Swan Dive

I’d imagined dumpster divers as angry anarchist kids, dressed in all black, who want to fight the big man by not paying for their food. I never expected it to be a guy my age with a good job and kids to feed. So when we got an email from “Joe” (he asked for his real name and occupation not to be used), I was confused and hesitant. But with Daniel by my side, gently pushing me to go outside my comfort zone (and in this case, into a large garbage can) I couldn’t say no. Literally. I wasn’t allowed to say no.

So, there I found myself at 11pm pulling up to Joe’s cozy suburban cul de sac — with identical homes, all nestled right next to one another — their rows of vinyl siding merging to create one solid line, all with beautifully manicured lawns, perfectly white painted lines in the road indicating who could park where, and I’m sure very nice people nestled in their beds ready for a good, honest day of work ahead. Except for Joe. He had taken the next day off work so that he could climb into a dumpster and fish out whatever he could salvage to eat.

Joe prefaced the evenings events by telling us that diving into dumpsters has its ups and downs. This wasnt surprising to me as I could immediately think of the downsides of such an activity: say, climbing into someone else’s trash, slipping on banana peels, getting cigarette butts in your hair, contracting a venereal disease… But Joe was referring more to the quantity of our bounty. Our efforts may be fruitless, or they may be just the opposite (fruitful). I was a bit concerned until we walked into his kitchen, with the beautiful pristine countertops, and saw Joe’s bounty from trips past:  heaps of fruit overflowing in large bowls, more cereal than you could ever need, bouquets of flowers on every flat surface, bread, teas, and baked goods. Before long, my head was swirling with thoughts of fresh fruit, warm baguettes and the finest cheeses. I imagined diving into a pool of free Tofurkey packages (a recent, and since long gone, obsession) and passing out all the freshly baked danishes on little gold foil that we had acquired to passersby on the street. The nights mission would begin at midnight — exactly one hour after the store closed.  “Perfect”, I thought. We could swing by the Trader Joes, pick up as much delicious food as our hearts desired and then be back home in time to get some beauty sleep.

But as you would expect with the art of dumpster diving, things didn’t go as planned. We got in the car and were closing in on Trader Joe’s when our driver made a quick change of plans — swerving the car around ala some 1980’s chase scene –and instead parked in an apartment lot across the street. Someone was still in the store. Many people actually. And we couldn’t afford to be seen. Employees came in and out of the front electronic door. They would slowly and very carefully load a cart full of garbage bags and then take their sweet ass time bringing it around back and into the dumpster. They were taunting us. Or rather, they probably didn’t know we were there. But to me, they were our arch nemeses and this little dance of their’s took 2 hours. When the manager finally locked the door for the night, he still didn’t leave, but instead got into his car and sat there for another 30 minutes doing God knows what. Unfortunately, we couldn’t wait any longer.

So we made our way over, and into the dumpster that we would be calling home for the next 10 minutes. It wasnt quite as pristine as I had hoped. After talking to Joe, I half expected a butler to pop up and hand us the finest quality of freshly packaged items in doggie bags. But instead we would pick up a huge bag of garbage, complete with coffee grinds, water and other trash mixed in, and sift through, doing our best not to coat our hands and forearms in its contents until we found something of salvageable value. The first thing we found was a box full of beautiful bouquets — most likely thrown away because another fresh batch had come in. Not that useful for us as we were living out of the car, but promising of what could be. Then we saw a bag full of perfect bananas, and another bag with fresh mozzarella, challah bread and cherry pies. Not the best night, as Joe put it. But sufficient to get the point across: These things didnt need to be thrown away. They were in perfectly good condition to be sold and eaten. This was just an unfortunate waste.

With our newly procured groceries, we headed back home to investigate further, divy up the goods, and head to bed. And the next morning, with our bellies full of the most delicious trash you could imagine, and our perspective on the whole dumpster situation appropriately shifted, we said our goodbyes. I appreciated Joe’s candidness and fearlessness in letting us film. And I was concerned with how the video’s publicity would affect his ability (and that of other dumpster divers) to continue his craft.  But he didn’t seem worried. After the movie Dive came out, exposing the huge amount of waste at Trader Joe’s, his local store started locking their dumpster.  But Joe was still able to jimmy his way in. He would be fine.

I spoke to Joe a couple days after the video posted, letting him know it was out and wanting to see how he has been doing. He was happy to tell me of his dumpster exploits from the previous evening: two full cases of perfectly good instant mashed potatoes, 20 lbs. of oranges, 30 of apples,  40-50lbs. of bananas, a huge variety of bread, cakes, cookies, muffins, organic salad mix, bell peppers, pineapples, a case of yogurt, eggs, chocolates, broccoli, snow peas, cheese spread, beef, pork, fish, and a ton of other stuff he couldn’t remember.


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