Friday, March 19, 2010

On: Dumpster Diving

Lars Eighner's 1993 book Travels with Lizbeth includes the chapter, "On Dumpster Diving" wherein he recounts some very specific lessons learned from three years of living as a homeless person. Eighner was not always a homeless person as his life experiences include working as an attendant in a mental institution and college instructor. He was one of those whose sitation left him in the precarious position from which he wrote. Through this work specifically, Eighner demonstrates expertise in areas that we may find instructive, and perhaps be challenge to a level of personal reflection.

Eighner would like us to understand a few basics starting with the discovery: what is a dumpster? The word "dumpster" is actually the name of the company that makes the product we know as the dumpster, the Dempsey Dumpster Company. Interestingly, the company has no generic name for the product. Eighner would like us to understand there is a vast range of meaning as well as thought behind what we simply refer to as "dumpster diving."

Dumpster diving has also been called "scavenging" or "scrounging," while others may say they "forage" or perhaps even "glean." "Scrounging" assumes an indirect relationship with consumers (one man's trash is another man's treasure) while "foraging" describes the reaping of more natural resources (such as collecting decorative kale from city flower beds for a kind of salad comes to mind). "Gleaning," on the other hand, may not a good word choice for the activity in question. While "diving" may actually be an actual physical impossiblity for many to perform (and perhaps lend to another reason for the reconsideration of nomenclature), for all intents and purposes, we will heretofore refer to the subject simply as "dumpster diving," or, "diving."

Reading Eighner's essay, one almost gets the impression that the writer does not merely desire to educate on the subject of dumpster diving; rather, the author would (dare I say it?) have the reader actually try. When food is the object of acquisition, the starting point would be to know what is actually safe to eat. Making this discover involves three principles, the first being the use of senses to evaluate a find (both the common, or "horse sense" and the five physical senses); next, knowing the area supplying the dumpster; and finally, answering the question, "why was this discarded?" There are reasons why things find their way to the trash, but are they good reason?

How are dumpster divers to be regarded; that is, is dumpster diving acceptable? Answering that question may require an answer to yet another question: have you ever wondered what a good dumpster diver thinks himself? First, there is a sense of disgust and loathing as the diver battles feelings of shame or remorse for what she feels she must do. Ever look the other way when you see someone approach a dumpster to dig? They feel it too because everything seems to stink in there, until one finds something useful.

For the most part, Eignher seems to have been very successful during his three years of homelessness. He found all his clothes (except for his jeans) in the dumpster. The students at a local private school are great contributers to the dumpster-diving community as the school is littered with cast-away clothing that finds its' way to the dump: brand new Abercrombie and Fitch clothes, high priced shoes, and various other items. Many dumpster divers know to stay near college dorms, for there they find food (half-eaten jars of peanut butter for example) tossed before Spring, Summer or Winter breaks. Of course, partially consumed bottles of liquor and drug paraphernalia can be acquired as well. Eignher's list of finds also include working portable stereo systems, candles, linens, rolls of toilet paper, medicine, books and magazines, a typewriter, and several dollars worth of change.

When one is able to produce treasures like these, feelings begin to change and it is the diver who "has the last laugh. He is finding all manner of good things which are his for the taking. Those who disparage his profession are the fools, not he." One learns it is just as easy to draw conclusions about those who dumpster dive as it is to draw conclusions about those who throw things away.

Dumpster divers themselves have a range. On one end of the spectrum we may find those who may be considered to be "professional divers," people who have learned to make the most of the waste of high consumerism. These people cannot be distinguished from others, as they live in homes and drive cars, only they wear and use our perfectly good throw away stuff. Eighner does not discuss this end of the spectrum directly, but the implication is very clear. On the other end of the spectrum we find those who Eighner calls "can scroungers." Can scroungers "are people who must have small amounts of cash. These are drug addicts and winos, mostly the latter because the amounts of cash are so small." Eighner describes their dumpster behavior as very destructive, as "they tend to tear up the Dumpster, mixing the contents and littering the area. They become so specialized that they can see only cans."

Eighner closes his chapter with a brief discussion on vermin, a humourous look at cats and birds in the dumpster and even offers some suggestions on how to get started. Most importantly, he shares two lessons he feels are important. First, "take what I can use and let the rest go by." In other words, some things are not worth the effort or the collecting--"white elephants" in the truest sense. The second lesson is that "mental things are longer-lived than other material things." This is about as close as he comes to spirituality, but he is right--life is a vapour, and you can't take "it" with you (whatever "it" is).

Perhaps there is a third and final lesson: there is an attitude that comes with being wealthy, and we have confused the things most important with mere objects.

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