Monstrous Hybrids and the Conjuring of Legacy

A visit to a namesake scrapyard changes a novelist's sense of inheritance

Idra Novey

Visiting her family's scrapyard for the first time later in life, Idra Novey felt the disjunct between the conjured sense of legacy she'd spun for herself and the vast vehicle graveyard in front of her. Creative Commons by 2.0

I grew up a few hours from the scrapyard my namesake, Ida Novey, started in 1906. Nobody suggested a trip to see what had come of the still-operating Novey scrapyard, and I never asked. I have no material connection to what is now over a century of Novey recyclers. My grandmother was one of Ida’s daughters, who were never in consideration as possible heirs. All I inherited was Ida’s name, which my mother modernized with an “r,” like a new alloy, into Idra.

My sense of this ancestral scrapyard was no more than a set of repeated phrases, a place my grandmother described as “an eyesore in the middle of town.” She described this aspect of her childhood as “mortifying,” living in a house with massive heaps of junk piled in front of it. Like many Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, her parents were shunned from other industries in the area. Nobody seemed to mind, though, if newly arriving Jews took on the grimy work of salvaging junk metal for resale. In the first half of the twentieth century, ninety percent of the country’s scrapyards had Jewish owners.

What happened with the Novey scrapyard over the next hundred years wasn’t unusual for the era, either—it aligns with the patrilineal history of the world. In 1962, my namesake Ida and her husband Abe passed the scrapyard along to their son, my great-uncle, who then passed it along to his son, who still runs it today.

In my first year of college in the late nineties, I didn’t know what to answer when people asked about my family and where I grew up. I didn’t meet any other first-years at Barnard or across the street at Columbia who’d graduated from a rural public school. In the decade I’ve now been teaching at Princeton, I’ve had only one writing student from a similarly rural public school in Appalachia, which she only confided to me in office hours, after I mentioned to her that part of my family had lived in the Allegheny Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania for over a century.

When I identified myself in college as belonging to a long line of recyclers, it was mostly an avoidance strategy. I didn’t want to know how classmates would react to the real facts of my childhood, which didn’t seem in sync with any of their facts. Nobody else mentioned learning to shoot a BB gun at nine years old with a neighbor kid. Or getting shot at in the woods. Or a divorce in which their mother hurled their father’s pants out the window onto the front bushes, or police visits, when my sister and I hid together under our beds.

With words, inheritance is a matter of nerve.

To associate with the Novey scrapyard instead was a relief. “How cool you come from recyclers,” people would reliably reply in the dining hall, and I would nod, occasionally sharing some of the scrapyard terminology I’d started looking up online. I learned that ferrous metals contain iron, which makes them harder and also more difficult to melt down, whereas nonferrous metals like aluminum are more pliable and much easier to upcycle. I started a poem dividing experiences into ferrous and nonferrous, worked in a mention of Ida.

When that poem was accepted for a campus journal in sophomore year, I deleted my last name and typed in “Novey.” I made the decision on a whim, without discussing it with anybody—one of those quiet solitary choices that feel particularly possible in college and, often, change the course of one’s life.

After college, while teaching English in Chile, I discovered that the audacious Chilean writer Pedro Lemebel shed his father’s last name, too, early on. He viewed the switch to his mother’s last name as a gesture of “alliance with all that is feminine.” With ten books at this point under the name Novey, my ongoing alliance with Ida has become, in my mind, not just a gesture of matrilineal connection but also proof that with language anyone can be a potential heir. With words, inheritance is a matter of nerve, of being the one to take the risk of attempting to reconfigure familiar words into meaning something new.

In the following years, living with the Novey name, it didn’t occur to me to make a trip to see the scrapyard. I knew my mother’s cousin Marty was still the owner. I’d heard he worked as an optometrist in Baltimore and had hired someone else to run the day-to-day operations. I’d met Marty once or twice in childhood, but I didn’t recognize him when he and his sister walked into a reading for my second novel I was giving in Washington, D.C. They’d seen the event listing online and had been intrigued that I’d taken on their last name.

