News & Politics

Zen and the Art of Dumpster Diving

Is there anything wrong with digging through people's trash or dining on pigeons? Two authors explore the filth and treasure of the scavenger's life.
Dirk Jamison's father is a dumpster diver. He's seventy-something now and still dives, but he started in 1973 as a sun-burnished Orange County surfer with a penchant for taking "vacations" away from his wife and three kids. In his memoir, "Perishable" (Chicago Review, 2006), Jamison describes his dad having a revelation and quitting a construction job on the day he met a man eating a thrown-away chicken in a parking lot: "Trashing makes money obsolete. No reason to pay for food. It waits out back" -- behind markets and restaurants -- "same as on the shelf. Maybe it's not as clean or spiffy, but it looks plenty tasty, and it's free." Still-sealed but stepped-on Mars bars proved a marvel, cereal and pies in crushed boxes, jars of pears and pickled eggs just past their sell-by dates.

"Making a living," Jamison's dad declared, "means simply finding something edible. Then the rest of the day is wide open."

Boiled down to that, it sounds so true. Hippie-esque, but a bolt from the blue now, when even telecommuting is a far cry from "On the Road." Capitalism makes you mistrust free time and freeloaders, makes you even mistrust what's free. Every second of every day, shiny ads for shiny stuff persuade you that price equals quality. Scavengers are neither in nor out of that equation, neither suckers (as some would call you) nor outlaws but odd byproducts, skimming the foam off a bloated system that leaks luxury, a wasteful want-then-toss system, the most wonderful system in the world.

Enlisting his reluctant kids in dumpster runs and the subsequent sneaking of cargo past a hulking, class-conscious, compulsively dieting wife who ate barrels of KFC on the QT and believed that knee surgery entailed the Tinker Toys-style total removal then reattachment of legs, Jamison's dad -- he dubbed himself "Aark, the Heathen Scavenger" -- had wide-open days.

He vowed never to waste a single one. Yet in short sharp sentences that thunk like timed mallets wired to your temples, Jamison invokes a liar, a quitter, a ditcher, a deadbeat: The sort who gorges on the sweet hearts of watermelons without offering anyone a slice. And here we have a moral Magic 8-ball. Like hopping, say, or sipping water, scavenging is a neutral action: neither bad nor good, itself, nor rendering those who do it bad or good. A scavenger might be a saint. And a scavenger might just as easily be Jamison's dad: self-satisfied, never saving his son from "this shark we'd been asked to call Sister" -- the nameless hitting, kicking, stabbing, rope-whipping sibling, their mother's "little sweetness pie," who beat the future author bloody, daily: "What hurts more, kidney or spine?"

Jamison, who has also made a documentary film about his father that played at Sundance, tells interviewers that he remains angry at the old man -- angrier still that the old man has no regrets. Scavenging is neutral, but society's attitudes about it aren't. So if you scavenge, you have to be cool with what folks will say. About it. About you. Which makes every scavenger a rebel, a tower of steel. But is it fair to haul others into the fringes who haven't asked to go there? Especially when dumpsters and food are involved. Double-especially when those others are children, who should never have to scrounge their own meals, whose tender immune systems might not withstand whatever lurks in expired YooHoo, whose sense of self is still amorphous and whose friends might skate past and call them bums.

This isn't to put the emphasis on some scavengers being rich and some being poor. They are, but that's not the dividing line. Some have to ragpick, marooned in the margins with no other choice, but most of us are faced with free stuff every day and decide what to do with it.

And some scavenge. Some don't.

Postmodern scavengers comprise a subculture skulking so far between the cracks that you almost never see it. Secret, because scavengers know how society scorns them as it does the roach, the rat, the vulture, the animal-kingdom cleanup crew. Secret, because like forty-niners, scavengers are territorial. We guard our caches, mines and lodes. Secret because in a culture that defines itself by what it buys, we are not buying. This sets us apart. We do not march out of our homes with shopping lists, but wait and wonder. We sift through castoffs. While this delivers a certain buzz and fuels our ingenuity, our spontaneity and flexibility and creativity -- Old forks! I'll make a windchime! -- we also wonder, deep down, whether we do it because we believe we deserve trash.

