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My Life as a Diver

Some people scavenge food from dumpsters not because they need to, but because they hate to see so much go to waste. They bring flashlights and strong stomachs, and are ready to run.

By Natalya Savka | Photography by Scott Goldsmith

There was a yellow cereal box that Dad brought home when I was four. Home was an unheated summer house south of New York's Catskills, where my parents, brother, and I lived the winter that we emigrated from the Soviet Union with what we could fit in eight suitcases. What I remember of that home is knitted hats, steaming milk, canned meat, chopped wood, and a frozen lake. Mom remembers it as the winter of cold toes and $14,000.

"The box cost $2," Mom said, her finger tracing Dad's receipt line by line. "It cost $2," Dad echoed, and that's how I knew it was a lot. The box had a photograph of little circles swimming in milk, strawberries splashing as if they'd just let go of the stem. If you had asked me then what strawberries tasted like, I'd have told you about my grandpa's orchard on the outskirts of Lviv, Ukraine, where I quietly ate away the afternoons. I was a well-fed child with fat cheeks, sticky lips.

Dad cut open the top of the box with steel scissors. He said, "That's funny. There's a bag within the box." Mom said she wondered why, and the bag crinkled between Dad's fingers.

Dad opened the bag, shook his head, and smirked so wide that both of his gold teeth showed. He passed the thing to Mom, who passed it to Mykola, my brother, who passed it to me. I rooted through the little brown circles. "Mama," I said, "where are the strawberries?" Mom nibbled on a circle and said, "It tastes like stale bread. Now why would they sell us leftovers?"

 

I dumpster dive with my two college roommates. Malibu and his parents came to this country as political refugees from Poland. Like me, he was four when his family emigrated. He studied computer science, opened a business, started dumpster diving, and hasn't worked full-time since. Lion's parents are both doctors. She grew up in a suburban home with a huge lawn. She read and debated through college, mostly about how to reverse suburban sprawl.

We call ourselves the Outskirts, and we almost never buy food.

Every week or so, once we've exhausted our supplies down to a head of limp lettuce and little more, we dress for the dumpster. I put on wool mitts, which I fished out of a puddle outside a public restroom in Newburgh, New York, and a down jacket, which my mom, now single, brought back from Paris. All the while, we voice hesitation: It's so cold the veggies will be frozen through. We have no time for this. There's a book to be read, a thesis to be written, an iPhone app to be programmed.

But we're already placing orders. We're hungry for kale, peppers, potatoes.

"Avocados," Lion says.

"And onions," I reply, brushing snow off my bike's handlebars, brake pads, and saddle. We can't predict what awaits us behind the supermarket—a week's worth of dinners or maybe a lone fruit smeared in goo.

We usually cruise the dumpsters in a $400 red Volvo whose gas mileage we don't dare to calculate. But tonight we're teaming up with Chupa and Majesty of the Casbah household, and they'd tease us if we showed up in the Volvo. Chupa and Majesty grew up here in State College, Pennsylvania. In high school Majesty studied the Bible, Gandhi, then anarchy; Chupa arranged rusted tools and rat skeletons in an abandoned barn. While the Outskirts are characterized by long hair and big sweaters, the Casbah members are known for their full beards and "humanure" bucket. And for their surplus of dumpstered bikes, which Chupa fixes and sells.

As we ride, I chirp, "Ka-ka! Ka-ka!" Majesty pedals down a snowbank, and Chupa crosses four lanes of traffic hands-free. We're not drunk; the dumpster rarely gifts beer.

We pedal three miles to a dumpster not because it's the closest one, but because those nearby are rarely worth checking. Bad dumpsters carry coffee grounds and half-chewed Chinese takeout. The worst are compactors, which grind edibles into landfill waste. The first secret to diving is to take the time to locate the handful of supermarkets, bakeries, and creameries in town that contribute most to the 25 to 40 percent of food that goes to waste in the United States. The second secret: Always bring a flashlight.

Tonight, our target is squeezed between a supermarket and a highway. Happily, we find it overflowing with bags of clementines, bananas, kale, peppers, and potatoes. Lion pounces first, saying, "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

I hop onto a ridge beside the container, teetering next to Lion, who's sprawled across a box of collard greens. She clinches an avocado by its stem, where the fruit once suckled a tree in Colombia or California before finding its way to a trash receptacle in central Pennsylvania. She squeezes the avocado, then whispers, "And it's not rotten at all!"

I stretch toward the beam of Lion's light, through the stench of moist cardboard and steel's signature winter smell: dried blood. There, between bags of bruised plums, is our well of avocados. My mitt plunges into the hole but comes up empty, mysteriously sticky. I lean farther, and Malibu joins.

