Dumpster Diving in Dystopia
We cherish the blood, sweat, and tears, but we forget about the trash of humanity.
I remember the smell of my apartment. It smelled like milk, mixed with old fall leaves, mixed with your uncle’s shed, mixed with an Aeropostale department store, mixed with… well, it smelled like garbage, honestly. It smelled like garbage because everything in my apartment was, actually, garbage. Not garbage like what your roommates leave in the kitchen and forget to take out for six days, but real, actual garbage. It was different, the smell of actual garbage, garbage from a Real Dumpster. It’s almost alluring, in a way, the smell. It gets my nervous system going like a drug. I love the smell. There is a very distinct smell to garbage juice.
My apartment was busy. It was a world of its own. Every square inch was a thrift-store museum exhibit to the obscene excesses of capitalism, as displayed both in the amount of useful things people decide are “trash,” and the amount of useless things I was convinced were not trash at all. We were running an adoption agency, rehoming and loving lost things that people had forgotten, abandoned, or failed to appreciate. It was a victory each time, like winning a game or hunting a boar; we were the good guys, we were the rescuers, we were the scavengers, we were derelicts, we were free.
My life was populated with objects containing moments from other people’s lives. A USB drive with a Word document of a Christian boy’s coming out story, stacks of discarded birthday cards, notes from classes that people had poured months of their lives into documenting.
I liked these things the most, the things people loved and used. They contained imprints of a person, imprints of a world, imprints of an entire life. I found them, these treasures, these fragments of people, in heaps of old beer bottles, and I dug them out and cherished them like sacred artifacts cataloged by a collector of the world’s most bizarre museum.
I was in love with these artifacts. I was in love with these moments of these people’s lives. I was in love with the people who threw them away. I was in love with the act of finding it. I was in love with the objects themselves.
Every time I found a thing, it was like free money- a free life hack. I took pride in using everything I found. I found joy and childlike wonder in the way I began to see all objects as having value, all objects as having potential, all objects as being alive.
It is us that gives meaning to objects. It is us that gives objects their value. It is us that can sanctify or strip the value of any material thing.
Capitalism is very much an ongoing negotiation of what objects are worth. We act like there is scarcity; we act like there is not enough. Our scarcity mindsets restrict us from recognizing the infinite resources existing everywhere in space and time, not at all dictated by money, but only accessible through creative mindsets which are more obsequious than they are expedient most of the time. We do not live in a world of scarcity- we live in a world of abundant, unfathomably nauseating excess. There is more than enough to go around- way more. Exorbitantly more. It thrilled me, it disgusted me, to find this out about our world, to find this out about who we are as people. There is so much panic, so much frenzy, so much buying, and so much “trash.”
I abandoned the entire concept of “trash.” Nothing is trash, things just have different value at different times. The absence of need does not equate to the absence of value. The presence of value definitely does not equate to the presence of need. I abandoned my “need,” my need for anything, and I found my freedom waist-deep in the bottom of a rust-green industrial spaceship marked DUMPSTER.
I had everything I could ever want or dream- I hadn’t spent a dollar on literally anything in months- and I was free. I was utterly, inhumanly free.
I was free in the kind of way that is embarrassingly socially deviant, the kind of way that is Highly Frowned Upon. People looked at me with face-plate masks of politeness when I made social errors bragging about my conquests (“I like your necklace.” “Thanks! I found it at a dumpster!”), things that sound amusing to me but that are the mark of an insane person to others. I don’t even think it was what I said, it was the eagerness and pride with which I said it. I was okay with their disgusted looks, their What-Is-This-Person smirks. I didn’t mind their disapproval. In a way, I actually relished it. I was forever forgetting that what I considered to be liberating was to them a mark of degeneracy, poverty, and low moral principle. I was forgetting, and I didn’t care. I didn’t care at all, because my life was cool. It was organic. It was real, and my relationship with Things was no longer a transactional one- Things came to me when they willed it, I could summon them with intention, I could discover them by simply looking, I could appreciate them for what they were and not for what they cost me or for what they were worth in others’ eyes.
