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Normally I ride my bike or walk down to the Green Bean on Wednesday to sit in the wide-armed easy chair by the fish tank and write out my thoughts. Today I had some errands to do, and since I’m still feeling the last barbs of a heavy chest cold, I drove. I had the radio dial turned to the local NPR station and all the way downtown weighty authoritative voices came out of my car dashboard: Are we in a recession? Is there a way to stimulate the economy? What do the indicators mean? Who’s suffering the most?

homeless-camp.jpgAs I drove along I passed the construction site where the old Wachovia building is being turned into spectacular-views-of-the-city condos. I passed nice new restaurants with handsome signs and shadowy high-ceilinged interiors; dress shops with headless mannequins looking beautiful and remote; dreamy New Age-y hair salons. At the same time I passed through another Greensboro, a Greensboro mapped out in invisible ink. It’s the city of the poor and the homeless. Just like the more visible city, it’s made up of individuals who wake up every morning, live out their day in a web of experiences and relationships, eat, sleep, talk, laugh, read, and at the end of the day fall asleep and roam through their own unique night landscape of dreams. They know the economy well. Why do I never hear their voices on the radio?

Last Thursday Tim and I went to annual Housing Summit sponsored by the Greensboro Housing Coalition. I’ve known Tim for a couple of years now; he started out coming to Food Not Bombs to eat, and began coming earlier and earlier to set up the tables and generally lend his common sense to the operation. He’s taken primary responsibility for the new kitchen project at the HIVE. The Summit was well attended in spite of icy, rainy weather—several hundred good, dedicated kind-hearted people made it there. I don’t know this for sure, but I wouldhomeless-camp2.jpg guess that Tim was the only one among them who was homeless. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth of social workers, non-profit agency executives, government officials, academic experts, policy analysts, number crunchers, client service providers. And one homeless guy.

One of the principles I learned from Isabell when she was herself learning about anarchism is that people know best what’s best for themselves, and its corollary, the people most affected by a decision should have the biggest say in the decision. It’s pretty obviously when it applies to us and people like us; more difficult to see when we’re talking about the “other”, whoever our other might be.

Homeless people are America’s ultimate other. If owning a home represents the American Dream, homelessness is the American nightmare, and like all nightmares we try to shove it as far down in the collective psyche as we can. Unfortunately, with it goes real flesh-and-blood people who get shoved in all the ways our culture knows how to shove people—jailed, warehoused, hassled, humiliated, patronized, fnbapril.jpgstigmatized. We make it difficult for people to take care of their most basic needs—we withhold food, shelter, withhold even a place to go to the bathroom–unless they have money, then we arrest them for stealing a loaf of bread, for sleeping outdoors, for urinating in public. We don’t give them a place to wash and clean their clothes, then we call them “dirty.” We shake our heads and say that if people are homeless it must be because they’re mentally ill, then we slowly drive them crazy.

For a long time I’ve wanted to write about the things I’ve learned from the people I’ve gotten to know at Food Not Bombs, but something hasn’t felt quite right. Finally I remembered another principle of anarchism that I learned from Isabell: we shouldn’t speak for other people, nor should we let other people speak for us unless we ask them to.

So in that spirit, last month I asked Tim if he would sit down with me and talk while the recorder ran about the experience of homelessness. Tim has been homeless for five or six years; he has helped me to understand that homelessness is as dynamic as any other condition of life—as dynamic as marriage, as parenthood, as work, as school, as aging, as illness, as love. He has helped me to understand that where you are in homelessness at any given moment is simply where you are at that moment, and that the condition of homelessness is as much internal as external. You can slip into homelessness while you are still living in a house; you can slip out of homelessness long before you move inside. I think that’s the aspect of homelessness—or of homedness for that matter—that awes me: the amazing resilience of spirit that allows people to make a full life out of the most rudimentary materials.

Tim has become a kind of one-man homeless welcoming committee. I watch him at Food Not Bombs, and I understand he does the same at lunch down at Potter’s House, going up to people who look lost and afraid, saying a kind word, telling them where they can find the food or shelter or other services they need, if those services are to be had. He helps people past those first terrifying days when all the safety nets that keep the rest of us in our homes have torn through. I wish there were more of him.

Here’s Tim:

It’s always the same story. If they didn’t have to be there they wouldn’t be. They got confused, and then they got more confused, and it’s hard on them. They feel ashamed. They’re sad, they’re depressed, they’re confused. I’ve invited several people down to my tent—you know,
tim.jpggive them a place for the night so they can figure out what to do for the next day. Food’s a top priority, then somewhere to…finding a spot.

