A Dumpster Divin' Christmas
April 26, 2000
Christmas every week! Can you imagine it? Could you possibly picture what it would be like to be a healthy, happy child with wise, twinkly-eyed parents and besides that, in addition to that, every week is Christmas! What bliss! What bottom-less depths of bubbling joy! Well, that's what life was like growing up in a semi-rural family of dumpster divers. Yes, dumpster divers. You know, those mysterious scroungers who pull up behind stores with an old pick-up or a large, beat-up car and commence to load boxes, bales and bags of refuse into their vehicle. Yes, those people, those frugal and clever individuals who experience the wonder of Christmas morning the whole year 'round. For a moment, mentally set aside the image of an unwashed, homeless and mentally ill vagrant who reeks of cheap booze like Night Train. Obviously, this person is experiencing desperate poverty, hopelessness, and negative thoughts. But consider that rustic-looking family of five with an old Ford pick-up. What do you suppose they are seeking behind that shopping mall? What is it that keeps them coming back day after day, loading their vehicle with a smile on their faces and a crafty gleam in their eyes? Do you imagine they are finding rancid fish heads for a stew? Would people come back day after day for rubbish when food stamps, welfare, unemployment, surplus food distribution and soup kitchens are so widely available? Affluent Americans can't fathom the truth in this statement: THE DUMPSTERS OF THE UNITED STATES ARE FULL OF GOODIES! It's like an endless Christmas! Amazing as it may sound, our highly-advanced civilization has reached such a plateau of convenience, disposability and profligate waste that a bright, motivated scrounger can lead a relatively affluent lifestyle just by gathering up all that discarded wealth. Food! Clothing! Furniture! Appliances! Books! Building materials! Money! Yes, money! People actually discard beer pitchers full of pennies, crumpled dollar bills, wads of foreign currency, even precious metals. My wife's wedding band with five small diamonds was a lucky dumpster find. I have found coin collections, new clothing, boxes of tools, even vacuum-packed gourmet coffee, (Irish cream, to be specific.) Of course, one good rummage sale and even that beat-up chair becomes cash in your hot little hands. I'm not talking about hours of gathering cans to earn a few dollars, but quick rewards for a few minutes of work. We're talking about a hundred perfectly good t.v. dinners, one day past their expiration date, still frozen. Or, perhaps, an almost-new couch for your apartment...a stylish leather jacket...boxes of paperback books. Christmas every week! A true, joyful, spirit-filled Christmas that answers human need with abundance. A dumpster diving Christmas! The Christmas celebrated by most Americans is, unfortunately, typical of our culture. We borrow money or use credit to buy things we can't really afford--because we figure we have to, we must, we owe somebody. We gather to celebrate family and tradition and end up pulling hair and screaming over somebody's alcoholism, somebody's adultery, somebody's dirty-long-disrespectful-heavy-metal-hair in the Christmas turkey. We prepare too much food and end up throwing it away, then feel guilty and write a check for some charitable cause--which turns out to be yet another shocking fraud. A week after Christmas, the toys that looked soooo wonderful on television lie in bright, broken heaps and the children are playing with the box, for crying out loud, and popping the bubble wrap with shrieks of joy. A valium or two might help the holidays speed by, but you'll be paying the bills at 19.5 percent annual interest for years to come. But, meanwhile, the dumpster diver lurks in the shadows. After Christmas, after New Year's, the whole year 'round. What's this, a broken train set? Hmmmm. Some little dumpster diver might find this lots of fun in the sandpile. Paper, paper, so much damned packaging! Ah, what's this? A box of little gourmet cheeses! Somebody must not like cheese. Well, I like cheese. I'll just take some of that two-day old bakery bread and make myself a grilled havarti sandwich. Ho, ho, ho! What's this? The Playboy magazine Christmas issue. Heh, heh, heh. Mine, now. I just like all those articles about stylish living. A few goodies here, a few there; it adds up very quickly. Some items can be used by the dumpster diver or his/her family. Other items can be sold or bartered dozens of different ways. Consignment stores. Rummage sales. Junk dealers. Army surplus stores. High class antique boutiques. Every deal is unique unto itself, and considerable creativity is required of a dumpster diver converting trash to cash. The more you dive dumpsters, the more you begin to place material possessions in their proper context. For example, a nice dining room table is only important if the family sitting around it is happy and healthy, not fussing and feuding and hurling plates about. Better chicken pot pies and clumpy Koolaid from a supermarket dumpster than a fancy store bought feast with bickering and raging at the table. Even as he or she becomes aware of the transient nature of human possessions, the wise dumpster diver becomes acutely conscious of material value and physical needs. Your child has worn socks, for example, but one