Dumpster Dinners

The other night I went dumpster diving. I had done this in college at the end of the year when the new graduates threw out trashcans, blow driers, lamps, furniture and toiletries galore.

I specifically remember a time when my non-dumpster-diving friends drove into their apartment complex parking lot late one evening only to find Whitney and I entirely inside their apartment dumpster, with flashlight and headlamp, wallowing in filth . . . or treasures, rather. 

We froze in the glare of their headlights, of their stares, for a moment ashamed--and then quickly soared beyond shame upon remembering what lie below and continued rummaging. Whitney and I were the poorest of our clique. She grew up on government cheese and discount food items from the nearby Native American reservation and I grew up on expired food and 100% garage sale attire. We were the ones working through college. If free goods were to be had, Whitney and I wanted in. So—dumpster-diving.

That was seven years ago. I was twenty-one years old and in college shopping for free furniture and half-used name brand shampoo. Maybe a full-length mirror if I was really lucky. 

This time was different. This time I was twenty-nine years old and rummaging through the cockroach-infested dumpster of an organic food store, in search of groceries for my best friend. 

We were looking for food. In a dumpster.

And while Jade felt right at home and practically dove in headfirst—tearing open bags and slowly becoming covered in grime—I did not. 

When I hit the dumpster in college I was shopping for accessories, for whatever was free and looked neat. Most of the good stuff was actually set neatly outside the dumpster and anything else was piled in heaps—not hidden beneath the stench of rotting strawberries and greasy mayo. I realized, while in the dumpster, watching the cockroaches, that some people don't do this for fun.

They do it to live. 

I don't mind dirt. In fact, one of my favorite past times in all the world is running and playing in the rain and mud. I wait tables. I am covered in sweat and food particles the majority of my shift. I have slept with cockroaches that were literally as big as my hand, crawling the walls of my home in the African heat. I have worked disaster relief jobs that required me to suck raw sewage from carpets with a wet vac. Again, I don’t mind dirt.

But this? This was repulsive. The stench. The cockroaches crawling on the food we were picking at. The cockroaches with which we were trapped inside a six by six foot metal box. The filth on my hands—my face—my clothes—my car. It was truly disgusting.

For some reason I thought dumpster diving would be fun. Maybe that’s because in college, it was. We didn’t need the items we were looking for to survive. We simply wanted them. And they were free.

Dumpster diving this time wasn’t about free lamps and apartment accessories. It was about getting free food to be taken home, rinsed off, eaten and stored because food stamp money was running low. And that made me uncomfortable. It made dumpster diving not so fun after all.

Jade, however, seemed to be having a blast. As I said, she dove right in. We went home with two watermelons, a carton of strawberries, a bag of lemons, a box of mushrooms, two eggs, three blueberry scones, several tomatoes, a box of cereal, a zucchini, and three or four not-so-frozen-anymore stir-fry dinners. 

She could eat for days.

Really, she had food at home. It may not have lasted long, but it was there. Jade dumpster-diving for her dinner didn’t make me uncomfortable. The thoughts the situation provoked did. I thought about all of Jade’s California friends, her homeless friends, her wandering friends—who do this not once a month for extra food, but every day for all their food. I thought about all the starving people in all the world who don’t do this for a ‘late night adventure’ but rather, simply to survive.

Honestly, this wasn’t one of those life-changing moments for me where I realized I needed to ‘quit my day job’ (that I don’t have) and go feed the hungry.

I realized I’m glad I have friends like Jade.

There was a time in my life (age 0-24 years) when almost every person I knew was white, middle-class and conservative Christian. I am entirely grateful for my upbringing and my education and I would not change anything at all given the chance. But sometimes, when I look back and see that, I want to vomit.

I am overwhelmed when I look at my life now, and back at the last five years, and see conversations with bearded homeless men; car rides with hitchhikers and their dogs; art parties in Korea with Americans, Canadians, Christians, Jews; sharing coffee with abortion rights activists; accidentally attending a lesbian beach bonfire (which for the record was maybe the most entertaining/fun bonfire of my life).

I am thankful for these interactions. I am thankful for the ‘Nons.’ The non-believers. The non-whites. The non-middle-class. The non-'normal'. The dumpster divers.

Because they make me see.