In this funny episode, listen to how I got into “dumpster diving” for my clients with mental health issues, how I met Bob, the sad reality of the amount of waste in our current society, and the lesson learned called being here now.
This is the short story that accompanies the podcast.
Dumpster diving is actually a misnomer, so let me explain.
It all started with me bringing a bag of clothing to the goodwill bin, finding an open box with glittery shoes that said GUESS (most certainly a knockoff), and making the decision to do an exchange. On the second occasion I happened to pass by, the bin was overflowing with bags, and there were piles of bags all around the bin. I made like a squirrel (I had just gotten my nails done, so they were sharp!), and satisfied my curiosity my peering inside. I made the choice to take home 2 bags, because, after all, who was going to notice 2 bags were missing? That started a pattern of treasure troving, and looking for interesting finds that were freely available. Of course, I shared my wealth with others.
My clients at the time were on social assistance, and they benefited greatly with the new items I brought. They were hard on their things, breaking zippers and snapping off buttons in their hurry to get dressed. Crayons would break, perfume bottles would slip from their hands, and bracelets would easily fall apart, leaving beads scattered on the floor and under dressers as if Easter should be celebrated many times a year. There was always something that they needed, whether it was socks and underwear or a new bauble for their enjoyment. Many of the items I brought were often stamped with designer names, sometimes with the tags still on. They weren’t concerned about such status games, but family and friends at work surely noticed!
Along the way, I met some colorful characters. There was the drunk man in his car who commended me on leaving donations at the bin, while his own car had hockey sticks and hockey gear lying on his back seat. He said he had found good clothing items for his tall frame and many secret treasures! Then there was the black lady with glasses whose breath also smelled of alcohol. She sometimes brought her dog, and told me she had found several useful items, including a real ivory knife. She was an older woman, and said her husband had left her for a younger woman, and now she was finding it hard living alone, but made do with what she could.
And then, there was Bob. Bob was a country-bumpkin turned hob-nobbin’ city slicker, although he wasn’t an oily salesman by any means. Indeed, he was a simple, moral kind-of-guy, keen on helping his daughter and grandson, and making sure everything was running smoothly in the building he maintained. I met his brother and grandson a few times, and they were just as sweet as Bob was!
I also met colorful characters when I would visit second-hand stores. Such places are rather smelly, so they aren’t for everyone. In fact, I knew many who refused to shop at those places, even if they were on a budget. While I enjoyed looking for interesting items, I developed a clean-up strategy after every shopping haul: wash up as soon as I got in, including myself, clothes, jewelry and even hand bags! Truth be told, it’s washing away the smell, but it’s also washing whatever “energy” belonged to that person.
While goodwill stores are aimed at helping those on a budget, including newly-arrived immigrants, single moms and also my clients with mental health issues, it’s also true that you can find people looking for merchandise for their online store or rich people looking for cheap deals. About the latter category, I found that this was something of a pathology. Those I knew were so rich they could buy designer every day, but in their minds, unworthiness was tainted on the bills in their wallet. I heard stories such as, “this is such a good deal,” “I don’t deserve to shop elsewhere,” and “I refuse to pay full price on anything.” It was a mentality that kept them poor in many areas of their life.
About the former category, about those who screened second-hand stores for merch, it was Bob who informed me that many rich folks gave away high-ticket items.
“They’re so rich,” Bob told me. “They don’t care. Just look at all those big houses,” he’d say.
Then he’d tell me how he looked for antiques, high-end designer items such as handbags, clothing and shoes, and even scrap metal like copper and brass.
I didn’t know much about it (after all, I was just a newbie!), but he said he made good money with his finds, selling the metal at scrap yards, selling vintage items to antique dealers, and selling designer items to boutique stores. It was similar to dumpster diving, REAL dumpster diving, of which a few had confessed they knew people who would ransack people’s garbage and the bins at the mall. This wasn’t about homeless folks rummaging for food. This was about the vast amount of STUFF that stores and people were dumping into the garbage that were absolutely, perfectly usable.
When I began to tell a few friends about what I had gotten into, I got slapped with a label of WRONG. Judgment was written in their eyes, the moral eyes of an all-seeing god. What, stealing from the needy? How could you, Catherine?
And while guilt came to dabble at my door, when the hood was lifted, there was more to the story. The sheer amount of WASTE was a REAL ISSUE. The fashion industry was the 2nd biggest polluter. We had so much stuff it was coming out of our ears! If we didn’t like something, we’d just toss it into the bin and get another one. Who cared where it landed up, who cared if someone else could use it. Oh, that’s right, many people remembered goodwill, which explained why the bins were overflowing every day!
I also realized it when I went jogging around the neighbourhood, and started noticing the amount of stuff people would put out for the garbage. Dishes, mirrors, furniture, lamps, coat racks and more, just lying there beside a black garbage bag.
“Are you giving this away?” I would ask sometimes. And the person seemed somewhat annoyed, almost sheepish, like, “just take it already, are you really that poor?”
