For the Bottle Man, Business Is (Happily) in the Toilet


“That’s what I am, a digger,” he said.

Mr. Jordan carries home the bottles, cleans them and tags them with information about their history and where they were found. He then sells them at the Grand Bazaar NYC flea market on Columbus Avenue and 77th Street, where he is known as the Bottle Man. His prices range from $10 to $80, based on rarity, color and condition.

He turns other found artifacts into art pieces to sell during the winter holiday season at the Union Square Holiday Market.

“Tourists love taking home something that was dug up in New York City,” said Mr. Jordan, who at his vending booths cuts a Victorian figure, often in a derby, scarf and vest and sporting a beard and mustache. “They’re buying a real New York artifact.”

Mr. Jordan mines numerous landfills throughout the city, some dating back to Colonial times, but his other hunting grounds are sites where outhouses once stood and where castoffs were often tossed.

He combs through these sewage pits, or privies, in use before indoor plumbing, usually in the rear of apartment buildings.

“There’s some beautiful stuff left in those privies — we salvage what most people overlook,” said Mr. Jordan, who tackles the deep pits with his digger buddies using a tripod and pulley system to haul up dirt.

Access often comes when old buildings are demolished for redevelopment.

“Every time they knock down a building, it’s an opportunity,” said Mr. Jordan, who closely monitors construction projects and studies 19th-century maps to locate possible outhouse locations.

Photo

Mr. Jordan’s home, in Astoria, Queens, is a museum of the city’s “buried past,” as he puts it.

Credit
Justin Gilliland/The New York Times

His longtime apartment in Astoria, Queens, is a museum of the city’s “buried past,” as he puts it. His unearthed items are densely displayed, as is the artwork he makes out of them.

His oldest artifacts date back to the Dutch who settled in downtown Manhattan. Items include a vast collection of clay pipes, porcelain doll heads, pocket watches and assorted pottery.

His bathroom is tiled with the vintage glass that he buffs by dumping it along the rocky shoreline of the roiling Hell Gate section of the East River, and retrieving it months later.

The items are meticulously displayed on nearly every square foot of wall, cabinet and closet. His windows have become multishelved displays of colorful bottles dating back to the late 1600s.

He picked up one bottle, he said, during a dig at a construction site in the South Street Seaport where a 25-foot-high wall of moist dirt collapsed and might have killed him if he had not jumped out of the way.

Mr. Jordan shares his apartment with his girlfriend, Belle Costes, who makes and sells her own line of jewelry at the Grand Bazaar flea market.

Mr. Jordan and Ms. Costes, both longtime vendors at the flea market, became a couple several years ago. She began going on his digs and collaborating on making jewelry from artifacts.

Mr. Jordan arrived in New York from Connecticut at age 11, when his father, a Coast Guard mechanic, moved the family to quarters on Governors Island in New York Harbor. Mr. Jordan said he saw two teenagers digging for Revolutionary War items at Fort Jay on the island and joined them. He found musket balls, cow-bone dice and a Buffalo Bill souvenir ring and became hooked on digging.

He attended the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan and studied painting at the Art Students League. In his 20s, he learned about old bottles and how to hawk them from a charismatic figure known as Bottle Bill, a former circus barker who sold vintage bottles out of an Upper East Side storefront, he said.

These days, Mr. Jordan seeks permission from developers or other officials to access sites before new foundations are dug, sweetening his plea with a choice artifact. Years ago, he often slipped onto sites unauthorized, under cover of darkness or an official-looking safety vest and hard hat.

Passers-by have called the police, suspecting him of burying a body or planting a bomb, he said, adding that not long after the Sept. 11 attacks, he was digging at a site near ground zero when the police converged upon him, guns drawn.

Trespassing charges were dismissed after the judge viewed the art Mr. Jordan makes from found artifacts.

“The judge said, ‘I got a house in Brooklyn,” Mr. Jordan recalled. “You think I got anything buried there?’”

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