Half of a “nutrition bar” sat before me on the wobbly café table. I couldn’t eat the rest because it was oily yet granular but also couldn’t force myself to throw it out. I had arranged to meet freegans at the Other Side coffeehouse on 30th and Lincoln. If they saw me toss out good food, they’d probably think, yeah, another wasteful American. Glancing around to make sure they hadn’t arrived, I wadded the bar up in its foil wrapper and whisked it into an overfilled trash can.
My friend Casey had arranged for us to meet the freegans to get the lowdown on their cause, and they’d agreed to take us along with them on their Dumpster-diving route. It was near midnight now. People buzzed about the café, sipping coffees and biting cookies.
“Maybe that’s them,” Casey said, pointing to a group of young men. “They look like they dig in the trash.”
We asked. Wrong guys.
“Maybe that group over there?”
“With the girl?” Casey said, unconvinced. “In an ivory angora sweater?”
“I guess you’re right.” White fuzz was wholly inappropriate for picking through garbage. “Let’s sit down and wait,” I suggested. “I think we’ll know them when we see them.”
From a wordy freegan website (freegan.info), part of their definition of a freegan goes:
“Freeganism is a total boycott of an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical considerations and where massively complex systems of productions ensure that all the products we buy will have detrimental impacts most of which we may never even consider. Thus, instead of avoiding the purchase of products from one bad company only to support another, we avoid buying anything to the greatest degree we are able.”
In other words, they don’t like to purchase things because they don’t want to support unethical production means, wastefulness, and rampant consumption. The word “freegan” is a portmanteau, combined from the words “free” and “vegan,” a “vegan” being someone who won’t eat or use products involved with animal harm. A “freegan” is someone who won’t eat or use products unless someone else has already discarded it. (They do this to the best of their ability — it’s gotta be kind of tough.)
I really wanted the freegans to surprise me. I hoped for that “And now a very special Facts of Life” quality that teaches us that we “can’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s not all that implausible. I myself am covered in tattoos, normally wear ill-fitting and cheap clothes, and look like what one might categorize as “dim-witted, incredulous, and worried.” But I’ve studied modern, classical, and contemporary art in the museums of 14 different European countries. So I really wanted that from these guys.
Oh, how I’d hoped that they’d be clean, groomed, wealthy, and healthy. I wanted them to come into the shop, set their rugby ball down, show me their last paycheck for starring in a toothpaste commercial, and roll their sleeves up so we could get down to the business of arm wrestling and long jumping. Alas. Alas. They passed our table, and we knew from the disheveled hair, greasy T-shirts, and aroma that they were our freegans.
I want to be nice to the guys because, as I was to find out shortly, they are all quite affable. But, if you imagine what four twentysomething males who dig in the trash for food look like, you’ve got them. They look exactly the way you think they do. Also, imagine what those trash-digging young men would smell like. And bingo.
Casey and I were a bit nervous. We were unsure of what exactly was taboo in this community, what we could talk about and what we couldn’t.
“Have you guys already been out tonight…um, Dumpster diving?” I asked, not knowing the proper term, trying to break the ice, and attempting to interpret the bouquet.
“No,” they each answered.
“Oh, um. Sorry,” I said. Still feeling pressure to put everyone at ease with some mindless chatter, I asked, “So, are these specially designated clothes for…digging in trash?”
“No,” they each answered, then glanced down at their shirts.
I wanted to cry I was so uncomfortable. I turned to Casey and mouthed, “Help…me.”
“So what do you guys do?” she blurted. Oh, thank God!
Turns out, one of them is a graphic designer, and the others work at an organic, vegan, and raw restaurant. The restaurant uses fresh foods and the employees don’t rummage in other outlets’ garbage to get the ingredients, but still, these guys were seriously grubby. I wrote the name of the restaurant in my book with a “NEVER EAT HERE!” note in the margin.
“Okay, what do you guys call what we’re going to do tonight?” I finally asked.
They preferred the term “Dumpstering,” although they sprinkled into the conversation “Dumpster diving” and just plain old “diving.” Tom, unofficial spokesman for this group, said, “Shopping at D-Mart,” which I thought was the best. But they didn’t use it often.
After getting all their names and ages, I told them I wouldn’t use their real identities. “No, it’s okay,” they all agreed. “You can use our real names.”
They didn’t mind. What they wanted me to assure them of was that I wouldn’t name specifically which stores, locations, and trash bins we’d be visiting in our night of Dumpstering.
“Is it because it’s illegal and you might get a ticket or something?” I asked.
“No,” Tom said. “It’s because, you know, you’ll have this awesome Dumpster, where you just get all kinds of food and stuff. One week it’s fine, the next week there’s a fence around it, there are locks all over it, it’s chained up.”
They were also concerned that if I named the location of an “awesome Dumpster,” there might arise competition in the picking over of leavings. You know how it is when you find a nice little restaurant. If word gets out, the place becomes clogged with newcomers and the quality of the food spirals downward. Same principle.