At the reading, Marty explained that he was likely to sell the Novey scrapyard in the next few years. He suggested I come for a visit while it was still in the family, and I told him I absolutely would—but the pandemic began a few months after our conversation.

Another three years passed before I finally arrived at the scrapyard that had gone to my grandmother’s youngest brother, Sol. My grandmother would have eagerly taken on a leadership role alongside Sol. She’d excelled at the two-year secretarial program her parents had allowed her to pursue while funding four-year colleges for their sons.

I asked her about these gendered discrepancies several times when I was in college. Her response was always to light a cigarette, blow some smoke around while reiterating her deep admiration for her parents, who were such kind, hard-working people. Having received no role at the family scrapyard, she’d instead worked full-time as a pharmacist while raising my mother and my two aunts. She’d married a man who couldn’t hold a job for long. My stymied and volatile grandfather never recovered from the frustration of having to drop out of school at thirteen to support his family. By the time I was growing up, he was too paralyzed with disappointment to do paying work of any kind. He sat motionless in the living room with the lights off, yelling at anyone who dared to turn them on and run up the electricity bill.

All that fraught history, however, felt quite remote by the time I drove to the Novey scrapyard in the middle of my life. It seemed like a good time to arrive, in what had been a far happier and steadier era than childhood, raising two children with the life partner I’d found in Chile after college.

My mother made the trip as well from her home in rural Maryland to meet us for the tour. Until that drive to Clearfield, neither of us had realized that the scrapyard was no longer the eyesore along the Susquehanna River my grandmother had described. Sol, Marty’s father, had started a second location outside of town, which now was the only site, after the city council, a decade earlier, had asked Marty to remove all the machinery and ugly scrap heaps from the middle of town in order to create a continuous riverfront park and bike trail. Marty had agreed and donated all the land for public use.

For us to reach the new site, GPS delivered us miles outside of Clearfield, to a steep, wooded hill with several bright red shipping containers parked along the road. All of them had “NOVEY” painted on the side in large white letters.

“Tu nombre, Mami!” my kids shouted in the Spanish we speak when it’s the four of us together. I reminded them that Novey wasn’t really my name, I’d just sort of taken it, and we laughed at the weirdness of seeing it on all these shipping containers. I’d identified for so long with the Novey name and yet was a total stranger to this winding wooded road and to the startling sight, at the top of the hill, of thousands of wrecked vehicles piled four or five stories high in all directions.

“I didn’t know we were coming to a car dump,” my husband said. “I thought it was just a scrapyard.”

“I didn’t know either,” I told him, feeling the disjunct more acutely now, between the conjured sense of legacy I’d spun for myself and the vast vehicle graveyard in front of us. There was also a small office building, which looked toy-sized with all the building-high piles of junked cars looming behind it.

If I’d come to see this scrapyard in college, I probably wouldn’t have had the audacity to take the Novey name.

I spotted Marty standing with his sister and her husband in front of the office building. My mother had already arrived, and they all waved, motioning for us to park on the right, next to a massive metal scale the length of a bus and, beside it, a smashed-up Walmart semi-truck with a car-sized hole in it. It looked like a speeding vehicle had crashed right through and come out the other side, creating a jagged hole that now framed a rather fetching view of the wooded hills below.

My kids asked if they could run over and climb into the cavernous Walmart truck and splash around in the rain puddles inside it. “We have to ask Marty,” I told them and reminded them that we were just visitors and didn’t know what was safe to do here. When we reached Marty and asked, he said it was fine so long as they were mindful that the metal edges of the hole were sharp and could cut their hands.

“You’re welcome to climb on any vehicle you want,” he told them. “We get people wandering in here all the time. I never know what they’re going to do,” he added, motioning with his chin toward the various other visitors drifting about. There were several groups of men in jeans and baseball caps and also two teenage girls in oversized sweatshirts laughing together.

Marty explained that people came daily to search for replacement parts. In a way, I’d done the same, though the replacement parts I’d sought here hadn’t been tangible. As for the people arriving now, Marty said they were most likely searching for a substitute bumper or windshield wiper, which could cost upward of $500 from a car dealer. He told us the stacks of vehicles might look chaotic, but they were actually organized by type, with imported cars in one section and U.S. manufacturers in another.