When you sit back and hear all the stories, they’re actually all the same, they’ve just changed the names and the places. For a lot of them homelessness is probably from addiction, but I think actually something happened earlier and they never got that resolved, or didn’t even know it, and if they were prone to be addicted one thing led to another. Everyone wants to get out of homelessness, but they don’t need to get out and go right back to the same situation they were in before. You’re supposed to learn from your mistakes, right? So if for some reason you find that job and you’re working every day and you get out, then all of a sudden you’re not homeless anymore, but before you know it you’re right back there at the same edge as before. You didn’t go anywhere.

Within the little community I live in, certain ones help each other and that’s just the way it works. You can’t always help everybody, but I’ve met a lot of folks, I’ve seen them come and go. Once you become homeless, you wonder “What do I do now?” A lot of them, they go, “Well, I’ll go to the day labor, get some work.” When that falls through and you don’t get sent out this day, this day, this day, and you’re having to move—once you start moving you realize you’ve got to declare yourself homeless. Reality sinks in. You end up moving from spot to spot until you find a good one, and then that one can only last a while. If you don’t go out to work it plays mental tricks on you—you get depressed. You’ve got to get over that. If you don’t, it eats you up and you slowly deteriorate, and if you have an addiction you keep going to it. You need to have something meaningful to do every day.

What’s better: to have nothing and be happy, or have everything and be miserable? Homeless people will accept the simplest things of life and be happy about it—we’re just talking about some kind of decent shelter with the minimum of requirements. We’re stuck in a culture that says, unfortunately, that you need to be indoors out of the cave, you need to have running water, you need to have a light bill, you need to have a water bill, you need to pay taxes, and then we’ll accept you. Most folks don’t realize that they got confused about all of this, about what was going on. Stress—stress is just a question you haven’t got an answer to, so they get stressful, all stressed out because they’re confused, they don’t know the answer, what to do for this or that, when instead somehow—we don’t know how—but somehow things work out, they really do, they really work out along the way.

I remember my first night out, I had no idea what to do. Right in downtown Greensboro I said “Well, this is it. It just starts right here.” I didn’t know the Weaver House existed, and here I was sleeping outside in the rain. I had no idea. So I can understand when I see somebody new, that they have no idea of where to go, of what to do, who to ask. You can tell, they won’t admit it, but they’re scared.
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Homelessness isn’t about having a roof over your head. It’s more about a person figuring it out for themselves. Homeless people need a place to be so they can get their thoughts together, because I’m pretty sure 10 out of 10 of them grew up in a house. It’s very few that were a homeless child. Some of them, they don’t want to accept the reality of it, they just feel “This ain’t right– something’s not right.” They’ve gotten off their timeline. They were meant to be somewhere else. And yet they’re here, and a lot of them, they just want to get back on the same timeline that was supposed to be their purpose. When you become homeless, though, the bubble pops.

One thing a person needs is time to themselves—that’s a fact. It’s almost chemical. I believe a person needs some place to be, something to do, and–Michele says–somebody who cares. This is just a natural thing, but you can’t do it on a mass scale all at one time. You’ve got to just keep digging at it, keep watching people and going “they’re ready.” I don’t mean a place like Urban Ministry; I mean a place where they can have time to catch up with their thoughts. They went for day after day without their thoughts. They got confused, and then they got more confused. To be able to survive this long you’ve got to…you’ve got to go through it all. You’ve got to figure it out and be happy with it, and once you are you can tell a difference in the folks. I can tell just by looking which ones are comfortable within their own skin.

If you do it on a mass scale it will attract those who aren’t ready to be there, or shouldn’t be there, people who have lost their energy. You’re supposed to be able to produce your own energy, your own basic instinct to survive, but you don’t know, you’re confused. And tired, tired all the time. You might try to lie down and die, but it doesn’t happen. You end up having to get up anyway.

So what’s it going to take? All right, once somebody has a place to be, the next is to find something for them to do that they really want to do, that they enjoy doing, that’s worth doing. They feel as though someone’s in control other than them. That’s the deal, they’ve lost control. They’re scared. So you’ve got to…what? Re-empower them. Let them know it’s OK. If they keep working at the day labor they’re going to go on staying in this small little circle that they’re living in, and they’re not going to get anywhere. They say “But if I don’t do that I’ll be thrown out of my place!” They’re right there homeless anyhow, they just don’t want to admit it. Our culture says: “Go get a job,” but actually in a lot of cases that’s the last thing they need right now. That would actually cause more damage—it actually does cause them more damage, and they stay in this horrible circle, and they just keep doing it over and over and it’ll slowly keep eating them away until they can actually come to terms and get a grip.

