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My Daily Dives in the Dumpster by Lars Eighner

Page history last edited by Jayson Yeagley 10 years, 3 months ago

“My Daily Dives in the Dumpster” by Lars Eighner

from Harper’s, December 1991

 

            I began dumpster diving about a year before I became homeless.

 

            I prefer the term “scavenging” and use the word “scrounging” when I mean to be obscure.  I have heard people, evidently meaning to be polite, use the word “foraging,” but I prefer to reserve that word for gathering nuts and berries and such which I do also, according to the season and opportunity.

 

            I like the frankness of the word “scavenging.”  I live from the refuse of others.  I am a scavenger.  I think it a sound and honorable niche, although if I could I would naturally prefer to live the comfortable consumer life, perhaps – and only perhaps – as a slightly less wasteful consumer owing to what I have learned as a scavenger.

 

            Except for jeans, all my clothes come from Dumpsters.  Boom boxes, candles, bedding, toilet paper, medicine, books, a typewriter, a virgin male love doll, change sometimes amounting to many dollars:  All came from Dumpsters.  And, yes, I eat from Dumpsters too.

 

            There are a predictable series of stages that 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, this is unnecessary, since most people instinctively look away from scavengers.)

 

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

 

            This 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 he may become lost and never recover.  All the Dumpster divers I have known come to the point of trying to acquire everything they touch.  Why not take it, they reason, it is all free.  This is, of course, hopeless, and most divers come to realize that they must restrict themselves to items of relatively immediate utility.

 

            The finding of objects is becoming something of an urban art.  Even respectable, employed people will sometimes find something tempting sticking out of a Dumpster or standing beside one.  Quite a number of people, not all of them of the bohemian type, are willing to brag that they found this or that piece in the trash.

 

            But eating from Dumpsters is the thing that separates the dilettanti from the professionals.  Eating safely involves three principles:  using the senses and common sense to evaluate the condition of the found materials; knowing the Dumpsters of a given area and checking them regularly; and seeking always to answer the question, Why was this discarded?

 

            Perhaps everyone who has a kitchen and a regular supply of groceries has, at one time or another, eaten half a sandwich before discovering mold on the bread, or has gotten a mouthful of milk before realizing the milk had turned.  Nothing of the sort is likely to happen to a Dumpster diver because he is constantly reminded that most food is discarded for a reason.

 

            Yet perfectly good food can be found in Dumpsters.  Canned goods, for example, turn up fairly often in the Dumpsters I frequent.  All except the most phobic people would be willing to eat from a can even if it came from a Dumpster.  I have few qualms about dry foods such as crackers, cookies, cereal, chips, and pasta if they are free of visible contaminants and still dry and crisp.  Raw fruits and vegetables with intact skins seem perfectly safe to me, excluding, of course, the obviously rotten.  Many are discarded for minor imperfections that can be pared away.  Chocolate is often discarded only because it has become discolored as the cocoa butter de-emulsified.

 

            I began scavenging by pulling pizzas out of the Dumpster behind a pizza delivery shop.  In general, prepared food requires caution, but in this case I knew what time the shop closed and went to the Dumpster as soon as the last of the help left.

 

            Because the workers at these places are usually inexperienced, pizzas are often made with the wrong topping, baked incorrectly, or refused on delivery for being cold.  The products to be discarded are boxed up because inventory is kept by counting boxes:  A boxed pizza can be written off; an unboxed pizza does not exist.  So I had a steady supply of fresh, sometimes warm pizza.

 

            The area I frequent is inhabited by many affluent college students.  I am not here by chance; the Dumpsters are very rich.  Students throw out many good things, including food, particularly at the end of the semester and before and after breaks.  I find it advantageous to keep an eye on the academic calendar.

 

            A typical discard is a half jar of peanut butter – though non-organic peanut butter does not require refrigeration and is unlikely to spoil in any reasonable time.  Occasionally I find a cheese with a spot of mold, which, of course I just pare off, and because it is obvious why the cheese was discarded, I treat it with less suspicion than an apparently perfect cheese found in similar circumstances.  One of my favorite finds is yogurt – often discarded, still sealed, when the expiration date has passed – because it will keep for several days, even in warm weather.

 

            I avoid ethnic foods I am unfamiliar with.  If I do not know what it is supposed to look or smell like when it is good, I cannot be certain I will be able to tell if it is bad.

 

            No matter how careful I am I still get dysentery at least once a month, oftener in warm weather.  I do not want to paint too romantic a picture.  Dumpster diving has serious drawbacks as a way of life.

 

            Though I have a proprietary feeling about my Dumpsters, I don’t mind my direct competitors, other scavengers, as much as I hate the soda-can scroungers.