He explained he sold the parts by weight, about $25 for a bumper and $10 for a windshield wiper and said selling for parts worked out better for him, too—and for the planet. If a vehicle was too wrecked to be repurposed for replacement parts, he had to sell it for far less to a shredder, which would chew up the vehicle into shoe-sized pieces, a process that required numerous industrial chemicals and energy and then more resources to put it all through a separator before melting the metal down once more to be remade.

My older son took my hand and asked why, if it was better for the planet, we’d never come to a yard like this before, to replace things on our car. “You’re absolutely right,” I told him and admitted it had never occurred to me.

“Nobody scavenges for parts if they can afford not to,” Marty added to my answer and said he wished some software company would create an app for finding replacement parts or some sort of computerized effort would happen nationwide.

While my kids jumped around inside the massive Walmart truck, I told Marty about a brief Lao Yang poem I’d read recently:

We’ve never sensibly dealt with garbage

All our genius goes into its production

The couplet appears in Yang’s Pee Poems, which is full of wry laments about humans and what we trash, how little creativity we devote to dealing with the trash that our manic production continues to generate. When I first read Yang’s poem, it had resonated with me conceptually. Now, however, watching my kids climb out of the smashed-up Walmart semi, Yang’s insight was no longer just a stinging thought. It was a mangled, physical reality that my children were scrambling out of, one knee at a time.

Marty responded to the irony of Yang’s poem with a resigned nod, though he was quick to add that at least now people were more aware. In his fifty years in the scrap industry, he said, the stigma my grandmother recalled was no longer a daily issue. “People used to make all kinds of disparaging comments to my dad, but there’s more understanding now.” He added, “Not that I meant to end up with two miles of cars.”

Things backed up during the pandemic, he said, as people in the area grew frantic to get any money at all for their failing vehicles. Plus, a shortage of truck drivers meant there’d been no way to get the mounting vehicles to the shredder.

When I asked if things had improved, Marty laughed and explained the recycling industry had been wildly unpredictable before the pandemic, too. Some years, prices abruptly fell and he made nothing.

“I still take loads like that one, though,” he said, gesturing toward someone parking next to the small office with a truck bed loaded with clear bags full of aluminum cans and a tangle of copper pipes. “People peddling small amounts like that are a lot of work to process and not really worth it financially,” he said. “But that’s how we started, right?”

He told us the world was producing more monstrous hybrids now than ever before.

He looked at me as if I were a part of this “we.” I nodded and didn’t point out that this Novey plural was a patrilineal one, that none of the choices that had been made here had included me, or my mother, who kept remarking how different this new site on the hilltop was from the tiny scrapyard along the riverbank, where she had helped Ida in the summers. My mother was more subdued than usual as we continued following Marty like travelers following a tour guide or students on a school trip.

As we walked around, it occurred to me that if I’d come to see this scrapyard in college, I probably wouldn’t have had the audacity to take the Novey name. My sense of Ida and this scrapyard had been so hazy and abstract, an idea to mull over with my sister and cousins. For all of us, recycling was an issue to read about and debate, not a physical place with a door, a whole noisy plant we were now entering, trailing behind Marty.

“Here’s where we bring the tricky stuff,” he said, ushering us through the wide entryway, where various older white men were sitting on stools, wrenching apart what looked like engines or some other kind of small, intricate mass of machinery.

“What are they doing?” my husband asked. Marty explained they were working on what’s known in the scrap industry as monstrous hybrids, objects that contain a mix of biological and synthetic parts, like aluminum cans with synthetic glues on the paper labels. Often these separating efforts were futile, he said, and told us the world was producing more monstrous hybrids now than ever before.

“I don’t understand why I’ve never read or heard anything about monstrous hybrids,” I told him, and Marty laughed. “Because people want cheap and fast,” he said. “You’re not going to hear about monstrous hybrids on CNN! People don’t want to be held accountable for their waste. It’s too much work!” he shouted over the roar of the conveyor belt, where a bald man in a flannel shirt was shoveling aluminum cans onto a track that fed them into a compactor, instantly crushing the cans into large cube shapes the size of dishwashers.