If we could just set up some kind of units and say “Look, we’re not going to hassle you, you can be here and have a start.” All the land’s owned by somebody so instead of saying it’s trespassing—just give them a place where they can be, no matter where it’s at. Don’t put them all in one place. Let them be wherever they want to be, then open the doors. They’ve got to be somewhere, then give them something to do.. There’s always something someone can offer. Society—our society—has forgotten this. They came over here in their fancy ship and they forgot. One side needs the other. Until the human race figures out that it’s the human race…that’s the hardest part.

The answer is it’s cheaper to go ahead and do something now. Go ahead and set something up, and over the half the people will even help set it up. They will help for themselves. Quit hassling them.

Thanks to Michele Forrest for the photos of homeless camps and Food Not Bombs. If you want to know what’s going on with homelessness in Greensboro and the world, make a habit of reading her wonderful blog ChosenFast.com

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Dear College Republicans,

In Brief: Cakalak Thunder, Greensboro’s internationally renowned radical marching band welcomes you to the world of activism. In that spirit we officially l_55da670a75a66956e9397e27e93f840e.jpgchallenge the College Republican Booster Band (you have one, right?!) to a friendly beat battle.

Where: In front of Jackson Library.

When: Friday, March 30th, 2007 ….High Noon!

Greetings College Republicans and welcome to the edgy and exciting world of grassroots activism! We can see that you are really “getting your movement on” this week! For years we activists have enjoyed the “DIY” (do it yourself) community organizing style that you find yourselves drawn to. We commend you on your deft use of “people’s movement” mainstays like “handing out fliers”, “serving free food,” “showing informative movies” and “hosting knowledgeable speakers.” We share your belief in fighting for causes. And we see that you’ve got extra heart to come out so boldly in favor of issues that the largest and most powerful government in the world already has your back on!

With your fingers now on the pulse of the street we’re sure you haven’t overlooked the “little people’s” basic need for a band, a marching band! Marching bands have always supported messages like yours. It has been noted by historians that Mussolini loved a parade! And really, what’s better than that ole BOOM BAP to give thump, groove and general danceability to an essentially boring political message? We can tell from your solid grip on the rudiments of activism that your marching band must also be top notch. By the end of your morals week you will certainly be ready to enter the next dragon of street-level activism. Yes! You will be ready to battle Cakalak Thunder and receive a fresh sonic whipping by the east coast’s premiere radical marching band. Because we welcome you warmly as you join the activist community, but we happen to disagree with your agenda point for point.

See you Friday!

Beats and Peaces.

Cakalak Thunder
“Drumming Fear into the Hearts of Tyrants since 2001”

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Filed under anarchism, protests

The Gift Economy

Our neighborhood book group met again last night. When we started in September we agreed that we would read a book (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), watch a movie (The Power of Community), and reassess where we were in six weeks. Last night was week six. We had all come to the group interested in building a little bit more community into our lives, and we’ve succeeded. We’ve decided to disband as a formal group, at least until January when some of us will come back together again to read The Great Turning, but informally we all have new friends and a list of new things we want to do: 2rrfm7jpg.jpgSteve and Cindy are planning to go out this Thursday to the film series Sarah helped to organize; Betsy’s going to bring her boys out to try the vegan chili that Jodi and Mark are making for the Westerwood Neighborhood chili cook-off on Sunday; a lot of us are planning to attend Renee’s dance performance in early November. It’s nice to be reminded that it doesn’t take much to dig your roots deeper in your own neighborhood.

The moon was a fuzzy crescent behind a thin scrim of clouds as Jodi, Crystal, Mark and I walked down the street to Betsy’s house last night. We haven’t had a real rain in weeks and Greensboro, along with the rest of the Southeast, is in a serious drought, but the dry warm October night was perfect for sitting on Betsy’s front porch with the candles lit. One of our members had had to miss most of the meetings because on Tuesday nights she’s often with a family she works with through her job. Last night she was free and I got a chance to learn a little bit more about what she does. Sitting cross-legged on the porch with the autumn night behind her, she spoke with deep compassion about her work to keep families together and to help mothers and fathers become better parents.

