OF THE LITTER
to the ďtop of the heapĒ with an ambitious bottom-feeder
4am on a winter night, and I'm parked on a dead end street near Kaisertown.
Itís a secluded corner of the city I found by driving around aimlessly.
I'm new to town, and penniless after buying my van with $700 I squirreled
away the last time I got a paycheck. That was 7 months ago. Over those
months, I managed to live off a few hundred bucks while sleeping in
a warehouse closet and helping some friends make a TV show to try
selling to a network.
I'm sleeping in the van. I'm wearing all my clothes, gloves and hat,
piled under a sleeping bag and an army surplus parka, plus 3 mildewed,
cold-stiff leather jackets and a dog-hair covered blanket that I scavenged
off a curb. Without those, the cold would be intolerable. Thereís
a snot-sicle on my nose because it's sticking out of the pile. Otherwise,
I'm comfortable enough, after lots of shivering and squirming around
to cover cold parts, and tensing up at faraway traffic sounds, expecting
someone to knock on the window. Trying to rest with no privacy makes
you nervous, but after a few days of bad sleep, even a nap can be
startled awake by a car door slamming outside. Before I can move, a
painful light blasts through the frosty, fogged-up windows and my sleepy
eyelids. Two female cops are aiming flashlights in the window and staring
at me like I'm a neon-colored turd. Dammit, I should have parked near
other cars. I stumble outside feeling groggy and fucked up, and mumble
something about getting kicked out.
girl cops look even younger than me, more like hall monitors than
public protectors with badges and guns. They act like immature assholes,
too. After a bunch of nasty questions, they canít find anything wrong,
so they let me go. As they leave, they mock my tired mumbling as if
I were stupid or on drugs. Itís very fucking mean. Itís also counterproductive,
like when a mother with seven kids slaps them all because one shit
on the rug.
not going to get any more sleep, so I find a Tim Horton's open down
the road. I go in for a coffee and check the classifieds for a crappy
room for rent. I'll have to pay with the last bit of overdraft protection
credit on my empty bank account. I had already gone looking for welfare
the day before, but I found out that New York State doesn't provide
any immediate rent help, not even once. Itís discouraging. Luckily,
after I leave Timmy Ho's, I find a place that takes my check, and
move right in.
broke and sleeping in a van sounds desperate, but I only got a small
sample of what can be a constant screw for people without good education,
jobs, insurance, or health. I'm lucky enough to have advantages- college,
energy like a caffienated roach, and the ability to make something
from nothing. I get material goods without buying them, in ways most
people would never consider.
started scavenging from dumpsters at college in Canada. I got the
idea it might be a good place to look for useful things from a friend
at home, a restorationist who sold trash-picked antiques to silly
people for hundreds. In class, I met a hippie who helped run his familyís
farm with crafty do-it-yourself skills, and he showed me a bunch of
TVs that came out of the dumpster. Then I got a tour. I found an electric
heater that worked after hooking up a loose wire, perfect for the
drafty school studio. After that, the dumpster was a regular stop
between classes. When I found hundreds of photography portfolios from
1980, I set them up as a spontaneous exhibit around the school. There
were also books, furniture, electronics, and much more. As a teacher
explained, sometimes the school dumped good stuff and replaced it,
just to keep spending money so they would get the same budget next
I graduated, Bush was in, and there were no jobs left in my field
except those that paid in rupees. So I hooked up with my friend and
helped get his TV show on cable, on a budget scraped out of the couch.
It was pretty cool in that he had supportive parents and a big farm.
He wrangled free studio space in an empty office, and the crew moved
in, forming a sort of commune. I slept in a concrete furnace room,
and a warehouse closet with a few sheets of drywall separating it
from the forklifts. Dumpsters provided many useful things to help
us keep working for free. I read The Art and Science of Dumpster
Diving by John Hoffman, and learned an amazing fact: edible groceries
can be found in dumpsters, in amounts that could feed a TV crew.
the show didn't get picked up. For lack of anywhere better to go,
I ended up in Buffalo with a relative. (Let's skip the part about
getting kicked out of Canada as an illegal immigrant.) It didn't work
very well, so I got the van and left.
months since then, another winter is coming, and Iím newly relocated
from the first place I had in a rooming house. Now I have a real apartment.
Itís not a mansion, but itís pretty coolóyou donít get panhandled
on the way to the kitchen. The place needs some furnishings. It's
garbage night, and I'm out cruising curbs on a bike, picking through
trash piles with a flashlight, hoping to find something good. Heat
is going to cost a lot this winter, so I want window drapes to keep
out the cold air. The curbs are generous tonight. Someone threw out
3 sets in good condition in a plastic case. Theyíre Martha Stewart
collection. Itís extra nice to recycle the products of deprived sweatshop
workers and not support Wal-mart. I hope someone leaves behind 8 more
sets to cover the rest of the windows. Itís a big request from the
garbage gods, but on trash night it's rare not to find something really
useful like that.
