Dumpster Archeology: Origin story

Strange to start the story on that September day in 2001, but that was when my obsession with Dumpster Diving was born.   It was just fun before that, when a few of us young punks jumped into dumpsters to find free stuff, inspired a book called… Evasion.   It was the allure of a lifestyle on the open road, living outside society, hopping trains and exploring America like an old-school Hobo or Beatnik.  

For me…Beat poetry had been an entrance to a way of Being, that flowed from moment to moment and seemed to understand that time is just a snap-shot of the ever present Now.  One could say the obsession for dumpster diving grew because the Now had become a complicated version of the American Dream that few could afford and the fear drove some towards a resistance of the Status Quo.   

We dumpstered, squatted, and shoplifted our lives back.  Everything fell into place when we decided our lives were to be lived.  Life serves the risk taker...”      Evasion

That day on the shuttle to Terminal A, people whispered in a quiet tone with a weirdness that you could feel in the air.   By the time I got to the break-room, the Second Tower was hit.  Working for an airline forever changed that day as everything just ….. stopped.  Sent home early, I didn’t come back for weeks.  I had a job but also I didn’t… they gave us a couple hours here and there, so I was able to “make rent”, which at the time was 200 bucks for a run down house with roommates in Seminole Heights.   Funny thing is.. it became one of the happiest times of my life.   Me and my friends didn’t spend money, we spent nights on the open road with our own version of the Dumpster Diving life.  

   Our crew learned to dumpster dive together and do it well.  We spent evenings exploring behind strip malls, going deep into industrial parks, health food store trashcans and empty farmers markets.   I ate almost exclusively from the dumpster, basically whatever an omnivore could find.   It wasn’t just food we found, stuff like DVDs, magazines with the cover off, clothes, shoes, everything we needed ….. and few things we didn’t.    We learned to thrive without money.

  I returned to work with a low starting union pay, so thus Dumpster Diving became a lifestyle.   Always in the back of my mind …why pay for what comes free?   You name it, we found it.  All the needs of my lifestyle choice were available with a simple hunt and luck.  Looking behind those distribution centers warehouses that toss out slightly aged food options… and perhaps we ignored the no- trespassing signs.  Legality never became an issue because no one cared and the worst that happened was a loud yell across an empty dark parking lot.  “hey, get out of there!“.  We laugh with adrenaline spikes in our blood and drive off with free stuff.  As you literally map out a city, you discover that all those empty spaces in-between houses and stores, are the left-overs of civilization.

   While we were in virgin territory as dumpster divers… in a cultural sense.. we did know some crusty/punk veterans who knew some spots and provided the framework in which we adapted a new way to fight the Consumerism Blues.   A sense of something did emerge, that partly had to do with anarchist ideals and my growing sense that the universe operated with a different set of rules than the ones I was taught and one could.. if one tried… discover them.  Dumpster Diving and the post-9/11 years rewired me away from the “nuclear family” dream and into a lost space where discovering what was “real” and what was “blind faith” could only happen in real-time, in real-space and meant looking behind the scenes for the shadow of what it meant to truly be human.  

   Imagine for a moment a typical American city between Monday and Friday on a normal business week.   Now picture the millions of dumpsters being filled with office paper, construction trash, home refuse and the retail box chains.  Imagine the random luck of being there, that day, when the thing you need has been tossed aside without prejudice of destruction and no one is watching or guarding the dumpster.  The odds are astronomical, so one must rely on a higher sense of hunting skills, to see opportunity and not waste the split second of gut pulling desire to just “check this one out”  and find exactly what you need.  It was more than luck, we floated on a wave of odds and manifested things like a story-book Magician with the whirl of a wand, or the proper placement of a flashlight beam.  

Punk Rock Christmas

   One of a dumpster divers best “harvest seasons”…is Punk Rock Christmas.   It happens twice a year, usually at Christmas and then in May.   The College kids leave their dormitories and get on planes to international locations or drive home to the family farm and leave almost everything they lived on… in the dumpster.   Clothes, books, electronics, snowboards, christmas lights, whole kitchens ….. your imagination can not fathom the waste.  For me as the years developed and I never …ever miss a Punk Rock Christmas… I had a running shopping list.   Number 1 is laundry detergent, so much that I never have to buy it, followed by tin foil, cups, paper towels, jeans, size 11 men’s shoes, camping stuff and a whole lot of can goods.  At this point in the story I must say…. I am not worried about competition.  There is enough for everyone, these are the secrets of a Trade, I willingly teach.  

