Sunday, July 31, 2011

Dumpster Diving

by Zinta Aistars

"Wanna go dumpster diving?"

I blink. Now there's a unique invitation for a summery Saturday evening, out on the town. I mean, really. What proud woman can resist such an offer?

Something in me, from youngest days on to these supposedly more sensible ones, I've found it hard to resist a unique offer. Something new, something I've never done before. And this one seemed relatively ... safe?

I pushed aside momentary flashes of imagined images crossing my mind: police flashlights blinding us as a voice from the dark asks what the heck are we doing? or, climbing into a dark and smelly cavern of rotting garbage to step on a live rat or a puddle of unidentifiable mush, or peering into a black plastic bag to find severed body parts, or ...

"Sure," I grinned.

After all, we were all about recycling. All about living the frugal life, no waste, keeping it sustainable, taking care of ourselves and off the grid. I was a long way from that now, but as I rolled my eyes for the past weeks of listening to Washington D.C. waging their pitiful political charades over how to solve our debt problems, I'd had my moments of wondering about my retirement years. Who knows what might happen between now and then? Social Security gone bankrupt, my retirement funds lost in the global market, jobs going scarce, health care becoming the privilege of the wealthy ...

Even while I strove to live a life that leaned ever more heavily toward the environmentally conscientious, using only what I need, paring back the impulsive wants that pass like any itch, and finding ways to use and re-use what I already have. I liked the idea of a simpler life. It was not a life of doing without, I discovered, but actually living better ... and losing the excess baggage that had been holding me back.

"Why not," I said. "So what does one one wear for a Saturday night dumpster dive?"

My diving partner tossed me a pair of work gloves and a flashlight. He wore his on a string around his neck so that his hands were free, and I'd seen him wear a light like a coal miner's once on a band that fit on his head. I'd borrowed it a few months ago when winter camping and dog sledding in the snowy night, and found it most useful to keep the light wherever I turned my head and my hands free.

We lined the car trunk with an old sheet and were off.

Oh, he'd done this before. Knew all the best places, the dumpsters of bounty, clean of food scraps or truly icky stuff. And we dove right in.

I stood by for a while, watching as he climbed in, waist deep, then disappeared. Out flew all kinds of interesting items. Mostly, he sought metal, because this he could recycle by the pound at the neighborhood recycling center. Metal and steel by the pound, copper and electric wiring, all of these caught his eye, and I watched stainless steel pots and pans and cookie sheets fly over the edge of the dumpster, broken fans and decorative grills. A small metal table. Wiring and pieces of pipe. Goodness, in July, a small Christmas tree with all the lights and ornaments still on! He could sell those strings of lights to recycling, he said, for 20 cents on the ounce.

He popped out for a moment, holding out to me like a gift -- a tin box, quite beautifully decorated. Just the thing for a writer: inside were rows and rows of new pencils, not even sharpened. What writer can resist such? I squealed with delight, and then I'd gone over the edge and was fishing for myself. Another box was crammed full of new spools of thread, every imaginable color, and then we found where they came from ... he heaved and pulled free a wooden cabinet with folding leaf, tucked inside it a Sears Kenmore sewing machine.

Four sets of what appeared to be brand new blinds, white, maroon, cream. Why would anyone throw these out? And a burgundy area rug, trimmed with pink roses. Not my style, but not a stain on it. I shook my head. What is all this doing in a dumpster?

I pondered those imagined persons who had thrown such things out. Weary of something before it had even had a chance to show wear. Everything was disposable, everything for the short term. How had we gotten to be this way? No more heirlooms to pass down to our children, but maybe that was the basis for it ... had we stopped believing in a future? Had we gone bankrupt in the pursuit of stuff and forgotten the reason why?

Back to the garage, we unloaded our finds from the trunk and the sewing machine in its cabinet from the back seat. It worked. Opened, the blinds were perfect, not a slat broken, and as clean as if they'd come from a store shelf. Puzzling.

He set about sorting through his finds, putting them into piles by material. Last week, he'd brought in his bins of sorted scrap metal, steel, copper, and walked away with an extra hundred in his pocket.

Perhaps this country is not so bankrupt, after all, in terms of its material wealth. Not if our dumpsters are full of such nearly new goods and salvageable materials. Our bankruptcy may be of a different kind. What had happened to us that we seemed to value so little? Always craving new, newer, newest, a wake of throwaways littered behind us. This year's model whatever to be replaced by next year's model whatever, and then months later, obsolete again. Never satisfied. Gadgets and whirligigs and thingamajigs to amuse for a moment, then be tossed again. Ever searching for the sale that shouted CHEAP but never really finding lasting quality.

In some way, I thought, watching him sort and break down what he'd found, we were doing a service here. Instead of being dumped into a land fill, these items at least would see new use, melted down and reshaped into ... well, a new gadget, I suppose, of some kind that someone somewhere would deem a must-have. Until a newer gadget was made. And I would use this thread to replace a loose button or mend a torn seam or take up a hem.

Even so. The evening had been a bit of a thrill, an odd adventure, a lark, but then, a little sad, too. Even a little tragic. I opened my tin of new pencils and thought it had been a while since I'd recycled words and written a poem ... in longhand.



  1. Paldies!!! I have wanted to find someone who goes dumpster diving here in Chicago and join them - I also think it would be fascinating. Your insights are thought provoking and really makes one wonder what could be found. I really must find someone here, so that I can also experience it!

  2. Silvija, I wonder if might work for something like this ...