This wasn’t one of those “I found a cute couch on the side of the road” kind of dumpster diving situations. This was an every-single-day-I-live-for-this situation, where every day I wake up, write some articles, see my friends, and then visit my Home Base, the operative spot of my primary recreational activity, the adventure of my favorite game- and every day, I would change into yoga pants, long sleeves and rain boots, pull back my hair and double-wrap it in a bun, and then climb over fences, grab metal handles to anchor myself as I climb, and then plunge feet-first into the dumpster, and that was when they let the games begin.
At first, diving awoke some kind of primal hunter-gatherer instinct in me. It still does every time. And at first, everything I found that was moderately useful, new, or interesting was a source of wonder and amazement (See my favorite mantra: “Who would throw this away?!”). But after a while, I became a seasoned scavenger, and the game got methodical. We had unspoken rules. We had procedures.
Fast-forward one month:
(Okay. I guess I’ll be honest. Fast forward two days.)
It is a burning-hot July. The smell permeates everything. The wonder is constant, the excess unfathomable. We, we being me and my life partner (my partner in love, my partner in crime, my partner and equal in all things, including especially dumpster diving, who was not only cool with my agenda, but extremely down, perhaps more or even as much as I was), are currently living in a four-bedroom apartment nearing the end of our lease. Our other three roommates have moved out for the summer, so we have three empty bedrooms and a massive living room, all of which are filled with Stuff.
We have a system. Room One, Alicia’s Old Room, is the End of the Road, because her room has really bad vibes. Alicia’s Room is where we keep the shopping carts and bags full of all the stuff we don’t quite know what to do with, or that we want to keep but have no immediate use for.
Room Two is Grace’s Room: Grace’s Room is The Museum. Grace’s Room has a full bathroom and bed set-up- it is decorated like an ordinary room, except entirely with things we found in dumpsters. Her bathroom has bath mats, a shower curtain, towels, toiletries, toilet paper, hand soap, even make-up. Her bedroom has Egyptian cotton sheets and a plush Target bedspread, Tempurpedic pillows, sea-green curtains, atmospheric paintings, three dorm room lamps, and a pink shag carpet. Every drawer of her dresser and desk and every available surface is brimming over with Stuff. Books, Victoria’s Secret lotions, Vera Bradley wallets, Halloween costumes, prescription drugs, school supplies, TVs, printers, vacuums, herbal teas, coffee mugs, silk Express ties, boy band posters, and boxes of food. The Museum is the room of stuff we kind of want but don’t particularly need, stuff that we want to share. The Museum is where our friends can come over every day and go shopping for whatever they want, reaping the benefits of our adventures, creating our own sort of Sharing Economy.
Dominique’s Room is for The Essentials, or, as we put it, the things we’re trying to sell and/or things we really want to keep, things of value- either to us personally or to others financially. This room (though also outfitted with full bathroom decoration from dumpster goods), is a Secret Vault of cleaning supplies, bulk food products, expensive make-up, Haunted Dolls, speaker systems, XBoxes, and tie-dye tapestries we could never, ever part with. It’s also full of the most bizarre items (Christmas trees, BDSM props, kink lingerie, oversized beer bongs, stockpiles of glitter, tupperware jars full of Googley eyes, the personal diaries of strangers, love letters between couples we never knew), that we love, but don’t necessarily want to look at all the time. I don’t know how to explain the themed flipbook Evan made Karen for their one-year anniversary, nor the pile of eleven unsubmitted Absentee Voter Ballots, nor the giant black dildo throbbing with horrifyingly realistic purple veins. I would not know how to explain to someone why we have these things in our house. I would not know how to even explain it to myself.
All I knew was that we were living, and every day was a new conquest- every day a new adventure.
I rationalized dumpster diving as a practical thing, but if I’m honest, it was never a practical thing. Not really. Not once did I climb into a dumpster and think, “I will harvest items to sell for a living today.” No. That’s not the spirit of it. That’s not the way it is at all. It’s an excuse to unlock some kind of primal creative instinct. It’s a videogame in real time. It’s dangerous, ridiculous, and the art of delusional degenerates. In a society of values with which I have almost nothing in common, what most see as delusional, I see as the most obviously sensible thing. What they see as deviant, I see as genuine. What they see as meaningless, I see as radical. What they see as a numb, mute procedure of operational behavior, I see as a blank canvas for a creative medium, the creative medium of living. What they see as degenerate, I see as noble. What they see as trash, I see as living objects. What they see as trash, I see as resource unutilized. What they see as trash, I see as promise- the promise of freedom, the promise of infinite potential, the promise that whatever you need can be found, whatever you want can be made, whatever you have can be given; What they see as trash, I see as proof of immortality, that nothing dies except the part of it that dies in you, that nothing is beyond redemption, everything is just hidden beneath piles and piles of rank-smelling garbage and empty beer bottles, and no one is willing to climb in the dumpster, but if you did, if you had that faith, just once, (because, according to the laws of dumpster diving, if you want to find Something, you will), and if you stop believing in meaning as prescribed by society and start creating meaning in accordance with your desires, if you stop believing there is ever such a thing as Trash, and start realizing that every living moment is the Object You Desire, and if you don’t feel content with your things, it is you that are Trash, not your Things, goddammit, and that we don’t need a concept of Trash, we cannot sustain a concept of Trash, if we are to look around us and remember what it means to use and touch a thing for what it is and that alone.
Dumpsters aren’t gross, not really. Human bodies are gross. Nature is gross. We are part of nature, and our trash is just the cosmic compost of our modern industrial world. Plastic polymer stretch-proof bags of cellophane egg shells and orange peels and crumpled theses drenched in coffee stains are just the crumpled compost of human beings. They contain imprints of us. They are not profane. They are profound. These are not pits of our excess, these are archives of our culture. These are sacred tombs which testify to the fact that we live and are alive, to the fact that we are doing something, that we used something, that we loved something, that we are something, whatever that is.
We exist in these object-imprints more than we exist in any real-world form. We exist in these collective capsules, these communal projects of mutual disposal, mutual value, bought, exchanged, and then abandoned, the things we relegate to trash bags. We are the things we put in trash bags. We etch meaning everywhere we go, with everything we touch. When we throw it in a trash bag, tie it up, and set it free, we are relinquishing claim to that piece of Identity-Ownership self and giving it back to the world, back to the collective system of bureaucracies we implicitly trust to pick it up every Monday morning and make it go away, to make those parts of ourselves that we once owned be owned no more, all the pieces freed from restrictive ownership to coagulate back together in their new respective forms, in this one thing, we are ownerless, in this one thing, we are absolved, in this one thing, we are made free, from the tyranny of Self and Things.
Trash is art. Trash is real. Trash is without apology. Trash does not contrive itself to look and sell shiny or pretty, it is just trash, it sits shamelessly in the white bags marked NOTHING, the red-strings tying up the white bags which scream, NOTHING OF VALUE GOES HERE, and they sit there, these bags, content in their Trashfulness, content to be Nothing Of Value, content to Never Be Owned Again.
I want to be like trash. I am, in a word, human garbage. I am a garbage human being. I am content to writhe in dumpsters, more content than men in meadows under awnings of singing trees, I am content among the garbage. I am content, I am alive, within the collective kaleidoscope artifacts of humanity. I feel wonder, I feel childlike awe crawling up my spine, pressing its thumbprint on my forehead and my sternum like a pulse, like the defibrillator of God, innervating my innate curiosity long flatlined by the asphyxiating monotony of Input and Output, System and Unsystem, Good and Evil, Two Weeks Till Paycheck, Please Dial Nine, Please Drink Responsibly, Sign Below The Dotted Line, the hereditary mortgage of adulthood, of impermanence, of culture as an industry, of ubiquitous art to the point of no meaning, to the stifling humidity of cerebral Law and Order which presupposes the necessity of sanity and simultaneously extinguishes any flicker of wonder or free will.
I want to be like those white bags marked Never To Be Owned Again. I want to be the things I find in dumpsters. I want to be Technically Nothing. I want to be Everyone’s. I want to be No One’s. I want to be free.
We cherish the blood, sweat, and tears, but we forget about the trash of humanity. And humanity is trash, this much I know. Nature is trash. Nature is filth. Nature is an art museum of shock, awe, sheer disgust, and wonder. Nature is something you throw in the garbage.
And for all of our ideas, for every crown jewel of our civilization and culture, humanity is still no more than just one collective dumpster.
Read More Like This by Alice:
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Dear academics: If you truly want tolerance, stop fetishizing ‘education.’
The Morality of Misrepresentation: When Bad Reporting Has A Body Count
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