Wednesday, September 9, 2009


WOULD ANY SANE PERSON think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?
-- Derrick Jensen, "Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change."
      Derrick Jensen is a man who's words have rippled through the environmental movement like a virus, leaving us unable to determine whether or not the man is more a blessing or a curse.  During the JM intensive, I took to reading his book, Endgame, which is a work that is about as depressing as the title sounds.  One of the main premises of the work (there are twenty three) is that "Civilization is not redeemable."  Another is that "Love does not imply pacifism."  I think I was attracted to his anger, because anger is hard for me to access within myself and hard for me to understand when others express it in ways that are not loving or pacifist.   One hundred and something pages into the book, with a thousand or so more to go, I found myself enshrouded in a gray cloak of dullness and dispassion.   I told Joanna about it, and she told me not to take Jensen too seriously.  "You've got to take that man with a grain of salt.  What Derrick Jensen has always needed was a good editor," she said. 

    But this post isn't really about Jensen (although I do think that the article quoted above is a very good read and am not ashamed to plug it one bit).  It's about dumpster diving.  Now, I'm not insane enough to believe that dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that it can stop the corporations or agri-business industry or anything of the other big baddies of the world.  After all, the trash that is rebirthed back into food through dumpster diving comes from those corporations and the agri-business industry.  However, it seems to me that after a couple of weeks of diving that it can provide for many of my food needs in a way that reduces the amount of money (and life-force energy) that I pump into the IGS, and that it helps reduce waste.
    Moreover, I think its one of the best adventures I've engaged in in the urban world for quite some time.
    I'd heard about dumpster divers for years, and for the most part, have found the practice to be only somewhat shy of disgusting.  My mother (who is a devout reader of this blog) instilled in me a distinct wariness of possibly tainted foods, quite possibly because she contracted salmonella sometime very near the day of my birth.  We were always a family, in my memory, that was very concerned about how chicken was prepared, and what if there was any way it might have touched anything during its raw state.  Dishwashing was done with distinct fastidiousness or you'd be doing it again.   Suspicious milk was immediately released down the drain, no questions asked.
    But in my "adult" life, if one can call it that, things have changed slowly for me.  Part of that has to do with my love of Temporary Autonomous Zones, a term coined by anarchist Hakim Bey, which has to do with the socio-political tactic of creating temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control.   Here's just a tidbit to whet your appetite:
The T.A.Z is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it... Participants in insurrection invariably note its festive aspects, even in the midst of armed struggle, danger, and risk. The uprising is like a saturnalia which has slipped loose (or been forced to vanish) from its intercalary interval and is now at liberty to pop up anywhere or when. 
--Hakim Bey,  Temporary Autonomous Zones (Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism)   
    My experiences at "loosened saturnalias" such as Burning Man, Free Activist Witchcamp, Common Ground in New Orleans, and the like, started to chip away at my attachment to utterly unblemished, pristine foods and food preparation (one more quick side note -- Penny Livingston Stark, with whom I did my Permaculture Training with, often said that we needed to dump all of the doomed-humanity talk and instead talk about "sustainable hedonism."  I love that idea -- and it definitely seems on the same wavelength as Bey's "loosened saturnalias."). 
    Anyway, at some point last year, I realized that I'd eaten tons of dumpstered food -- I simply hadn't been involved in the dirty work of dumpstering it.  The straw that broke the camel's back was when Jason and I were shopping for organic yogurt and found ourselves face-to-face with a young, pimply, and rather arrogant grocery store clerk who was determined to toss the tubs we were considering purchasing into a large trash can in the middle of the aisle.  Apparently they'd reached their "sell-by" date, which might also be considered their date of execution.
    We asked him if we could have the yogurt, rather than see them go into the trash.  He refused.
   "Are you telling me that if we'd come into this store ten minutes ago, we could have bought this yogurt for four dollars, but now we can't buy it or take it for free because it has to go into the trash?" Jason asked, his face getting that dark glowering look that I like so much -- as long as it isn't directed at me.  The grocery store clerk wasn't daunted, however.  He simply ignored us and continued to toss the tubs of yogurt into the gray trash can.
   Growling, Jason took my hand and marched from the store in a way that stated, quite clearly, that they would never get a dime of his money ever again.  We hopped into the car, looked at one another, and then drove around to the back of the store and waited.  That yogurt, we were determined, would be ours.
    Since then, Jason and I have started to become dumpster-diving addicts.  I can't pass a store these days without wondering where the dumpster is, if its locked, and if its better to try and hit it up during the day or at night.  He's the same way.  Just yesterday, walking down to a little organic shop to get some ice cream with a friend for her birthday, I saw him slow up as we got near the doors, appearing for all the world to be reading a flier posted up on a telephone pole -- which just happened to be right next  to the large, rectangular, slightly-smelly green coffer of abandoned goods one can always find somewhere in the outlying perimeter of a grocery store.  Smiling, I asked him if he needed me to give him a hand with anything.  Oh no, he said.  He was perfectly able and willing to do a little scoping while we did our scooping.