“If you could change one thing to make it easier for them, what would it be?” I asked.

“The first things that come to mind is that there just aren’t enough resources in their community,” she said. “They need so much but there just aren’t enough places for them to go when they need help. That’s not really it though….” She paused and opened her hands wide in front of her and looked down at the floorboards. “There’s something bigger than that. 2rrfm6.jpgThe family I’m working with has two parents and they’re both working, working ten and twelve hours a day. When both of them are working there’s enough money for what the family needs and sometimes enough left over for something extra like going out to eat, or filling the car with gas and driving the kids somewhere for the day, but if anything goes wrong, if one of them gets hurt or sick, it all starts to fall apart. And when they’re working the parents are always exhausted, exhausted and stressed. It’s hard for them to be the kind of parents they’d like to be. I’ve thought for a long time that this system didn’t work, but now I see it close up and every day. ”

I grew up on the privileged upper edge of the middle class with so many layers of safety nets suspended under me that I would have to work very hard to hit rock bottom. But through the people I’ve gotten to know at Food Not Bombs and elsewhere I’ve seen the same things that Renee has seen—seen people try to negotiate capitalism’s high wire act without the safety of a net underneath. I’ve seen first hand the resilience of spirit required to keep intact one’s own dignity and self-respect intact when the money dries up. And I’ve seen what happens when the resilience finally fails and the anger and despair take over.

2rrfm4.jpgMy friend Nego is the chief songwriter for her band Boxcar Bertha. In her song “Disconnect Me” she says “Nothing is just the way it is/ Everything’s the way we make it.” It’s easy for us in the middle class—particularly those of us reclining atop a tower of safety nets—to hear about families like the one Renee works with, or the people I know from Food Not Bombs who sleep out of sight and risk arrest every time they sit on a park bench too long, and say “it’s a shame, but that’s just the way it is.” It’s not. It may be the way it is now, but it’s not the way it’s always been, and it’s not the way it has to be. We live in a very particular economy of our own making, an economy that benefits far fewer people than it harms, but that keeps us all in a kind of hypnotic trance—or so exhausted and fearful that we can’t imagine anything different.

Reading Jared Diamond helped me to see things through a longer lens. In an essay he wrote 20 years ago entitled “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” the Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist points out that as human beings we have spent most of shared history as hunter-gatherers: “If the history of the human race began at midnight,” he says “then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture.” He turns conventional wisdom on his head and explains what agriculture brought with it: “recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.”

Each hunter-gatherer society has its own cultural markers of course, but what they have in common is that they are all organized around a gift economy. In hunter-gatherer societies respect is not awarded to those who own the most; 2rrfm10.jpgit’s given to those who share the most. The concept of haves and involuntary have-nots is nonsensical; self-interest includes living in a healthy, functioning community, which means that the members of the community should be as healthy and functional as their companions can guarantee. Organizational consultant Gifford Pinchot has written: “Defining success by what one gives rather than what one has is neither a new practice nor an overly idealistic view. It is rooted deep in history and human nature, and is more basic than wealth or money.”

The gift economy stands in sharp contrast to the exchange or commodity economy we live under now. Of course all of us live in multiple economies, and one of them is a gift economy. It’s the rare parent, for instance, who presents his or her children with a bill for the time and money that went into their raising. Twelve-step programs such as AA operate as gift economies. Blood banks can only exist as a gift economy. The scientific community has many of the earmarks of a gift economy: scientific knowledge has very little value until it is shared. Open source software is distributed in a gift economy, public libraries are in some ways a gift economy, the internet is one vast gift economy. Right now you are participating in a gift economy—I’m not charging you to read, and WordPress, bless their hearts, is not charging me to write what you see here.

I saw a wonderful gift economy at work on Sunday when a Really Really Free Market was set up in the parking lot at the HIVE. It was the first one held there, but the concept is always the same: people who have something to share, whether it’s goods, services, performances, knowledge, or whatever bring it and anyone can take away whatever he or she wants. 2rrfm8.jpgThe HIVE is in a neighborhood where many people are living the same kind of economically distressed life that I was hearing about last night. I saw a lot of families there on Sunday picking out clothing and toys with their kids; I had some extra cans of soup and some bread that had been donated to Food Not Bombs so I put them out on a table and they went pretty fast too. I looked around myself to see if there was anything I wanted to take home. It feels strange at first to look at goods laid out on a table and discover that the only question you have is ”Do I want it?” Not “Can I afford it?” or “Does the price seem fair?” or “Do I want it enough to pay what they’re asking for it?”, or “If I buy this now will I wish I hadn’t when I see something I like better?” Just the simple question ringing in a strange inner silence: “Do I want it?” And if the answer is yes, you take it.