 

            I have tried scrounging aluminum cans with an able-bodied companion, and afoot we could make no more than a few dollars a day.  I can extract the necessities of life from the Dumpsters directly with far less effort than would be required to accumulate the equivalent value in aluminum.  Can scroungers, then, are people who must have small amounts of cash – mostly drug addicts and winos.

 

            I do not begrudge them the cans, but can scroungers tend to tear up the Dumpsters, littering the area and mixing the contents.  There are precious few courtesies among scavengers, but it is a common practice to set aside surplus items:  pairs of shoes, clothing, canned goods, and such.  A true scavenger hates to see good stuff go to waste, and what he cannot use he leaves in good condition in plain sight.  Can scroungers lay waste to everything in their path and will stir one of a pair of good shoes to the bottom of a Dumpster to be lost or ruined in the muck.  They become so specialized that they can see only cans and earn my contempt by passing up change, canned goods, and readily hockable items.

 

            Can scroungers will even go through individual garbage cans, something I have never seen a scavenger do.  Going through individual garbage cans without spreading litter is almost impossible, and litter is likely to reduce the public’s tolerance of scavenging.  But my strongest reservation about going through individual garbage cans is that this seems to me a very personal kind of invasion, one to which I would object if I were a homeowner.

 

            Though Dumpsters seem somehow less personal than garbage cans, they still contain bank statements, bills, correspondence, pill bottles, and other sensitive information.  I avoid trying to draw conclusions about the people who dump in the Dumpsters I frequent.  I think it would be unethical to do so, although I know many people will find the idea of scavenger ethics too funny for words.

 

            Occasionally a find tells a story.  I once found a small paper bag containing some unused condoms, several partial tubes of flavored sexual lubricant, a partially used compact of birth control pills, and the torn pieces of a picture of a young man.  Clearly, the woman was through with him and planning to give up sex altogether.

 

            Dumpster things are often sad – abandoned teddy bears, shredded wedding albums, despaired of sales kits.  I find diaries and journals.  College students also discard their papers; I am horrified to discover the kind of paper that now merits an A in an undergraduate course.

 

            Dumpster diving is outdoor work, often surprisingly pleasant.  It is not entirely predictable; things of interest turn up every day, and some days there are finds of great value.  I am always very pleased when I can turn up exactly the thing I most wanted to find.  Yet in spite of the element of chance, scavenging, more than most other pursuits, tends to yield returns in some proportion to the effort and intelligence brought to bear.

 

            I think of scavenging as a modern form of self-reliance.  After ten years of government service, where everything is geared to the lowest common denominator, I find work that rewards initiative and effort refreshing.  Certainly I would be happy to have a sinecure again, but I am not heartbroken to be without one.

 

            I find from the experience of scavenging two rather deep lessons.  The first is to take what I can use and let the rest go.  I have come to think that there is no value in the abstract.  A thing I cannot use or make useful, perhaps by trading, has no value, however fine or rare it may be.  (I mean useful in the broad sense – some art, for example, I would think valuable.)

 

            The second lesson is the transience of material being.  I do not suppose that ideas are immortal, but certainly they are longer-lived than material objects.

 

            The things I find in Dumpsters, the love letters and rag dolls of so many lives, remind me of this lesson.  Many times in my travels I have lost everything but the clothes on my back.  Now I hardly pick up a thing without envisioning the time I will cast it away.   This, I think, is a healthy state of mind.  Almost everything I have now has already been cast out at least once, proving that what I own is valueless to someone.

 

            I find that my desire to grab for the gaudy bauble has been largely sated.  I think this is an attitude I share with the very wealthy – we both know there is plenty more where whatever we have came from.  Between us are the rat-race millions who have confounded their selves with the objects they grasp and who nightly scavenge the cable channels looking for they know not what.

 

            I am sorry for them.

 

For Study and Discussion

 

Questions for Response

1.  What assumptions do you make about someone sorting through a Dumpster?

2.  What things that you throw away in the weekly garbage might others find valuable?

 

Questions about Purpose

1.  Why does Eighner prefer the term scavenger to scrounging or foraging to characterize the process he analyzes?

2.  In what ways does Eighner’s analysis demonstrate that Dumpster diving is “a sound and honorable niche”?

 

Questions about Audience

1.  How does Eighner anticipate his audience’s reaction to his subject by presenting the “predictable series of stages that a person goes through in learning to scavenge”?

2.  How do Eighner’s “scavenger ethics” enhance his standing with his readers?

 

Questions about Strategies

1.  How does Eighner use the example of pizza to illustrate the three principles of eating from a Dumpster?

2.  How does Eighner’s analysis of the process of “soda-can scrounging” help distinguish that process from “scavenging”?

 

Questions for Discussion

1.  How do the two lessons Eighner has learned demonstrate that his “work” rewards initiative and effort?

2.  What attitudes toward consumption and waste does Eighner claim he shares with the very wealthy?  Why does he feel sorry for “the rat-race millions”?

 

 

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