Chupa and Majesty forage through a neighboring dumpster of processed foods because, whereas the Outskirts prefer organic and vegetarian, the Casbah go for quantity and imperishability, like the 200 soda bottles they once found, or the year's supply of hot dogs. They're stocking up for the climate apocalypse—an inevitability in this age of gluttony, we say—and for their next daylong Mario Kart marathon.

We unearth 16 avocados. Then Malibu says, "Let's go for the pom!"

"Dude, pom!" Majesty echoes. There's a legend among us that, if you dig deep enough, you'll always find a bottle of pomegranate juice. I've seen the pom just once, though. Ask us how the myth began, and we'll brush you off with an ambiguity like "It's just crazy," because, as Majesty once said to me, "Dude, we get all our food from the trash. There's no point in trying to make sense of it all. The world is just too crazy."

 

When I heard footsteps, I didn't look up from the faucet, because I knew it was him in the bathroom doorway, standing as straight as a candlestick, as Mom would say. He blocked the light from the kitchen, where Mom stood with her pots and wooden spoons. Spoiled American children don't deserve privacy, he said, and that's why he walked in on me. Years later, he punched the lock out of my brother's bedroom door, leaving a hole in the wall where the knob hit. I imagine the hole is still there.

Dad said to Mom, "She's letting the water run." Mom didn't respond. She was sauteing onions, because every dinner—pierogies, borscht, chicken patties—began with onions. "And she didn't turn off the bedroom light. We need to economize! Economize!" I pushed past him, up to my bed, where I read Little Women or maybe The Boxcar Children until dinner. That night, I listened to him tell Mom that I was indeed worthless. Until age 18, I would learn most everything about myself from these snippets that seeped through my bedroom wall after sundown. I agreed that I was worthless, and in the bathroom I left the light on.

 

It's crazy: We do find the pom. "Tonight the dumpster gods are good to us," I yelp too loudly. The others continue rummaging, undisturbed, but my hands go still. I listen. The last word—"us-s-s-s"—lingers in the night air like the brown dumpster goop that never does wash off Majesty's left shoe. I hear workers shuffling inside, and I'm sure they've heard my outburst. I remind myself that they don't care. When I worked at a supermarket for $4.75 an hour after taxes and union dues, I would have wasted not one breath on a bunch of kids in the trash.

In three years of diving, I've encountered broke students, a family of four, and a short woman with a gray bob who asked if I would be a sweetheart and please hand her the plastic-wrapped peas. Of course, there are risks to frequenting back alleys at night. A bare-chested man once chased Chupa and Majesty for miles through the woods.

We don't, however, fear the law—at least not usually, thanks to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized dumpster diving. We could get cited for trespassing, especially at tonight's dumpster, which is enclosed by an eight-foot fence that we've scaled. But we're all fit and reckless and prepared to take to the bushes if the store manager appears. Once in a while, the police show up, but they just tell us to leave. None of us has ever been busted for scavenging.

We don't say it, but it's time to go. My hands have purpled, and Malibu is tapping his toes to get his circulation going. Together we climb out and pass four boxes of booty over the fence, then strap them to a bicycle trailer that Chupa fashioned out of a salvaged futon frame. We throw a few mashed grapefruits back in the dumpster, because it's important to clean up after ourselves. That's just dumpster etiquette.

 

At age 16, I discovered that the cheapest way out of suburban Philadelphia was by bicycle. To a rusty purple frame I tied a waterproof tablecloth (for shelter) and a loaf of tomato-basil bread (for sustenance). Because I was still too young to believe in physical limits, I cycled 110 miles to a New Jersey beach as the thermometer teetered past 90, then stumbled into a grassy lot and swelled with blisters. I called Mom, and she simply said, "Come home." But Dad arrived two hours later, with Mom in the passenger seat.

Over the next six years, my escapes took me farther afield. I called Mom from a library in Nova Scotia, a rally in Pennsylvania against toilet paper made from old-growth forests, a biological reserve in Peru, and a lone pay phone in the Ecuadoran Andes. And I said, "Mama, I'm cold."

"Why didn't you bring a sweater?"

"I thought the equator would be hot."

She didn't ask why I'd left. She just said, "Come home." In time, I did.

We set the boxes on sticky kitchen linoleum. Then we open the refrigerator, assess its condition: Ew. The act of diving requires curiosity and sometimes a bit of stealth, but sorting through last week's refrigerated trash takes patience and a strong stomach. That which shouldn't be green is green (the tomato pulp at the bottom of the produce bin) and that which should be is not (the yellowed lettuce leaves). Some nights after we come home from diving, Lion will take a call, Malibu will gravitate toward his keyboard, I'll kick the unsorted box of food into the laundry room, and our efforts will go to waste. The fruit flies will multiply, the vegetables will rot, and in a few days Malibu will pitch them into a ditch out back.

The fridge has limited space because of the $250 worth of cheese (mostly Parmesan) bestowed by a single cheese-rich dumpster. It also stores several sticks of butter, a glass jug of milk, and three dozen nonorganic eggs bought from a local dairy. Sometimes we use money, but never without guilt.

