On Dumpster Diving
Lars Eighner was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1946, and he later studied at the University of Texas. He worked as an attendant and ward worker in a mental institution from 1980 to 1987 before finding himself homeless for three years. Travels with Lizbeth (1993), the book that includes “On Dumpster Diving,” recounts these years. It began as letters to friends explaining his circumstances and evolved into a series of essays on equipment that he had found in the garbage. Eighner later sent the essays to the Threepenny Review for publication. “On Dumpster Diving” shows Eighner’s uniquely powerful insights and unconventional, yet elegant, prose style, which is similar in some ways to the nineteenth-century fiction he enjoys. Long before I began Dumpster diving I was impressed with Dumpsters, enough so that I wrote the Merriam-Webster research service to discover what I could about the word “Dumpster.” I learned from them that “Dumpster” is a proprietary word belonging to the Dempsey Dumpster company. Since then I have dutifully capitalized the word although it was lowercased in almost all of the citations Merriam-Webster photocopied for me. Dempsey’s word is too apt. I have never heard these things called anything but Dumpsters. I do not know anyone who knows the generic name for these objects. From time to time, however, I hear a wino or hobo give some corrupted credit to the original and call them Dipsy Dumpsters. I began Dumpster diving about a year before I became homeless. I prefer the term “scavenging” and use the word “scrounging” when I mean to be obscure. I have heard people, evidently meaning to be polite, using the word “foraging,” but I prefer to reserve that word for gathering nuts and berries and such which I do also according to the season and the opportunity. “Dumpster diving” seems to me to be a little too cute and, in my case, inaccurate, because I lack the athletic ability to lower myself into the Dumpsters as the true divers do, much to their increased profit. I like the frankness of the word “scavenging,” which I can hardly think of without picturing a big black snail on an aquarium wall. I live from the refuse of others. I am a scavenger. I think it a sound and honorable niche, although if I could I would naturally prefer to live the comfortable consumer life, perhaps—and only perhaps—as a slightly less wasteful consumer owing to what I have learned as a scavenger. While my dog Lizbeth and I were still living in the house on Avenue B in Austin, as my savings ran out, I put almost all of my sporadic income into rent. The necessities of daily life I began to extract from Dumpsters. Yes, we ate from Dumpsters. Except for jeans, all my clothes came from Dumpsters. Boom boxes, candles, bedding, toilet paper, medicine, books, a typewriter, a virgin male love doll, change sometimes amounting to many dollars: I have acquired many things from the Dumpsters. I have learned much as a scavenger. I mean to put some of what I have learned down here, beginning with the practical art of dumpster diving and proceeding to the abstract. What is safe to eat?
After all, the finding of objects is becoming something of an urban art. Even respectable employed people will sometimes find something tempting sticking out of a Dumpster or standing beside one. Quite a number of people, not all of them of the bohemian type, are willing to brag that they found this or that piece in the trash. But eating from Dumpsters is the thing that separates the dilettanti from the professionals. Eating safely from the Dumpsters involves three principles: using the senses and common sense to evaluate the condition of the found materials, knowing the Dumpsters of a given area and checking them regularly, and seeking always to answer the question, “Why was this discarded?” Perhaps everyone who has a kitchen and a regular supply of groceries has, at one time or another, made a sandwich and eaten half of it before...
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