  As I aged and left Tampa wandering the country like those Beat heroes,  I never bought furniture and sometimes didn’t own a car for long periods.  Moving from place to place, I lived a lifestyle that was solitary and crafty, but always with the minimal of kept possessions.  One could always find what one needed by going to the nearest dumpster.   Time moved on and I ate less “trash” food as I moved towards farmers markets and sustainable living options.    I married, had a kid and had the same long career as the out-dated Union men before me.   After all ….dumpster diving is a scavenger way with the output providing little other than personal needs.  So I matured into my 40’s, still hunting from time to time, but leaving the bulk of America’s conveyor belt of consumerism to the bitter void of the ground in which it seeps it’s toxic non-degrading form.  

    One day I visited my grandparents in California and Grandpa walked me to the dumpster across the way…. next to barb wired fence where Elementary school students screamed and played at recess.  Inside this medium sized metal box were the photo albums of an old woman’s family going back generations.  Forgotten and tossed out with the rest of her remaining life after she passed.   He shook his head and said… he saw it often in the “trailer park of the living dead”.   These retirees would spend their days in front of the TV, under swamp coolers surrounded by the minor treasures of a lifetime and when they ultimately died, no one cared. My Grandpa took a vacuum out and shook the photos loose because it was a higher quality  “than Moms” ….I knew then that dumpster diving might genetic. 

  I came home from that trip to the old neighborhood deep in South Saint Louis city, to the aging population that lived in the same house for several generations.  I saw the same thing occurring in the back alleyways of my chosen City.   A woman had died across from my back alley and I looked through her things collecting in the dumpster. A few unique items caught my attention and as I viewed the life laid out in front of me, all the data painted a picture of a story.  The “Story” goes that in 1978, she took the trip of a lifetime to Wine country in France.  The Neighbor had brought home a tourist version of a set of wines, a red and a white wine from a small winery no one remembers anymore.  Based on the dust, it sat on a shelf as a memento of her younger traveling years.  She never opened it and never gave in to the desire to “taste the past” and tragically … she passed on…. so the bottles ended up in my hands.  I opened the white first which was had turned to vinegar.   I popped the red… a week later as me and my wife sat on the porch enjoying a Mid-west summer storm.    We toasted to the poor Lady and drank the greatest bottle of wine I have ever tasted. 

Part of Dumpster Archeology was born that day, the most important part of the entire project.   The essence of the Storytelling Art is in…. WHY….. it tasted so good.  The history and the energy of the object was made entirely out of Love.

  It would be years later in a dumpster outside 2323 Lafayette Ave, did the energy and Love of a find, forever change my life.   I discovered the Story of a lifetime.  One so rich with possibility and baring the marks of a reality so deeply strange that it prompted a project to tell the story.  The deeper I went into the lives of those discovered in the dumpster, the more it seemed to infect my Being with a sort of philosophical understanding that only a real life mirror could.   More of these “finds” and “collections” were discovered in Dogtown, Oakland,  Ballwin and deeper into the South City neighborhoods I called home.  

a retrospective of dumpster archeology

  This is story of the creation of Dumpster Archeology… told in parts, showed in photos, experienced in person, broadcast in various mediums and thriving as any good ” Living Story” should.   In the heads and hearts of those willing to live it.   I do not trademark the terminology because many people operate in this realm and suspect soon, a generation will re-embrace the “true stories” and leave the unknowable to the Occultist and Scientists.   All across America, the dumpsters fill up with our lost histories, our forgotten heroes, and family legacies.  What is available for you to experience is MY version of Dumpster Archeology.    St Louis History and American dreams.   The people within have touched my soul, the objects having been loved and the stories are both true and profound.   This is story-telling on Meta-levels and as a wise guy once said…  sometimes it’s not only stranger than you suppose….it’s stranger than you CAN suppose.