day you dumpster dive several pairs of nearly new kiddie socks, free, you rejoice over this small victory in the endless battle to provide for your loved ones. As you take advantage of bruised, discarded fruit or that slightly banged-up rocking chair you can revel in your practical ability to rip the things you need from the clutches of the cold hard universe. But a dumpster diving lifestyle is not a miserly pursuit of used socks and bruised vegetables. On the contrary, if often means a truck loaded up like Santa's sleigh. My father, who was a dead ringer for Uncle Jessie on The Dukes of Hazzard, frequently returned from dumpster forays with so many boxes of books, good quality clothing and discarded grocery store goodies that it took days to use, barter or sell the stuff. He looked like a mad, grizzled elf as he hopped from box to box, pulling out a prized item or two and saying, "Look at this, son! Books about animals! Stars! Cookbooks! Look at these blue jeans! Like new! And these cantaloupes! Dozens of 'em!'' Christmas every week--two or three times a week, sometimes. When we were kids we didn't just have a clubhouse, we had real furniture, real clothes to play dress up, real potted plants and aquariums and dozens of bikes. It was wonderful! When we wanted to build a treehouse, we had our own hammers, buckets of nails, a reserved pile of lumber. When we wanted to play soldiers, or cowboys and indians, or cops and robbers, we had real army uniforms, real cowboy hats, even a real money pouch from a bank. When my sister had a tea party she had real teacups and saucers. Once, my mom broke several coffee cups and said to my little sister, Rebekka, "Oh, dear I've broken all my cups! Might I borrow a few of yours?'' The line between child's play and the world of adulthood was tenuous at best. Having started a family late in life, my parents were entering their second childhood as we entered our first. The world seemed an endless playground of abundance that silly people discarded for our use and amusement. Providing for a family was an intense, creative game of surprises. Even as the fruitful abundance of nature answered every desire of the highly skilled hunter-gatherer, so the modern hunter-gatherer uses his extensive knowledge of society to find his food, clothing, shelter and fun. But the human race has evolved to the point where the urban hunter-gatherer (i.e., the dumpster diver) must also seek out information and readily saleable items. Happily, the eco-system of the city answers the dumpster diver's every need and desire. As the natural man was attuned to the seasons and the ways of plants and animals, so the skilled dumpster diver is attuned to society. The diver knows exactly where to look for certain items, he knows which days and times are "hot'' and which aren't. The dumpster diver knows where to find a sticky, delicious mess of Halloween candy...boxes of post-Labor Day picnic leftovers...and all those delightful Christmas goodies. Christmas is a tricky time for the dumpster diver. On the one hand, there is so much good stuff to be found. On the other hand, all that @#$%&*! packaging makes the wealth more difficult to locate. The jolly old elf in the red plaid jacket with the leather gloves and the army surplus boots has a few tips to make your dumpster diving holidays extra special.Tips from "Dumpster Claus,'' a.k.a. Daddy Diver(WARNING: Shameless plug ahead.) First, and most importantly, make the holidays extra meaningful by giving the gift that keeps on giving--this year, the rest of your lucky loved one's life. Give the gift of "Christmas every week'' with a copy of The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving, by John Hoffman. Learn how to obtain everything you want and need FREE from the discarded abundance of contemporary American society. Plus you'll read about the wildest, weirdest family of happy-go-lucky scroungers that ever garnished a Christmas goose with dumpster-dived orange slices. Secondly, Dumpster Claus reminds you to do your holiday diving early. All that holiday feasting means acres of food pouring through stores. And you what that means. Damage. Spoilage. Stuff expiring before the store managers notice and put it on sale. Dumpster diving heaven! After Christmas, look for Christmas-theme candy behind food stores, Christmas cookies behind bakeries, candy-decorated Christmas trees in residential areas. Toy stores are another good bet. All that commercial activity and those eager munchkin mobs means lots of breakage, lots of lost parts. Heed what Dumpster Claus says about toys: old toys are nothing but new toys after a week. Yes, go out and acquire one or two high quality playthings for your children by regular commercial sources. But don't overlook scrounging as an opportunity to acquire lots of toys year 'round. Remember, a little sewing and a wounded teddy bear regains its stuffings...just because the wheels on a car won't turn doesn't mean it isn't good for fun in the sandpile. Know what little ones really want for playtime? That's right, a big cardboard box and a serrated steak knife to cut "doors'' and "windows.'' Watch your child closely as he/she handles the responsibility that goes with a "grown up'' object like a steak knife. Store bric-a-brac discarded around Christmastime--or any other time--can be loads of fun. Get a cardboard figure of some