Friday, October 02, 2009

There's gold in them there dumpsters...

... Well, not really, but there is copper, brass, and ton upon ton of aluminum.

I once groused that DeKalb does not have a vigorous recycling program. This was back in late 2006 when I was given the runaround requesting a recycling bin from Waste Management. Three phone calls and months later, I was never supplied one until I confronted the recycling truck in the alley. He had an extra one and gave it to me on the spot. A lesson on the power of direct confrontation.

But now I'm benefitting from the lack of recycling. I live on the far east side of downtown, where the buildings date back to the early 20th century and the neighborhood is mostly single family dwellings. The alleyways close to home are great to glean from before trash pickup because eco-minded residents put their aluminum cans in recycling bins for me. I like to go can picking in daylight because I make a ruckus crushing the cans and don't want to wake anybody up.

What has surprised me most is how kind people are to me, going out of their way to give me cans and giving me verbal support. This one old lady even grabbed me by the elbow, looked me in the eyes and said, "You know you're really doing a great thing, young man." Not really. I'm just getting some exercise and trying to make a little extra money.

But the real paydirt isn't in my neighborhood, but the huge apartment complexes on the northwest side of town. As John Hoffman notes in his classic tome, The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving, college students are "wastoid pukes." And this is so true. I've already gleaned an almost brand new Cannondale bike, fresh fruit by the bagload, a nice fleece jacket, and bag after bag after bag of aluminum cans.

I've been trying to figure out why I like dumpster diving so much. I think it is because it appeals to my outsider sensibilities. The wastoid pukes ignore me and, so far, from that little old lady who grabbed my arm to the young guy who ran back into his place to grab me a bag of cans, and the garbage man who told me where to find brass, all of my encounters while diving have been positive.

I also like dumpster diving because it is a form of urban exploration. You never know what you're going to find. And it is kind of like shopping because I always, without fail, return home loaded with as much as I can carry.

I've only got a few minutes left at the library, so I'm going to dispel a few myths about dumpster diving. First of all, I don't actually get into the dumpster. I may have to at some point, but so far I haven't done it. Everything I've grabbed so far has been in reach. Now, I've leaned over the edge in classic dumpster diving pose many times... Also, I do not get that dirty from diving. My hands get a little sticky from spilled soda and beer, but I just wipe them on the grass and go about my business. I have yet to see a rat, but did encounter a family of three raccoons huddling together asleep in one dumpster.

The good dumpster provides.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Some thoughts on frugality

I aspire to be frugal more than I actually am. Of course, despite not achieving my own goals (such as not eating out), I am probably more frugal than most Americans.

No cable TV, no Internet at home, no utilities, no car payment, no money spent on gas lately (my truck has been in the shop almost a month now as the mechanic is slow to correct his error), shop for groceries only at Aldi's, get most of my vegetables scavenging, usually spend less than $100 a month on food, including eating out, etc., rent is only $385 a month now (from $1,190 a month when I rented a house in Elgin), don't buy books or music, but get both for free from public library, gave up, rather reluctantly, my Netflix account back in January, and pay a fixed rate of $48 a month for cell phone. I figured it out and realize I live quite comfortably, including child support and student loan payments, on a little over $1,100 a month. This is below the poverty line. Why, then, don't I feel poor.

I can thank Esther for instilling frugal habits into my lifestyle. She still is, in many ways, more frugal than I. When we were saving money for long-distance hikes, we lived a very cheap and simple lifestyle. I've gotten so used to it that it has become normal. I find it interesting that in recent tougher economic times frugality has become de rigueur and even celebrities downplay their wealth. But the advice I read about only pays lip service to frugality, such as shopping at Costco instead of at a supermarket or riding a bike to work 3 days a week.

I've found, too, that most of my friends are pretty frugal. This is understandable because non-frugal friends are expensive to be around. It is a fairly common middle-class practice to make social occasions shopping occasions. Think about all of the different theme parties for everything from Tupperware to sex toys that are just a big sales pitch. And everybody has a friend who insists on eating out whenever you get together. Not my friends. They insist I make them something to eat, and don't grouse when I tell them their food was scavenged from a dumpster.

Frugality fits my lifestyle because I would rather do work that is fulfilling than slave away at a job I hate in order to pay for a bevy of things I do not need. Time is far more valuable than money, and experience trumps acquisition any day. When I loot through dumpsters and find perfectly good things thrown away, I think of all the labor that went into producing it and then into making the money that originally bought it. All that sweat and toil that I bypassed by doing something socially stigmatizing like lifting the lid on a dumpster.

Which is more fulfilling, all that wasted labor and material, or getting something for practically nothing? When I'm on a long-distance hike, days upon days removed from civilization, I don't spend any money, but I feel enriched and enlivened by all these experiences that are uncanned, unscripted and spontaneous. And I wouldn't be out there in the first place to enjoy that unless I eschewed the trappings of materialism. Gotta go. Library time up!