Perhaps I should have seen this coming.
The very name “dumpster diving” makes the nature of the activity pretty clear. It doesn’t hide behind a sanitized euphemism, like, say, “gently used snack gathering.” It’s right there in the title. Dumpsters — you dive in them. But as I stood behind a neighborhood bakery, peering into a slimy abyss of trash, there was only one thought in my mind: Somehow I thought it’d be less putrid.
I admit, I was reluctant when Grist first suggested that I investigate the dumpster-diving phenomenon firsthand. But now that good old-fashioned garbage-picking has gone all hipster on us, I figured it couldn’t be so bad. And preventing perfectly good food from going to waste — what’s not to love about that? Besides, it’s free eats!
So I sweet-talked my boyfriend, Ted (who also happens to be Grist’s managing editor), into acting as my lookout on a Sunday-evening excursion to a pair of dumpsters with good reputations for divability. One of them even had a review on Yelp.
We struck out around 7 p.m., well after dark and past closing time for the businesses whose dumpsters we would be probing. “I hear this place is great — they have day-old loaves of bread just sitting out,” I told Ted brightly as we circled around to the back of a bakery.
“Oh yeah? What if we get there and there are, like, four bums gathered around it?”
Hmm. Hadn’t thought of that. “I bet they’ll share,” I said.
We turned the corner and saw nobody — just an unassuming dumpster in a dark parking lot. I hurried up to it, fully expecting to find pillowy loaves of rosemary challah or cinnamon raisin bread piled high, all individually wrapped, perhaps still warm. But when I lifted the lid of the dumpster marked “food waste,” I found only trash. Bags and bags of trash.
From what I could discern through the semitranslucent plastic, the bags were stuffed full of moist coffee grounds and wadded-up napkins, then glazed with a layer of God-knows-how-old half-and-half.
Free food? Honey, ain’t nuthin’ free.
“I think you’re supposed to get in there and open the bags,” said Ted from the sidelines.
He was right, of course. But could there possibly be any usable carbs amidst all this grime? I checked all the other dumpsters, just to be sure, but my immaculate cornucopia was nowhere to be found. Damn. I would have to dive in.
But as I stood at the rim, gathering my courage, a blinding security light spotlit us. “Crap!” I said, losing my nerve. “Everyone can see us!”
We weren’t really doing anything wrong — the legality of rummaging through dumpsters is a gray area, depending on your city — but nor were we keen on getting caught neck-deep in the rubbish bin. In search of a more shadowy location, we headed elsewhere. (A closer read of the Yelp reviews later hinted that the magical bread dumpster had been removed sometime in 2010.)
Next up was a chocolate shop, but by now, my visions of finding neatly wrapped chili-hazelnut bars were fading. Not that I ever got close enough to find out for sure: Though the store was closed, the lights were still on and employees puttering about. Plus, it was still early enough for passersby to be strolling around at regular intervals. It all felt so exposed. So vulgar.
Maybe dumpster diving is like $2 tequila shots — best saved for the late-night hours, I thought as we slunk away in defeat.
The next night, I plied Ted with promises of beer if he would once again stand guard while I attempted a dive or two. This time, I chose an affluent neighborhood with three grocery stores in close proximity, as grocery stores are notorious for wasting perfectly good food. We went much later this time (past 11 p.m.), and I stashed a headlamp and some extra bags in my backpack. Ted loaned me a black jacket, and attired in cat burglar chic, we set off.
Everything went swimmingly until we reached the alley behind grocery store No. 1. There were ample dumpsters, all right, no doubt brimming with slightly bruised fruits and fine crackers that had reached their completely meaningless sell-by dates. But, in a Rapunzelesque twist of fate, they were all locked behind a six-foot fence. Not only that, a blinking security camera was trained on us, just daring us to go ahead and make its day.
Off we went to grocery store No. 2, where we found the same dilemma. Damn.
With the clock inching past midnight, we tromped over to the third and final grocery store, our last hope. Free dumpsters at last — a little too free, actually. The trash was in full view of the street, with megawatt security lights erasing all shadows. Our black outfits did nothing to camouflage us. If we were to go a-garbage picking, we’d have to do it on stage.
So be it. I opened the first dumpster, wondering what I might tell the store owner or police officer if we were caught. Should I go with, “I lost my wedding ring in there,” or “My Pomeranian is trapped inside?”
Then came the moment of truth. This dumpster, and all the others nearby, was truly foul. No edible treats were readily apparent among the stinky refuse. I’d have to climb in and start ripping into bags.
I cannot tell a lie. I totally chickened out. I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it.
So I did what any reasonable American would do in the face of such failure. I took Ted to the only bar still open, where we drank beer and ate an ice cream sundae. For full price.
Still, dear readers, don’t lose faith. I’m down, but I’m sure not out. I’m determined to make a successful dive, to explore the murky depths and emerge, dinner in hand.
Perhaps there are a few successful dumpster divers in your ranks who can show a poor rookie like me the way. If so, please, share your secrets. In the meantime, I’ll be scrounging up a pair of industrial-grade rubber gloves.
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