Friday, March 5, 2010

Chapter Five Excerpt: Dumpster Diving in Tucson

Back in Tucson, we’ve propped open the lid of a dumpster and an odor of organic decay has filled the sauna-steamed air. I’m on lookout, immediately transformed into an 8-year-old watching for adults while my friends “kiss” behind the shed. We’re doing something wrong alright and the punishing wrath of some authority figure cannot be far behind: Mom, Dad, the police, an irate store owner...the possibilities are obscure and endless.

Wayland disappears behind a huge garbage bag and reappears ripping apart a smaller plastic bag.

“Shit! This is just a bunch of paper cups and napkins from one of those sample booths.”

Frustrated, he tosses the bag, stray mini-cups flying into midair.

I point the flashlight at whatever Wayland picks up: apples (so much for not letting one bad apple spoil the whole bunch), five loaves of bread (they bake them in the morning and toss them out at night), mozzarella balls (one day past expiration), eggs (one cracked), and a real find--a pound of coffee beans (no apparent explanation). Finally, Wayland pulls out a bouquet of not fresh but not yet dead flowers and presents me with an emblem of hobo romance.

Here in the dumpster, we’ve assembled a free breakfast of champions: organic eggs and french bread, free-trade coffee beans, and flowers for the table--all bound for landfills until five minutes ago. Food matter represents about 26% of landfill material according to the EPA. When food decays in landfills, it produces methane, a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2. Despite all the unflattering connotations, dumpster divers are literally saving the planet one garbage heap at a time.

This undertaking was all Wayland. We arrived to the No More Deaths Volunteer house after a week in the desert and there was not a thing to eat. I suggested grocery shopping; he suggested dumpster diving. Of the two, his idea was the more adventurous. Wayland has rejected corporate consumerism and embraced the plight of the proletariat with a fervor that only an early 20-something can muster. Soiled blue jeans and a thread bare t-shirt his uniform, he hitchhikes and begs his way from town to town, volunteering with progressive social organizations, gardening, and camping. Around his neck, a red handkerchief. Above his dark hair, a black military cap with a red star.

He dives straight into the next dumpster: “We still need some dinner food.”

Trader Joe’s employees filter out of the store, a caravan diaspora to cars and bicycles.

Vaguely ashamed, I say, “There are some employees coming.”

Movement stops in the dumpster.

“Are they coming this way?”

“I don’t think so.”

The sound of plastic rustling begins again.

“Do you eat meat?”

A microwavable chicken and rice dinner appears over the dumpster’s edge.


And, it makes a glorious arc as it’s thrown back into the rubbish piles.

A bicycle approaches and a voice arrives before a woman: “Find anything good?”

“Some bread, eggs...”

“EGGS? I’m here every night and I never find eggs.”

The gray-haired woman kicks down her kickstand and approaches, asserting her territory.

“Do you want to split the eggs?” I ask.

Suddenly, we are okay, fellow scavengers: “No, you found them. Keep them.”

She’s wearing an undersized Winnie the Poo t-shirt, a find from some salvation army bin, I ascertain.

Wayland calls out to the new arrival: “Do you eat meat?”

“No, but my roommates do.”

Out comes frozen chicken and rice, salisbury steak, and assorted pot pies.

The woman starts to enter the dumpster, but stops short, content to let Wayland do the work.

“Any bread in there?”


A french loaf and seeded bagels appear at the dumpster’s lip.


The woman walks to her bike, fills the basket with newly-extracted goodies, and disappears again, presumably to an unoccupied dumpster.

Meanwhile, Wayland surfaces with dinner: two dented cans of lentil soup.

Back inside the Little Red Engine that Could, the alternator generates electricity that cranks the ignition into action. A big plastic tube under the hood sucks and filters outside air before mixing it with the fuel. Sucking glistening gold vegetable oil from the tank, the fuel system injects it directly into the cylinder. She hums a loud guttural song, no more conscious of her inner workings than I am of mine. Windows down, music playing, heart beating, lungs breathing, our internal rhythms change little day by day, but interruption. Something new. A person in the passenger seat talking, adding his rhythms to the story.

“We have to stop contributing to this fucking monster system,” he says.

“Is that why you dumpster dive?”

“Yes- it’s a way to absorb our country’s ridiculous uber-pollution. From birth we are taught that whatever we want in this country, we can get. Want, get. Want, get. What’s cool about dumpster diving is we get to reverse that. We find something, get it and then decide if we want it.”

“It’s sort of subverting the whole system, huh?”

“I like that. Yeah, subverting the system.”

“Maybe it means wanting less. Learning to not need so much.”

We coast along Tucson’s endless grid of streets, highway lights and neon signs streaking reflections on the windshield. Miles turn on the odometer as hours pass, days pass, trips downtown and rides given to other volunteers add up inside an endless strip mall with an urban-hipster core, Tucson, a city-town, nation-state, a liberal stronghold surrounded by a police state, a battleground. Cyclists ride on the shoulder. Stoplights hold us up. A wrong right turn. A right left turn.

We arrive to our transient home and begin a late dinner, a sweet dinner, a hodgepodge of lentils, day-old bread, and expired mozzarella balls. We didn’t want it and then buy it. We found it.

There’s something strangely gratifying in that.

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1 comment:

  1. Great passage. I enjoyed it a lot, the good nature of people warms my heart to this day.

    -Land Source Container Service, Inc.


Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.
- Oscar Wilde


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