Lion digs out a bottle of olive oil from her backpack, slides it past a cabinet door, minds my eyes. She says, "I figured, you know, it might be nice for sauteing, for salads. It was on sale and . . ."

"Yeah, that's a good idea," I say, and I do not mention the 75-cent banana from Ecuador that I bought last week, the peel that I trashed between classes.

Tonight, after half an hour, the refrigerator's full, the cabinet's stuffed, and the table's occupied. We always get too much, then defend our gluttony on the grounds that it would have gone to waste anyway. We live in a college town with thousands of up-and-coming consumerists and only a handful of homeless people, two of whom Majesty greets by name.

We pile the 16 avocados in a bowl and call it our centerpiece.

"I hope we don't have any visitors this week," I say, because it would be nearly impossible to explain the avocados without admitting to the diving. The guests too often respond with worried silence. One once confided to a mutual friend, "They're such hippies."

In the early-morning hours, Lion and I discuss this slur over homework: "Are we hippies?"

"Well, what's wrong with hippies?"

"I like our long hair."

"Our avocados."

 

I was the teenager who preached that the world was burning, who felt that nobody cared. While my peers shopped for prom dresses, I sold SAVE the TREES T-shirts to benefit some group that I don't remember now.

In college I joined an environmental activist group, met Lion. To fund the club, we sold cookies to drunks on a street corner at midnight. The frat boys taunted us: "Oooh, I'd sure like to get in on your cookies." And maybe it was then that I began to lose hope in creating global change, or even university-wide change. I took a good look at myself, then at my cookies, and I wondered whether the flour was organic, whether I was as much of an environmentalist as I'd claimed.

When the club president suggested we sell T-shirts to make money, I sent an impassioned mass e-mail, urging members to reevaluate their personal consumption, to count how many shirts they already owned. I didn't sign off with Gandhi's "Be the change you want to see in the world," but I considered it.

The president—a junior with tamed dreads and black eyeliner—replied to all with a reminder that the e-mail list was to be reserved for official business. I also got another e-mail, this one from Majesty, although he introduced himself as Andy back then. He wrote, "Dude, we should meet up."

 

"We have eggplants, tomatoes, onions. But no green peppers."

"I'll add extra eggplant."

"No parsley."

"We'll skip the parsley."

The dumpster determines ingredients, so Lion and I consult recipes merely for inspiration. Our specialties: stir-fries and soups, both of the unnamed variety. When the dumpster gives too much of one good thing, we experiment and learn—for instance, that fresh apples don't go with guacamole, but baked apple crisps do.

Lion drops a slice of eggplant on the floor, throws it back in the bowl, and no one winces. These plants grew up on synthetics, on petroleum, and one more smidgen of dirt won't hurt them. Our food often molds and sometimes smells, so we ditch it or fry it, and we never get sick. It's true.

 

"Where's the rest?" Mom asks me. She's back from work, her black high heels tapping on white kitchen tiles, a laptop case in one hand, a grocery bag in the other. Black blouse, red knee-length skirt, red lips. Next year Mom will move into her own brick house, date a guy who grills hamburgers in the backyard on Wednesday nights.

"The rest of what?"

"The rest of the bread."

While visiting my mother, Malibu and I have scoured a bakery dumpster near her apartment. I've left one loaf on the kitchen countertop, under the pretense that we bought it, and hidden a trash bag filled with bread under our daybed in the guest room. I don't know what I plan to do with it.

Mom has intuited that I'm holding a stash, so I bring her the bag. She rolls her eyes, takes out a loaf, starts slicing.

"Actually, we should finish my old bread before we start in on this," she says, knife in mid-air, handing over a plastic-wrapped loaf from Giant.

"But Mama, this one's moldy."

"So?"

"So, you still want it?"

"Green bread never hurt me," she says. I watch her chew.

 

Chupa bikes into our carpeted living room, the other guests a step behind.

"How many plates?" Malibu asks.

"Seven or eight," I say.

"The flowered, the white, or the mono-colored?"

We own 48 plates. They were free. We also own a pink cowboy hat, four fixable laptops, a miniature motorcycle, five bottles of Windex, a big pink gorilla, a big brown gorilla—all of it free. Independent from finances, we divers hoard.

When the stuff tires us, we give it away on a grassy spot on campus. We call the weekly ritual "Share-It Blanket," our customers call it "Free-Stuff Friday," and a passing economics professor calls it "communism."

Lion and I set out eggplant salad, garlic-cheese spread, baked potatoes, lentil soup, kale chips, and guacamole, which takes care of the 16 avocados. Then forks clink on plates. The third and final secret to dumpster diving is to eat, together, like there's no tomorrow. Because it's all crazy, and maybe all we've got is this.

NATALYA SAVKA is a former Sierra intern.


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