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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Dumpster diving

Posted By on 09.11.12 at 06:44 AM

dumpster_diving.JPG
I'm no expert on Dumpster diving, but I do have fond memories of hopping into neighborhood Dumpsters from about age six or seven up until I decided I was too cool for it, maybe around 11 or 12. Some people argue that despite the "diving" moniker, scavenging doesn't have to involve actually going into the trash can, but for my little brother and me, the main draw was getting inside and rooting around (the hooks on the front of the Dumpsters that allowed trucks to pick them up also made for excellent footholds). We must not have gone that often, because I can't remember turning up anything more exciting than some old wicker baskets and discarded tiles—though I believe we were pretty excited about those finds.

Since then, though, I haven't done much of that type of urban foraging. In the small town where I went to college the bagel shop would throw out big bags of bagels at the end of the day, or so I heard, but I never got around to stopping by. I did find a couple nice deck chairs in my alley a few years ago, and I often see people going through the trash cans out there. And I've read articles about freeganism, which has become so well-known that even Marie Claire wrote about it a few years back (they liken it to shopping at a Gucci clearance sale, possibly not the most apt comparison ever made). Just recently, I came across a fascinating piece by Lars Eighner, a writer who was homeless for several years in the late 1980s, on Dumpster diving.

He started about a year before he became homeless, he says, so that he could put his "sporadic income" toward rent. After he lost his home, he and his dog, Lizbeth, spent three years scavenging for food and other necessities. Eighner ended up teaching several other people the basics; he writes that there's a "series of stages a person goes through in learning to scavenge."

At first the new scavenger is filled with disgust and self-loathing. He is ashamed of being seen and may lurk around, trying to duck behind things, or he may try to dive at night. (In fact, most people instinctively look away from a scavenger. By skulking around, the novice calls attention to himself and arouses suspicion. Diving at night is ineffective and needlessly messy.)

Every grain of rice seems to be a maggot. Everything seems to stink. He can wipe the egg yolk off the found can, but he cannot erase the stigma of eating garbage out of his mind.

That stage passes with experience. The scavenger finds a pair of running shoes that fit and look and smell brand new. He finds a pocket calculator in perfect working order. He finds pristine ice cream, still frozen, more than he can eat or keep. He begins to understand: people do throw away perfectly good stuff, a lot of perfectly good stuff.

At this stage, Dumpster shyness begins to dissipate. The diver, after all, has the last laugh. He is finding all manner of good things which are his for the taking. Those who disparage his profession are the fools, not he.

There's a fair amount of philosophy in the piece, as Eighner discusses only taking what's necessary and the transient nature of material possessions. And it's well-done, but my favorite part is where he reveals that he enjoys doing needlepoint, followed by a critique of the state of education these days.

Silly vanities also come to rest in the Dumpsters. I am a rather accomplished needleworker. I get a lot of materials from the Dumpsters. Evidently sorority girls, hoping to impress someone, perhaps themselves, with their mastery of a womanly art, buy a lot of embroider-by-number kits, work a few stitches horribly, and eventually discard the whole mess. I pull out their stitches, turn the canvas over, and work original designs. Do not think I refrain from chuckling as I make original gifts from these kits.

I find diaries and journals. I have often thought of compiling a book of literary found objects. And perhaps I will one day. But what I find is hopelessly commonplace and bad without being, even unconsciously, camp. College students also discard their papers. I am horrified to discover the kind of paper which now merits an "A" in an undergraduate course. I am grateful, however, for the number of good books and magazines the students throw out.

He never did compile the literary found objects into a book, but he did write a book called Travels with Lizbeth about his time as a scavenger. (Interestingly, given the slightly prim tone of this piece, he also writes gay men's erotica.)

Read more from Foraging Week, this week's Variations on a Theme:

"Mix of the day: Jon Brooks's Summer Triangles," by Tal Rosenberg
"Ask a librarian, and then listen," by J.R. Jones
"The primitive urge to hunt is what drives us to art fairs," by Deanna Isaacs
"Mushroom hunting with Iliana Regan," by Julia Thiel
"Forage every stream," by Michael Miner

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