product spokesmodel and let your child improve the appearance of the spokesmodel with crayons or colored markers. Or play an amusing game of pin-the-mustache-on-the-covergirl. Given a large cardboard figure of a human or cartoon, kids invent their own fun. Encourage their creativity. When coloring turns to joyful destruction, laugh with them as they rip those advertising icons to brightly-colored shreds. Sooner or later, dumpster diving at commercial locations turns up all sorts of unused stickers. Kids love stickers! Let them turn that cardboard-box-playhouse into a joyful collage of commercial slogans, or let them wear stickers on their (dumpster-dived) jackets. Lots of shelving units meant for soda or other products make cute furniture for kiddie rooms, and it's free. For an added touch decorate with multi-colored stickers. After New Year's, scout middle- to upper-middle class apartment complexes for party remnants like half-eaten jumbo bags of chips or even liquor. Whatever you do, don't miss scouting your local college just before Christmas break. The more expensive and liberal artsy the college, the better the pickings. Lots of kids drop out or clean house before Christmas break, not to mention the early grads. Not quite grown-ups, not quite kids, with waaaaay too much disposable income, these wasteful little pukes throw out everything from furniture to food to readily-saleable textbooks with alarming casualness. With the money you'll make or save on this stuff you can obtain extra nice gifts for your family or yourself. Whatever you do, don't buy wrapping paper. You can pick this stuff up in residential areas. If you can't dumpster dive some rolls of wrapping paper, wrap your presents in colored comic pages from the Sunday newspaper. (Pick this up Sunday night at apartment complexes or borrow it for a day from a recycling bin.) Other newspaper sections can make a striking and ecological statement as well. For example, a gift of men's clothing could use colored paper from a men's clothing store insert. A practical gift like underwear can lend amusement if wrapped in an underwear ad. Instead of buying a gift and writing "To Grandma, love little Billy'' for your child or toddler, let your little one make a personalized gift such as a plaster imprint of a hand. If there is an art teacher in your neighborhood, get together with him/her and have your little ones make several personalized items for gift giving. Reward the teacher for services rendered with dumpster dived goods. Avoid retail purchases and taxed transactions like plague. Go out of your way to scrounge or barter. When sending gifts from your child, use white butcher's paper and crayons to make personalized wrapping paper. While a dumpster diver might not find all of his/her Christmas gifts in the trash, the unique dumpster diving social perspective causes those who dive the depths to perceive more clearly the non-commercial and meaningful aspects of Christmas. Let's face it, Christmas commercialism is a trespasser in our collective chimney. Christmas commercialism is a phony, grinch Santa with a false beard and a cheap costume, bearing a food processor some Third World individual was paid 40 cents an hour to assemble, and shouting, "Ho, ho, ho! Only $19.95! Visa and Discovercard accepted!'' Think about it: Why are people ashamed to leave a price tag on a Christmas gift. Working at a nursing home, my wife once saw an older lady scratch at a sticky price tag for half an hour in order to remove it. Then she finally asked for a pair of scissors. Not only did she have to remove the price tag, she had to remove the evidence of its existence. Ccommercialism has successfully conquered and occupied Christmas like an invading army, and the general population has been brainwashed into accepting commercial agit-prop as Yuletide spirit. People might hear something about "true meaning of Christmas,'' but they suppose the phrase means supporting their local Christal Cathedral with a check and a once-a-year visit to see the Christmas pageant. Deep down, people believe that a self-made gift that shoots for "meaning'' will simply be perceived as a cheap gift. Advertisers spend gazillions of dollars on glitzy propaganda in an effort to make the public believe, (robot voice, here) "a-good-rule-for-an-engagement-ring-is-two-months salary.'' It's all gold-plated hooey, but nobody is spending that kind of money to tell people, "Be frugal--give her a secondhand ring from a pawn shop and spend some money on improving your job skills.'' If we don't buy somebody a gift we send them a mass-produced Christmas card. Again, we fear that a homemade card will be perceived as tacky and cheap, so we act like a direct mail marketing firm and send out glitzy cards. While the majority of Americans are transformed into shopping pirhanas once a year, the dumpster diver in the shadows collects the remnants of Christmas leftovers, finds himself a nice sportcoat, a book with pretty pictures. At home, his little ones make popcorn strings for their traditional Christmas tree--a live evergreen in their yard. Today, next week, next month, the year 'round they wait eagerly, wondering what Dumpster Claus will bring them. As the children are settled all snug in their beds, visions of grocery store produce dance in their heads... Merry Christmas...and the best of diving in the New Year.