An aluminum can with no synthetic glue on it, Marty told us, could be recycled back into itself indefinitely. “One dumb paper label, and that infinity’s gone,” he said.

“How about a ride?” he asked my sons, motioning for them to get on the platform of one of the empty carts next to the conveyor belt. The cart was exactly as wide as the compacted cubes of crushed cans that came out of the compactor, a perfect width for two school-age brothers to stand on. Marty looked pleased at their excitement, and their interest, too, in the crane with a magnet large enough to pluck cars off the ground as if they were light as napkins.

Before we headed to the original location, along the riverfront, Marty explained that there wouldn’t be much to see. He’d asked the city to preserve the tiny brick shack that Ida and Abe had built a century ago to weigh what people brought in and I thought maybe we’d get to go inside, but Marty didn’t have the key. All we could do was peer inside the thick glass of the small window. Only two objects remained inside it of my namesake’s decades of bookkeeping: a heavy wooden desk and a rusted scale suspended from the low ceiling, holding an emptiness that has stayed with me.

For weeks following the trip, I felt newly estranged from the Novey name arriving on every email in my inbox. It felt a bit fraudulent now and absurd. I tried to will a reconnection to Novey the way I’d come to take it, through language and the pleasure of learning a new lexicon. Curious about the term monstrous hybrid, I discovered it was coined by the writer Jane Jacobs, born, incidentally, into a Jewish immigrant family in Pennsylvania, the Butzners, in 1916. Jacobs, who published under her husband’s name, first used the term in her 1992 book Systems of Survival to describe the mafia, or any corrupt association of people, that relies on government collusion to get away with ongoing criminal acts. It was several years later, in 1994, that scientists Michael Braumguart and William McDonnough used the term in the context of recycling, for the monstrous and growing problem of biological discards with inextricable synthetic parts.

Scrap recycling itself is something of a monstrous hybrid. I’d been proud of my tenuous connection to what I’d assumed was a straightforward moral and environmental good, but in his book Cash for Your Trash, environmental historian Carl Zimring suggests a more bifurcated view of what scrapyards are and do. Industrial pollution from scrapyards continues to be a significant problem, and only aluminum, he reports, can be captured and reused at up to 75 percent. For steel and mixed alloy metals, scrap recycling makes it possible to produce materials that are cheaper, but it doesn’t disrupt the amount of steel produced from newly extracted ore. “We may like to think of recycling as a cure-all,” Zimring says, “but it’s not. That notion is reassuring, but it’s false.”

Less than fifty percent of scrapyards in the U.S. still belong to the Jewish families that started them at the turn of the century.

The Novey name didn’t prove to be anything close to a cure-all either. I continue to write around the perimeter of my childhood, inventing new ways with each book to write around the same sharp corners. No matter how many genres I pursued, there was no relieving the core loneliness of my school years in rural Pennsylvania, the sight of classmates spitting tobacco juice into the pages of Edith Wharton.

Marty has yet to sell Novey Recycling. Zimring, when I reached out to him with questions, said Marty is a rarity, that most heirs of Jewish scrapyards sold by the early aughts to larger corporations. Less than fifty percent of scrapyards in the U.S. still belong to the Jewish families that started them at the turn of the century.

“The legacy clearly means something to him,” Zimring remarked, an insight I relayed to Marty over the phone. “Well, I keep talking about selling, but then I drive there and get out of the car.…” He sighed audibly and left the sentence unfinished.

I understood his reluctance to finish the thought. To be the heir who sold off the family business after a hundred years will be become a defining fact in his life history, and in Clearfield’s history, and remembered among all of us who descend from Ida and Abe.

After hearing Marty stop mid-sentence, I felt more acutely aware of the upside of receiving no material inheritance. When you are the heir of nothing more than an invented verbal alliance, you’re not beholden to any fixed place or state—invention being a source as dynamic as uncontaminated aluminum, possible to recast indefinitely.

Idra Novey is a writer and translator. Her most recent novel is Take What You Need.
Originally published:
April 5, 2023


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