    That dumpster turned out to be a bit of a bust, but a subsequent birthday jaunt yielded some valuable information about a different local independent grocery store -- it just so happens that they set out their white "compostables" dumpster on Sunday nights.  Quite nearly the Holy Grail of the diving world.  One little peek inside revealed a whole case of slightly-soft tomatoes, a gaggle of green beans, some apparently-alright avocados, and numerous loaves of wrapped fresh bread. 
    So that night, in spite of the fact that our refrigerator was already quite full of perishable edibles, we decided to hit up the new spots in addition to our most reliable donor, which just so happens to be our neighborhood Trader Joe's.  I had to stop buying food from TJ's some years ago when I realized that the amount of plastic they use to wrap things that in no way need to be wrapped -- such as broccoli -- could rival the Great Garbage Patch, an island twice the size of Texas currently floating in the Pacific Ocean that's made up of cola bottles and shoes and wrappers and bags.  But the very quality of over-wrapping that made me give up purchasing food at TJs has made it the perfect fledgling-dive spot for a woman who's ick-to-"I'm-out" ratio is rather small.  Our kitchen is filled with dried bananas (once fresh), melons of many varieties, artisan breads, baking products, and various types of berries collected from their trash.
   This was the first night that we've ever brought along anyone other than our two selves, and also, coincidentally or not, the first night that we've ever been caught by the staff.  My friend Erin was waiting in the car, breastfeeding her little baby Bella (who is a freegan of the best sort), when suddenly the door to the trash bin area opened and two TJ workers stumbled upon Jason and me, he holding up a box of countless figs, me shaking my head no and going in for a second dive in hopes of another bottle of vanilla extract (can you really ever have too much?).
     It was an uncomfortable moment.  I mumbled something about needing boxes for moving.  Jason, not hearing my embarrassed mumbles, rumbled something about looking for food.  The TJ guys blinked, clearly surprised to find people in their bin area.  Finally, the one wearing a white beanie asked, slightly incredulously, "Are you guys dumpster diving?"
   "Um... yeah," I said.  "I guess so."  I felt amazingly ashamed, and found myself wanting to tell him that we weren't poor, we're simply anarchists.  On the one hand, it's true that we're unlikely dumpsterers -- Jason runs his own contracting business, and I have a successful massage therapist practice.  Erin is married to a successful software engineer.  All said and done, we each take numerous vacations a year and have it relatively easy where eating and survival are concerned.  On the other hand, it doesn't matter what we do for a living or how often we travel, because no matter what, there is no reason to be ashamed.  If anyone should be ashamed, it's Trader Joes, throwing out as much food as they do when there are so many people who go hungry in this world.  As many smarter people have said before me, starvation has much more to do with political will than scarcity of food.   If I didn't know that viscerally before, I certainly do.  This is the other side of abundance, the abundance that blends into excess.
   "That's so cool!"  Beanie Joe smiled.   His co-worker, slightly stockier, wore a wary expression that  clearly expressed that he didn't find it nearly so cool.  Either not caring or not seeing him, Beanie Joe went on, "I always want to keep the stuff that we're throwing away, and sometimes I try to, but if they find out they'll fire me, so..."
   "Yeah, we're, uh, not supposed to let anyone be back here," Stocky Joe said. 
    "Well, maybe we can just go around the corner for a bit and let you guys do what you're going to do, then," I said.  "We don't want you to get in trouble."
   That seemed to pacify Stocky Joe, so we did just that.  As we waited, I began to get worried about Erin and Bella, who didn't know what was going on -- it was taking he Joes quite some time to finish dealing withthe trash.
    Finally, once all was quiet on the dumpster front, we headed back.  I stopped by the car first, where Bella was still contentedly suckling at Erin's breast.  Erin said that the two guys had been by and had brought some eggs with them, which they were worried would be broken in the fall into the dumpster.  One, and I can only guess it was Beanie Joe, had asked us not to take all the flowers because he wanted to bring some home to his girl.  Like we can possibly bring all the flowers, I thought, once we headed back in to collect the last of the night's loot.  Inside the dumpster were lawn-bags full of cut blooms: roses, orchids, gerber daises, dahlias.
   We had so much food after our Trader Joes stop that it was apparent, even to our adventure-hungry hearts that there was no point in going to the compostables dumpster on Piedmont that had kindled the evening's adventure: our three green cloth bags and the milk crate we keep in the car (along with our rubber gloves) just for these occasions were full, and our refrigerator and freezer at home were near to bursting as it was.  Alas.  So, leaving it for another day, we jumped back into the car and started for home.
    As we headed out of Rockridge, I spotted a white dumpster by the Bart station -- peering more closely, I read that it was, indeed, another Compostables.  Sighing to myself, I mentally noted its location and turned back to the road. After all, really, we already had too much food. 
    Jason was laughing.
    "You saw it, too?" I said.
    He nodded.  "Couldn't miss it," he said.

1 comment:

  1. Rivka: Great post! I was really surprised to learn that you got your fastidiousness about food from me, considering that in recent years I've become a major dumpster-diving fan myself. I don't do a whole lot of it because of the usual transportation hassles--how do I get the stuff home if I do find it? I could really use a good dumpster-diving partner right about now.

    I will admit to being cautious to the point of paranoia about chicken, though. That salmonella episode when I was pregnant with you was the sickest I've ever been in my life!

    I'm delighted to hear that baby Bella is doing so well. May it be every bit as positive as it looks, and continue for the rest of her life.

    Love, Mom