Then again, some kinds of scavenging aren't about trash. Steven Rinella calls himself a scavenger, but he isn't sifting through anyone else's discards, the broken and outdated and dead. Really he's a predator, a raptor not a roach -- although his prey often comprises creatures that even other predators don't want.

Steven Rinella's sense of self is as solid as the Montana plains and mountains he plies. He won't apologize.

Most people "happily pay good money for dead animals," Rinella writes in his book, "The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine" (Miramax, 2006), "so long as the animals are killed by proxy executioners and sold in grocery stores. But many of those same people are suspicious of folks who enjoy killing their own food. … So let this serve as a warning about what kind of guy I am, and what kind of book this is."

What kind of guy he is is young and dazzlingly articulate, a contributor to Outside and The New Yorker, a world-traveling postgraduate who is tender toward his dying father and vegetarian girlfriend -- and who loves to hunt. He shoots. He hooks. He snares. He nets. He hacks the heads off things. He guts. He flings fillets onto flames and freezes the rest to make elkburgers, pickled liver, snapping-turtle soup. He's a manly and literate man who happened upon a 1903 cookbook by Auguste Escoffier, the King of Chefs and Chef of Kings.

Friend to superstars and sovereigns, Escoffier invented Peach Melba. Rinella was startled at the book's lusty how-tos for slaughter, its recipes entailing roasted songbirds, rabbit blood, crayfish-shell paste, ducks sewn inside pig bladders and poached. Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire "wasn't directed at some passive, armchair history buff. It was directed at a guy like me": creative and not afraid to kill. Rinella envied Escoffier for living "at such a cool time in history," when restaurants served baby pigeon, millet-fattened blackbirds, and elephant trunk -- "and here I was, stuck in a time when collecting and eating such things would be considered hickish and repulsive." So he spent a year collecting and eating such things, crisscrossing America with rifles, rods and reels.

It's a gimmick. But it feels so natural and he writes about clamdigging and nest-robbing with an insider's ease, because rather than coming on all madcap and out of nowhere, the Escoffier project simply supersized how Rinella already lived and ate, and what he already was: a hunter-gatherer.

That's what he calls himself. A literal description, in his case. He notes that "up until ten thousand years ago, every human being survived by hunting and gathering." Two thousand years ago, half of the world's population survived that way. Over the last 400 years hunting and gathering has, in the strictest sense, become nearly obsolete. But soften the sense, and all scavengers today -- whether at dumpsters or curbside free-boxes, fly-casting from piers, even in second-string, not-quite-free milieux such as yard sales and dollar stores -- are hunter-gatherers. Define it as foraging, taking what comes. Sublimating choice to the bigger thrill of chance. Saving cash, working less. Define it as waiting, catching as catch can, the adventure of acquiring items with built-in histories. Define it as sidestepping whatever market sector some genius thinks you belong to. Define it as dressing in discards from a throng of strangers, thus you cannot be read. You are a mystery. Hunting and gathering in Midcity, eyes to the ground, I found a pearl-and-diamond earring and a ten-dollar bill, yesterday. A clutch of perfumey, fuzzy-fleshed, creamy-meated Chinese loquats from a dark-leaved tree. Some days nothing. Some days a pile of shirts. I go days at a span without opening my wallet. My garden grows with scavenged seeds. Tomatillos, parsley, five kinds of bok choy. You never know.

Scavenging is at once primal and postmodern. Both precivilizational and poscivilizational. Escoffier cooked at the Ritz, yet "his recipes demonstrated a frontier sense of thrift and economy," notes Rinella, who sees every downtown whose pigeons he doesn't catch and eat as "a pageant of missed opportunities." Mainstream life -- that is, being a sucker -- lets inborn scavenging skills atrophy, makes one lazy and incurious and dull. Choice is a delusion anyway in a corporate culture: the brand-new and the mass-produced, sleek surfaces. For the jolt of the random, the authentic spark, rifle through junk.

I draw the line at dumpster food. But from the dumpsters of sedate Berkeley residential streets I have drawn model ships, oil paintings, punchbowls, a complete naval uniform from the Spanish-American War, pressed and folded small, stashed in a shoebox. I am married to someone who will climb over the edge and inside, rummaging while I perch on its gunwale pointing at lamps and volleyball trophies and saying that. One day in a dumpster in the '80s, we met a punk girl named Donna Dangermouse.
Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, including "Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto."
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