Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Irony of Dumpster Diving

(sorry for the delay.... several drafts of this disappeared... and then I got shy realizing this is not my best writing... and then I started teaching myself CSS & HTML and forgot to post this two weeks ago... thanks for your comment PC - it reminded me to blog!)

In the "comments" section of the last blog, I addressed Pasadena Cafe briefly on the topic; and, to some extend, PC pointed to one of the predominate frustrations I have with the act of dumpster diving in how it is received socially. I fancy myself a slightly skilled observer (given I must have gleaned something useful from my newly acquired Sociology degree), but I am not separate from the social expectations for behavior that clearly, if unspoken, do exist. One of them being that dumpster diving is unsafe, unsanitary, and an activity of the desperate (Forgive me if I sounded desperate in my last post - but, aside from curiosity, truly I thought of myself as being economic) and the other that it is "better."
I first found myself wondering where the line between desperate and economic really is. I wonder how many of us (particularly those who could in some capacity afford their B.A.) consider economy sub-par, or perhaps equate it with undesirable or at best, less-than-comfortable. I do not mean to insult the wisdom in avoiding eating things left in a bacteria-infested garbage bin; but, along side the easy-to-damn Man, I do intend to bring into question the collective judgment, in which I participated, that deemed this not just a reasonable activity, but an important, healthy, better one.
I understand these Houses choosing to live as Freegans because it is 1) economic, 2) offsets the waste created, 3) is a form of subversive consumerism, & 4) it creates a standard for the House where consumables were truly expropriated (no one could be mad at the person who grocery shopped because they didn't get the right granola bars, nor could someone defend their peanut butter against the rest of the House).

I began this article with the title and thought "The Irony of Dumpster Diving" because in my research to find out legal and safe practices (and during the event itself) some very interesting things came up.
While we were sloothing through the treasury of meat, eggs, and bread, I happened upon a box of Camel Reds (a brand I'm particularly fond if I do get the rare treat of sharing a smoke with someone). In the same fashion I happily retrieved a frozen, sealed package of rack of lamb, I reached for the carton. One of my friends said "oh don't take that! It's been opened, it's not safe!" And the absurdity of the statement hit me, "They can't possibly be any worse for you than they already are!" Together, we laughed at the truth in the statement; earlier in the night one of my compatriots had offered a round of cigarettes to the divers of their own, fresh purchase.
Over the next several days I ogled and feasted on my goodies. I noticed my bank account was not as drained as it generally is at week's end. I could not help but speculate on what I would do with the extra income (for the most part, I put it toward my Legends of the Hidden Temple graduation party). In the relief of dodging anxiety over a tight grocery budget, I immediately thought of the many wonderful ways I could entertain myself with the extra dollars for the month. The correlation between saving and recreation was not lost on me. It dawned on me that if I made smoking a regular, perhaps even just a weekly habit, I would quickly shell out what could be spent on rack of lamb.

What kind of consumer was I really becoming? It's a fallacy to consider my saved income from the dive as "free" or "unspent" money (I think, too, this is an attitude that pervades the self-righteous who look at people of privilege and think "hmm, they could be paying for so many meals if they weren't making car payments on a BMW..."; it's also foolish and untrue). For all intents and purposes, I was just as wealthy/poor as before I decided to feed my family from a dumpster (after all, I am a member of privilege - as we all are, more or less - and that is a difficult thing to exclude from wealth). But the question still remains: what do I do with those extra dollars? The only fair and real answer I could come up with is consume. Cigarettes, a completely superfluous, un-fulfilling and arguably damaging activity, are not outside the logical or moral confines of such subversive consumerism. Instead of existing only in privilege, I found myself walking a line I couldn't quite put my finger on - the better line....

The elitism I was edging my way towards was found roots in a quote from an essay called "Second-Hand Dresses and the Role of the Ragmarket" by Angela McRobbie:

Although there seems to be an evasion of the mainstream with it's mass-produced goods and marked-up prices, the "subversive consumerism" of the ragmarket is in practice highly selective in what is offered and what, in turn, is purchased. There is in this milieu an even more refined economy of taste at work. For every piece rescued and restored, a thousand are cosigned to oblivion. Indeed, it might also be claimed that in the midst of this there is a thinly veiled cultural elitism in the operation...

Forgive a rough landing to this blog - but, ultimately I realized that narrow line I walked was between economic & elitist/subversive & snobby. I was still consuming, even if I wasn't paying for it and my means of consumption were even empowered by dumpster diving - an activity, by the way, that comes at the cost of time and energy that many people more depraved than I simply cannot afford (i.e. I am young, have no children, don't commute to work, only have on job, etc). This is not to say that I "should" fully adapt an impoverished lifestyle - I don't mean to say that dumpster diving isn't truly helpful or the idea subversive economics requires a change of socioeconomic status to justify it. But I do have to reconcile my own privilege with a socially abnormal practice, lest it become a snobby hobby or a creative delusion of self righteousness.

At the end of day it is 1) not more economic - I could simply work more with my free time and afford the food I spent time diving for; 2) makes room for other waste as I am still capable (and do) consume; 3) subversive? yes - but better... not so sure; & 4) may find it's only and better purpose in expropriation - but only if expropriation is the philosophy of all involved and towards all property.

But like I said... this is a rough landing and that last thought is for another day.

What do you want to read next?
My Small Rant about Community Houses (old and un-posted)
The Pizza Martyr (a real person we met)
Peti and Walker (an episode of historical fiction from childhood)
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