An Urban Archaeologist’s (Dumpster Diver’s) Holiday Observations
On October 23, 2010, WikiHow offered an excellent and comprehensive article on dumpster diving technique, so this diary is not a rehash. I only add a few of points: 1. Never dive a medical or hospital dumpster 2. Never dive a compacting dumpster (I do occasionally but do not condone it) 3. Dive in quadrants. This way, you never have to throw anything outside of the dumpster in order to get at the contents at the bottom. 4. Double your configuration, like a cave diver, and carry two of everything, except your wallet or money, which you should not take with you, into a dumpster and 5. If you dive as a couple you tend to appear pathetic (which of course you are) rather than menacing (which you are not).
Today is January 5. Between us, my husband and I have about ten dollars to last us until the end of the month. So, for the moment, it is all about aluminum and copper. Aluminum brings $0.45 to $0.60 per pound in cash at recycle, and insulated copper (cords cut from appliances, telephones, or anything that plugs into a wall except for cable) brings $1.00 per pound. Add another dollar per pound if you are willing to strip the cords. January is the best month of the year for divers because Christmas is now a disposable holiday and Christmas lights are, quite literally, the gift that keeps on giving. We will keep eating this month because we know how to dive for survival.
What I really enjoy, however, is diving to observe economic and sociological trends. I find it absolutely fascinating. Pushed, years ago, to this strange, stigmatized hobby by need, I inadvertently discovered my real passion of looking for things that tell stories (divorce trash, death trash, the end of the WWII era trash), solving mysteries, and learning about people. I am, at times paralyzed, or at least stopped short with soul-gripping nostalgia or sadness, and at other times hit with irony, hilarity and coincidence the likes of which I could never experience (or make up) in the surface world. What other people want you to see is on the surface. If you want to know about the real world, look at what people throw away. In fact, here is an ice-breaker if you are dumpster curious: You can approach a diver and say, “Amazing what people throw away, isn’t it?” . . .
I am a baby boomer, born in 1960. Christmas was sacred, special, even magical for as many years as I can remember until recently. We hand-made many of our own ornaments ( remember felt, glue, sequins and styrofoam?) and saved everything from year to year. My mother kept our precious ornaments in the same box that I, unaware at age 6 of the double meaning, labeled with a black marker “Good Balls.” Each ball was carefully wrapped in newspaper and saved.
To this day, my parents have the same strings of lights they had, bubble lights and all, when I was a child. Because the lights are so old and inefficient, not to mention hazardous, this was the very first year they did not use those same lights.
That doesn’t happen anymore. Christmas is made in China, sold in the big box, and disposable. All ornaments, lights, fake trees, nativity sets, and gifts, including toys and clothing are made in China now. People apparently begin shopping on black Friday, and some unwritten universal rule drives them to get a tree up shortly thereafter. Late November/early December dumpsters may deliver insulated copper in the form of last year’s lights that have been inexplicably replaced by this year’s model, a few fake trees and even Christmas wrap, tape, bows, ribbon, lace and tags, still new in packages as though people are actually afraid to use anything from last year, God forbid.
December 26 through the New Year are generally cardboard box days, and although cardboard brings $60.00/ton at recycle, we do not have the resources to store or transport great volumes of cardboard. After the first of the year, the land of dumpsters is a cash cow. Lights out the ass. Rejected presents, New With Tags. Fully decorated trees. Appliances, if new gifts replace the old, and even furniture, again if old must be discarded to make way for new. We have not been to the mall in years. Every appliance we have was retrieved, new, boxed, and never used, from dumpsters. Same with all of our furniture and all of our clothing, much of which, BTW, is vintage and more valuable than what is available at the mall or in the big box.
If you live in a redneck area, where people don’t take down their trees until February, you can vicariously celebrate the holidays for two or three straight months. These same areas, generally without bottle bills, also deliver a huge amount of aluminum in the form of empty beer cans, at the side of the road. Even with bullet holes, it’s $0.60 per pound, all day long. It is amazing what people with a BAC of 0.100 will throw out their windows, driving down the road.
I have never written a diary, or even a comment before because I am still ashamed to be unemployed and unemployable, despite having college degrees, looking for scrap metal and fantasizing about by great big dumpster-to-eBay Forbes success story. Anybody else out there educated, broke, looking for a niche?