Really Really Free Markets have become pretty common (Carrboro has a very successful one every month) but the concept is only a couple of years old. The first one was held in Miami in November of 2003 as part of a massive protest against a meeting to implement the FTAA, the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Miami was a bloodbath—the federal government gave the city $8.5 million for security and they used it for tear gas, rubber bullets, armed personnel carriers, and helicopters. My older daughter Isabell was there and described, among other things, seeing a riot cop in full gear pepper spray an elderly auto worker in the face; Nego was there also—her song “Miami” is well worth listening to. On the fifth day of the protest organizers set up a festival they called a Really Really Free Market, both to give protesters a little relief and to demonstrate the gift alternative to the decidedly un-free “free market” economy represented by the FTAA. That first Really Really Free Market included massages, food, music performances, medical aid, puppets, paper hats, dancing—all of it, of course, really really free.

I didn’t go to Miami, but I was at the second Really Really Free Market, held the next summer in Raleigh, the North Carolina state capital. I was one of the organizers. The day, June 12, was chosen to follow on the heels of another gathering of high muckity-mucks, 2rrfm2.jpgthis time the G8, which was meeting on a well-guarded island off the coast of Georgia. We got a permit to hold the festival in a little park in downtown Raleigh where schoolchildren eat their bag lunches when they are on school field trips. It’s a nice little park with picnic tables, benches and trash cans, convenient to the visitor’s center across the street and the state archives building next door.

My daughter Margaret and I drove over early on Saturday morning to set up. Things had changed a lot since we had checked out the park a few days before. The picnic tables were gone, the benches and trash cans were gone, all the parking meters had little hoods over them, and the 2nyc05.jpgvisitor’s center and the archive building—all the downtown museums—were closed. Bike cops circled through the park as Margaret and I unloaded the buckets of wildflowers I had clipped the night before. A woman drove up and handed us a basket of tomatoes and green peppers from her garden; the whole transaction was recorded on videotape by a policeman who was visibly filming us from six floors up. Mounted police rode by in pairs on big brown horses. When Margaret and I drove off to pick up some old rugs and books that had been stored in someone’s basement we passed a buff-colored school bus retrofitted with grillwork over the windows, and a mobile command unit set up in a park two blocks away. It was weird.

The market itself was wonderful. Someone gave free haircuts; someone else brought a massage chair. There was homemade banana bread and sandwich makings and lemonade. An old time string band set up under a tree, and people danced. All the time a helicopter circled low over the empty and locked downtown, the sunlight glittering off its canopy as it banked. We found out at the end of the afternoon after the last box of old books and bags of tomatoes and bunched of flowers had been taken away, and the last remnants of mess had been carried across the street and put in the dumpster, that forty fully geared-out riot cops had spent the day in the archives building waiting for the call to deploy.

I don’t believe in an armed revolution. I wouldn’t want one. By my reading of history, in an armed uprising the most vulnerable people always the worst of it and in the end a powerful bully is simply replaced by another powerful bully. I do believe, though, that it’s possible to simply ignore a bad idea out of existence. I’m not saying that dismantling capitalism is easy, but I think the more we exist beyond it, above it, around it, outside it, the more unsteady it will become. Maybe some day it will just fall over from its own weight. After all, we carry with us the deep memory of thousands and thousands of years of a gift economy. And no one has ever needed armed riot police and teargas to keep a gift economy in place.

I’d like Nego to have the last word. 2rrfm1.jpgShe wrote a song called “WEF” about her experience protesting yet another economic body, the World Economic Forum. Nego wears a patch pinned to her hat that reads Ni Fronteras, Ni Banderas—no borders, no flags. In the song she recounts getting into a conversation with a bus driver who says he wished that were possible, and asks how she would go about it.

“One person at a time,” she says.

We’d move closer and talk like family,
It would be the way that this life could be.
Loving imaginations,
Facing the music that we are making.

I ain’t waiting on no revolution,
No, I’m living one every day.
It’s in the food I eat and who I eat it with
And where the food comes from…

I’m with Nego. I’m not waiting on a revolution, I’m living one every day as best I can, and trying to use the time and energy I save to open up that revolution to anyone else who cares to participate. Nego’s song is posted in its entirety on Boxcar Bertha’s MySpace page.