But it’s not about being poor or being on a budget. Yes, I can buy a new one at the store, but this item right here, it still has use, it has value. I could use it, or I know someone else who can, so really, I am doing a great benefit by “recycling” it.
That is the reframe that came, that it is not about poverty. It is that we are living so abundantly, yet so unconsciously. We fail to value and APPRECIATE what we have. And what joy it is that others can benefit from items that we have chosen to no longer hold onto.
I heard the same story when I went to a few second-hand stores that operated by donation. They said the amount of STUFF that was donated was phenomenal. Designer items were a daily donation. In fact, one person told me it was a “thing” that a woman would wear an outfit once, and then donate it, because, after all, it was now “old.”
I was also told that many big stores would give to charity--- the sheer amount of new clothing with tags still on--- because they didn’t sell, were last year’s model, and they could write it off. One person even mentioned that they received so many designer items that all of my clients and myself could be outfitted in a new look from head-to-toe every day of the year. That’s a lot of jazzy fashion!
Bob didn’t feel any guilt. And he (and I) had seen others who were going through bags, and made such a mess.
“They have no respect,” Bob said. “I look through the stuff, but I put everything back the way I found it. I only take what I need.”
That last statement was echoed by other dumpster divers I had met (even myself): that only what was needed was taken, often just a few things, and the vast majority was left for others to enjoy. It was kind of like everyone got to have something. You got to keep a few treasures, but you left behind many gold and silver nuggets for others to find!
Bob did tell me that he had seen one guy pull up in his van and take ALL the goodwill bags. Apparently, that went against the unwritten dumpster diving code. That was the kind of person who was doing it only for money, but he really didn’t know what he was doing. Those who would pay out wanted quality items, not just any bauble from the dollar store. He learned soon enough, and I didn’t hear of any more van visits.
Bob told me he had spoken with the employees of the goodwill store, as well as the police.
“It’s fine with me,” said one of the employees. “The bags are donated and they are outside, so in some way they don’t belong to anyone. But once I take them inside, now that’s something different.”
Bob told me of one incident with the police, when someone had reported on him. When the police arrived on the scene, they knew Bob already, because worked in a low-income building as a janitor where there were many students and immigrants and skirmishes about. Bob was a hard worker and well-respected. The police didn’t care about something so innocuous as going through a few bags for goodwill. It was the least of their cares with domestic violence, drug abuse, vandalism, theft, and crime.
“Besides,” said his police officer friend, “You’re not making any noise or bothering anyone about it.”
I had to admit, I was a bit shocked when I saw Bob had climbed on top of the bin and was removing bags from inside. It was a shock to me that now I had gotten in “deep,” and that I had sorta, kinda, made it something of a daily habit to check what goodies, if any, were lying around the bin.
“I’m not shy,” Bob told me. He threw a bunch of bags onto the ground, jumped down, and began rummaging through them. I stood there, amused, and listened to Bob as he prattled on.
“You know,” he said. “Some people are scared of me. I see some people, they come up in their car, and they won’t get out to put their bags in the bin. And then,” he continued, “I see some people walking their dogs and they don’t even want to come this way. I’m not doing any harm. I’m just looking through the bags, I only take what I need.”
I appreciated Bob’s simple logic. He was what you’d call a nice guy. Respectful, but no, not shy. I guess there’s all kinds in the dumpster diving world.
Bob encouraged me to look through some of the bags he had pulled out of the bin. I grudgingly looked through a few, but it was cold, and my fingers soon got numb.
“There’s nothing good in here,” I said.
He helped me find two jackets that would be good for running during the spring. He knew I often went jogging, and on another occasion, he had also found me a running jacket which I had gladly washed and used.
This time around, despite washing the jackets three times, they still smelled. The smell of smoke was so strong that it was like potpourri sugar-coating a pooey bathroom.
That was the impetus that got the ball unrolling, or, I should say, I outgrew the “habit” soon enough.
There was only so many bags, purses, belts, shoes, and all kinds of paraphernalia that a person needed, after all. In fact, I found myself doing clean-ups in my clients’ possessions, so, really, most of what had been taken was given back! We donated many black garbage bags to goodwill every season, when we’d do an inventory and take stock of what was needed and what could go. I, myself, donated many items at the same bin where I had stood talking to Bob. And sometimes, every now and again, I’d take a look and see if there was a new bauble that would catch my eye.
I’d see Bob on and off again, more so during the summer than the colder months. Bob was Bob, the same old, same old, rifling through the bin, making a small work station to go through the bags, keeping a few chosen items, then putting most back, everything so nice and tidy. It was his work ethic, although he didn’t consider himself a professional by any standard. Just a regular ol’ guy, looking for treasure and appreciating small things.
It’s all the small things that matter, they say. But really, it’s just ONE thing.
Bob and the others reminded me of the colors of the rainbow, something for each one, each making their way along the path.
One’s garbage is another’s potpourri… or something along those lines.
I might have outgrown dumpster diving (well, we could call it a passing fancy), but the real enjoyment had always been the same.
Being. Here and Now.