trash has already provided window blinds for my place. There's also
couches, chairs, dressers, tables, lamps, rugs, blankets, microwaves,
pots & pans, appliances, electronics, TVs, computers, phones,
tools, hardware, books, DVDs, and many more things, found in useful
shape or even brand new. The fridge is stuffed with bread, produce,
and other perishables found unsold, maybe past the sell-by date, but
not the use-by date. Thereís plenty of food in sealed boxes, bags,
and cans too. The walls are lined with a vanload of modular metal
shelving from the dumpster of a store that shut down, and the shelves
hold $15,000 worth of goods being sold for self-employment (some found,
most bought used to turn around on the internet.)
by the door is a jacket used for a blanket in the van last winter,
which looks nice after a cleaning. Then there's a few pairs of steel-toe
boots, recovered from the trash in great shape, except the store slashed
them to make sure they were wasted (bastards). They're sewn up and
fit great. Boots come in handy for avoiding broken glass in dumpsters.
Even my jeans and shirts came from the trashónice ones, too. Me, I
like this stuff. It shows how much stupid waste there is in this country,
and how the work of recovering it can pay off.
benefit from their finds in different ways. Most often, they save
money on things that would otherwise be bought. Itís awful nice to
erase your grocery bill. Fact: the book Grocery Revolution
says that almost a penny of every dollar in yearly U.S. packaged goods
sales is lost on products that canít be sold after handling mistakes.
(That might mean a stained label, a dented can, or a bulk unit where
one package is broken but the rest arenít.) Thatís a potential $2.5
billion of food in American dumpsters, and it doesnít even account
for the hyper-cautious expiration dates they put on everything from
day-old bread to bottled water (not because they care, but to increase
disposal so they can sell more).
groceries might sound gross, but I feel safer eating food thatís factory-sealed
by happy robots than restaurant food touched by filthy humans. As
a teenage wage slave at Der Burgher Fuhrer, I got minor intestinal
plagues from their food almost every week. Years after going on a
vegetarian dumpster diet, thatís a thing of the past.
can be pretty tough to make hard cash from trash, but I did once find
a $10 bag of quarters. I hear that a great cash source is ďscrappingĒ-
selling junk metal to scrapyards, especially copper. Even cutting
cords off old appliances for the copper wire can make lots of money.
Ebay is also a lucrative way to sell. My restorationist friend made
well over a hundred just from an old wood door from the curb outside
an architecturally important house. My biggest legally cash-convertible
find was worth nearly $1,000. A net connection, a credit card, lots
of storage, and a roomy vehicle are helpful for this type of endeavor.
often curb cruise on a bike, because itís great for weaving around
in dense neighborhoods. Itís free and healthy, too. On trash night,
I bike for a few hours using a big army backpack and trash bags, and
carry small things home, fanning out from there. Large items are marked
by address and picked up by van. I don't find too much wealthy people's
trash here, but Buffalo sure is good for the trash of people who moved
scavenging could be a grey area, but garbage is abandoned property,
and cops donít need a search warrant to look in there. Shredding documents
is the answer to identity theft. Some people might get mad about trespassing,
but they can go jump in a compactor, because recycling is the right
thing to do.
may not be theft, but guarded garbage is. I like how scavenging instead
of buying undermines profit for people who waste what other people
can use. Sharing excess is good. Itís not for everybody, nor could
it last forever, but as long as rampant, unmitigated capitalism shows
no signs of abating and poor people get screwed harder and more forcefully,
the more scavenging the better. Doesnít everybody like getting something
love the social behavior of scavenging. It can be intense and obsessive.
It helps you survive with serendipity and ingenuity, instead of conforming
to a pre-planned economic mold. Shopping is for dronesóhumans evolved
by hunting and gathering. It sharpens your mind and makes you creative.
Many artists do it. In Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash,
author Susan Strasser writes about "Bricolage," an age-old
skill for cobbling together odds and ends to fit your needs. You might
have a rag-bag or a scrap heap, patch clothes, cook from scratch,
repair your own house and car, and make your own bike. It helps you
learn how things work, instead of how much they cost. Lots of things
get thrown out because they just need a minute of work, like wiring
on a new plug, or just replacing a fuse.
used to consider feigning Tourette's syndrome while taking orders
at Der Burgher Fuhrer, just to rile people up. Itís a stupid prank,
but that kind of attitude can make it fun to trash-pick. People are
ashamed to look at you, or they make fun of you. Then you sell and
feed them stuff from their own garbage, and they enjoy it in ignorance.
An even better revenge is to share with your friends, and exist without
working for a boss while other people kiss ass from 9 to 5. Yes, garbage
people can be eccentric. They can be crazy. The Manson Family existed
on dumpster food. Charlie sang a song that went like this: "Garbage
dump, my little garbage dump, I could feed the world with my garbage
dump..." On another extreme, Madonna dumpster-dived on her way
to being a zillionaire. Itís not just a survival skill; itís an evolutionary
advantage. We garbage people are hardy like roaches, and often smarter.
When the oil runs out, terrorists drop the bomb, Antarctica melts,
and the robots take over, weíre going to outlast everybody.