the old people anymore. We don't have that come-up-on-the-porch-and-sit-a-while type of crowd. The people don't have the same kind of lives today as they did in the Depression years. When you're chatting with somebody they'll give you about 10 minutes and then they got to go. They're always going someplace."

"And getting a car off Island is much too expensive," he adds. "It should be about $35 round trip, $40 at the most."

Mr. Reed's books are available at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven.