Taking in the trash

An adventure in the thrifty, nifty world of die-hard scavenging, where you won't believe what you can find if you just know where to look.

Published March 30, 2009 10:57AM (EDT)

Kristan Lawson's legs are dangling out of the mouth of a Dumpster, as if he's being eaten alive. Inside, the scavenger is grabbing loaf after loaf of freshly baked bread. This isn't just any bread; it's rarefied artisanal bread, the kind of baguettes and ciabattas that are displayed as impulse purchases in their own tempting wooden stand near the checkout at posh grocery stores, because shoppers just can't resist them, despite the eye-popping prices.

The price is free at this Dumpster behind a bakery in an East Bay neighborhood. Lawson, 48, hands the spoils off to Anneli Rufus, 49, his wife of almost 20 years. He opens his backpack to reveal another empty bag, which he takes out and stuffs with about 15 loaves of bread, which they will freeze and eat for weeks to come.

The couple is leading me on an expedition in the East Bay cities of Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville to show me just how much stuff is free for the taking -- or at least extremely cheap -- if you're willing to spend the time and effort to look for it. Like this bread, not even a day old, discarded for a few bumps and dents.

"They know people go there, but I don't think they want to advertise it," says Rufus, making me promise not to reveal the bakery's name for fear the Dumpsters will be locked up tight. We make a hasty getaway in my car. (We're in my car, because, naturally, Rufus and Lawson don't have one.)

Rufus and Lawson are the authors of the new book "The Scavengers' Manifesto," a do-it-yourself handbook and love letter to the joys of salvaging, swapping, repurposing and reusing stuff. Getting something for nothing -- or close to it -- is their way of life, and it defines what they wear, eat, how they decorate their home, right down to the way Lawson dispenses with the whiskers on his chinny-chin-chin. (He has literally never paid for shaving cream, using free samples that companies give away to U.C. Berkeley students to get them hooked on their brands.) These two are no slumming trust-fund babies. Rather, they save so much money scavenging that Lawson hasn't worked a full-time job in over a decade, and Rufus never has, which just gives the two writers -- they've both written other books -- time for their perpetual hunt.

Rufus defines scavenging as "any way of legally acquiring stuff for cheap or for free -- any way that's not full price. That's anything from clipping coupons and getting discounts to picking something off the ground, to going to yard sales to the Dumpster." While the duo clearly revels in saving money on something other people pay top dollar for, like fancy bread, they also relish the constant sense of the unexpected that comes with scavenging. Instead of going out and getting what you want, like a regular shopper, you accept and even delight in whatever you happen to find.

Scavenging has a long and storied history on the margins of the mainstream, from the rag-and-bone man in Dickens' "Bleak House" to the destitute residents of "Hoovervilles" during the Great Depression and idealistic hippies like the Diggers in the '60s. Rufus and Lawson hope that today, the combination of the recession, vintage chic and our growing environmental awareness will help remove some of the stigma from scavenging and encourage more of us to embrace it.

In today's dire economic climate, Lawson and Rufus invite us to think of ourselves not as cash-poor consumers with so much less to spend but as resourceful thrift shoppers, yard salers, discount shoppers, free-box foragers, clothing swappers, freecyclers and maybe even Dumpster divers. By their definition, many of us may already be scavengers and not even realize it. They even have a name for my Saturday morning grocery store visit, timed for the free samples to snack on. Yes, I had no idea, but I'm a "free-sample forager."

"People are unconsciously addicted to the status that comes with getting something new and name-brand," says Lawson, who grew up in Berkeley, where he's been getting his clothes used from free boxes, simply left on the sidewalk, since he was a kid.

"There's a prejudice against frugality, cheapness, everything with the word 'discount' in it," says Rufus, who remembers her childhood friends in suburban Los Angeles making fun of the generic foods her Depression-era mother would buy.

Just stepping out of the house is a treasure hunt for these two. Rufus' eyes are habitually glued to the ground, and she's found so much lost jewelry shimmering in gutters and on branches that she's now on the lookout for another jewelry box to house the overflow. Between the two of them, they've recovered and returned literally dozens of lost wallets over the years. When I went to pick them up at their place in Berkeley -- which they bought 15 years ago for cheap, before the insane run-up in local real estate prices -- Rufus spotted a 1976 penny  in a neighbor's flowerbed, and Lawson found a stereo speaker complete with cords that a neighbor had put out with the trash, before we'd even gotten in the car.

Our first stop is the Dona Spring Wishing Well, a free box in Berkeley on the residential Channing Way, which has been there for four decades offering giveaways to anyone who cares to look inside. "A free box is an old Berkeley tradition left over from the '60s where people would just put out their stuff for free in a box. A hippie, potlatch tradition," says Lawson. Today, the box includes chipped china, men's jeans, a lot of children's clothes, including a black-and-white checked blazer for a toddler boy, and a book reviewer's galley copy of "A History of Terror in the Name of God."

The black silk T-shirt that Rufus is wearing came from this very free box. The rest of her scavenged ensemble includes a pair of black Levi's jeans and white canvas shoes with polka dots from Goodwill and a purple cotton cardigan that she found in the restroom at the San Francisco Public Library. Her mother gives her bras and underwear as holiday gifts, and she doesn't wear socks. At a glance, Rufus' look is slightly offbeat and funky, but not radically different from lots of other Berkeley residents, which could also be said for Lawson, whose thrift and free-box ensemble today includes a pair of tan pants and a checkered button-up shirt. "This was a new shirt when someone else bought it," he says. "Just because it's scavenged doesn't mean it's inferior."

While your city or town won't likely have such an institutionalized free box, many communities do have a tradition of putting castoffs out on the sidewalk, things that someone else just might want. The best neighborhoods to look: where there are a lot of pedestrians. "People know people are walking around, so they put things out for them," says Rufus. It's also more likely you'll find intriguing lost items in walkable neighborhoods, too. "No one loses anything when they're in a car," explains Rufus.

Back to our own adventure, we haven't gone a full block before Rufus is urging me to pull over on Roosevelt Street between Channing and Dwight. "Oh my God, this is a haul," exclaims Lawson, looking at half a dozen boxes on the curb overflowing with clothes, books, posters, magazines and household goods, from a coffeemaker missing its coffeepot to a brown ceramic table lamp with a translucent base. There are crossword puzzles based on the Old Testament, back issues of Arthritis Today, half-used tubes of homeopathic gel to relieve swelling and tour guides to Israel dating from the '90s.

"Someone moved out," I guess.

"Or got thrown out," adds Rufus.

As we pick over the remnants, a neighbor who is passing by says, "The house was foreclosed."

"That's a first for me," says Rufus, sobered.

Suddenly, picking through these castoffs isn't so much fun. In fact, it feels grim, even though clearly everything was left with the hope that someone passing by would find a good use for it.

Scavenging turns you into a kind of amateur urban archaeologist by offering a window into other people's lives, which is one of the aspects that Rufus, especially, loves -- imagining who might have owned something, why they got rid of it, and the sense of serendipity that comes when something you really want just falls into your hands. "It reminds you that life is random, and there's a lot of mystery out there. We forget that in consumer culture, because everything is so manufactured and processed and controlled," she says.

But you might not always like what you learn about the lives of strangers. Outside the foreclosed house, Rufus holds up a green shirt with the price tag still on it. "This shirt was bought at the Goodwill, never worn, and ended up in this free box. Sad, isn't it?" She decides to leave it behind for someone who looks good in green, since she says she does not. Rufus and Lawson stress that you shouldn't take something just because it might have some inherent value -- like, say, a used coffeemaker -- if it has no value to you. Leave it for the next person, who might really want it and use it. "It's like a way of being compassionate to strangers. Someone was compassionate in that they put it out on a curb for us to find, and we're being compassionate in that we're leaving it for the next person," says Rufus.

Besides, if you start taking everything of any value, you'll soon enough end up with a home stuffed with junk. "You can't be greedy, and you can't be a hoarder. Then it's no fun," says Rufus. The couple, who spend most Saturdays in the warm-weather months walking from yard sale to yard sale to see what they can find, are planning to have their own yard sale soon to get rid of the stuff that they don't really want or use anymore.

But even if you find something you really want, you can get creeped out by the associations it has from its previous owner. Amid the boxes in front of the house, Lawson unearths a manila folder neatly labeled "stickers," which is full of a dozen sheets of teddy bears and other stickers that my 2-year-old daughter would love. A find! But, later, after I bring it home, I can't get beyond the phantom image of some arthritic woman, now thrown out of her foreclosed house, who might have neatly saved these for when her grandkids visited but left them behind when she had to bolt in a hurry. Or, perhaps she was a teacher, who'd planned to bestow them on pupils for a job well done.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with the stickers; some of them are still in the original unopened packaging, and I'm grateful to have them, but I still haven't been able to bring myself to give them to my daughter. Maybe I should just put the folder on the sidewalk near an elementary school for some lucky kids to find.

On the road again, as we drive past the Berkeley Bowl, a grocery store that's famous for its produce, Lawson and Rufus explain that they go there every other week to buy the fruits and vegetables that they don't grow at home. But, naturally, they never buy the full-priced ones. They go for the heavily discounted bruised category, which are too beat up to be sold full price but not dinged enough for the Dumpster out back.

Even these advocates of scavenging have their personal limits. "We won't eat vegetables out of a Dumpster really ever. They only end up in the Dumpster if they are really gross," says Lawson.

"I don't want to touch slimy things, and I don't want slimy things near me," says Rufus. "Dumpsters when they are completely dry as a bone, I don't have a problem with."

To avoid the slimy, Lawson recommends never going into a permanent Dumpster behind a supermarket, but check out temporary ones put in front of a home being torn down, which might be full of clothes and books and household goods.

But if you can't picture yourself willingly diving head-first into any Dumpster in this lifetime, there are still lots of freebies and bargains to be had. We spend the rest of the afternoon on a whirlwind tour of all kinds of alternative retail environments, with names like the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse and Urban Ore, dedicated to keeping everything from circa 1930s toilets to old rubber stamps out of landfills by getting them into the hands of new owners for a song.

The Bay Area Seed Interchange Library is a file cabinet and a shelf tucked in a corner of the Berkeley Ecology Center, where local gardeners bring spare seeds from their own gardens or stashes and pick up new ones. "They buy seed packets, and don't want them anymore, or they've expired, and they just donate them here," explains Lawson. There are dozens and dozens of different seeds to choose from, including, improbably, tobacco and cotton. In about 15 minutes, Lawson walks away with 14 different kinds of seeds for everything from basil to endive, lettuce to three kinds of hot peppers.

Our last stop is the Grocery Outlet, where grocery store items nearing their expiration dates or with packaging the marketers no longer sanction find eager buyers. This is where Rufus and Lawson shop every two weeks for things like their Tom's of Maine toothpaste and Vitasoy organic chocolate soy milk, if those items happen to be there that week.

Today's, there's all kinds of Valentine's Day candy that's missed its holiday, and Ben & Jerry's ice cream for $2 a pint, but by far the best find is boxes of Corn Flakes with Michael Phelps' smiling mug on them, which Kellogg's has banished here, since it fired its Olympic champion spokesman after that infamous bong incident. Lawson and Rufus load up a grocery cart for $50, about half the amount the same products would usually retail for.

It's not that Rufus and Lawson are anti-materialistic, they confide on the drive home. On the contrary, Rufus can't help pointing out the discarded pair of jeans caught in a bush, and an old desk put out on the curb for whoever wants it as we leave it behind. "I recognize that I'm kind of acquisitive, and materialistic, and I like stuff." But for her, the fun of getting something new is in the adventure of how she acquired it, and if it's used, in imagining its history, and how it came to her. "Scavenging for me is more of a lifestyle. I don't have a life where I am going out getting what I need. I already have most of what I need."

Rufus is motivated in her scavenging less by any environmental ideal than by a deep abhorrence of waste: "I hate it when I see really good stuff in garbage cans. Just chucking stuff away? Junking it? That makes me really mad. It's going to go to a landfill, and some person, poor or not poor, could have had it." In their book, the couple outline a scavenger code of ethics, which includes the admonishments to "obey the law" and "don't eat gross things."

But Rufus and Lawson are acutely aware that scavenging is by definition a fringe activity feeding off the fat of the consumer culture it depends upon. After all, if everyone did it, there would be nothing but scraps left to fight over. But they're confident there's enough to go around for many more people who could be converted to their never-pay-retail mentality. Still, they recognize that the idea of wearing, eating or living with someone else's castoffs is not for everyone, which is OK, too. "We're not saying we're better than regular consumers. We're simply trying to remove the stigma from being scavengers. If you want to be wasteful, be wasteful, and I'll scavenge," says Lawson.

At the end of our afternoon of scavenging, we go just a few blocks past Lawson and Rufus' house to an oak-lined field in Tilden Park, a more than 2,000-acre oasis in the hills. The field is carpeted with so-called Miner's lettuce, a leafy native plant, which is the object of our urban foraging.

In the Gold Rush, when vegetables were scarce, miners would harvest this plant and make salads out of it, explains Lawson. It's rich in vitamin C. "Half of the fields in Tilden are like this. This is everywhere, everywhere, everywhere," he enthuses, adding: "It doesn’t really have much flavor. It's not much different from iceberg lettuce."

The lesson is clear: In 2009, even fresh organic vegetables can be found for free, if you're willing to eat like a gold miner, our nation's most celebrated scavengers.

We all three start picking.


By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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Consumerism Environment Pinched Science U.s. Economy