Go ahead and give it a listen. It’s free.

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Filed under the big picture

Talking Trash

OK, let’s clear up a few things at the beginning: Most of my experience has been in grocery store dumpsters; the safety of prepared food from restaurant dumpsters can be a little more difficult to assess, but I’ve never heard of anyone who got sick from eating any kind of food out of a dumpster. Still I prefer to stick with grocery stores. Most dumpster divers I know stay away from meat (many won’t even take vegetables that have been in a dumpster with meat because of the danger of contamination) and many avoid dairy products. A vegetable is either edible or visibly too far gone to be edible. It’s obvious. Our national obsession with perfect appearance extends to the produce section: most of what we find in the dumpster is not rotten, it’s just got a nick or soft spot. You would eat it without a thought if you found it in your own refrigerator. Expiration dates are just the date the store takes a product off the shelf; most expired food is fine, and if it isn’t you’ll be able to tell.

Dumpstering is not stealing; technically it’s trespassing, but it’s rare for a dumpster diver to be given more than a warning or possibly a ticket. In most cities stores pay a disposal fee based on the amount of waste in their dumpster—you’d think they’d thank us for lightening the load, but they don’t. The mildly transgressive nature of dumpster diving actually makes it more fun. It’s very freeing.

The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 97 billion pounds of edible food goes to waste in the United States—that’s over a quarter of the food produced in this country. Just five percent of that wasted food could feed four million people for a day. It costs a billion dollars a year to dispose of food waste. Rotting food releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more harmful to the atmosphere than CO2.

I would guess that I save $80 to $100 a month by eating food that would otherwise go to waste. Money is time. I spend the time I save by dumpstering on visiting with friends and my grown daughters, volunteering at Food Not Bombs, riding my bicycle, reading, writing. It feels wealthy.

Dumpstering is fun. It’s fun to put together a group of friends late at night and drive around to the back of the grocery store, drive slowly and quietly and douse the lights. Everyone has a slightly different technique. Stef wears latex gloves like a surgeon. Mark hoists himself up, lifts up the big black lid and jumps inside with both feet. Sometimes someone will put on a headlamp and its swaying beam illuminates the rough and rusty interior of the dumpster. I don’t feel confident of my ability to get out once I get in, so I often take a stepladder and pick out the things I can reach through the side door, or I hold a flashlight for the others. As the boxes fill up I carry them back to the car. We offer a running commentary as we work: “Wait, is that a bag of onions? There—over there under the celery? Yes!” Or “Could you check the expiration date on this one?” Or “Why did they throw these pineapples away? Look, they’re perfect! People are crazy.”

On a good night we can take home what conservatively adds up to hundreds of dollars of food. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars of food. When we get more than our household can use we stop by other collective houses and leave boxes of peppers, zucchinis, grapefruits and apples on their porches. Some mornings I’ll open the door and find a box of food on our back porch left by some other night-dumpstering crew. Sorting through boxes of dumpstered food is one of the pleasantest tasks I undertake. I love washing the produce in the big double kitchen sink and dividing it up: shining mounds of fresh tomatoes, dark luminous eggplants, zucchini and summer squash stacked like cordwood, peppers—red, green, yellow, orange—arranged in a bowl like a painting by Cezanne. Clusters of radishes, boxes of baby greens, sacks of potatoes, giant onions, bunches and bunches of bananas. Often we’ll find multiple bags of apples or oranges–one orange will go soft and the store will throw the whole bag away. Someone in the house once picked up an electric orange juicer, still in its box, that was being discarded by a neighbor. On mornings after a good dumpster run we have fresh orange juice for breakfast, made with dumpstered oranges juiced in the dumpstered juicer.

One night when we were out dumpstering we heard the rumble of a loading dock door lifting–—that night we were collecting food for Food Not Bombs as well as for our own household. A woman stood in the opening, backlit by the fluorescent lights behind her, her blonde hair standing around her head like a fiery nimbus, her hands on her hips. Mark was in the dumpster hoisting full boxes of potatoes and peppers over the rim to Will who was handing them to me.

“What. Are. You. Doing. In. My. Dumpster?” the woman said with an angry little pause between each word. Mark, Will and I sped up the assembly line.

“Put those boxes back!” she said. I began dumping the boxes into the trunk of the car and handing the empties back to Will who tossed them over the edge into the dumpster.

“You’re breaking the law!” the woman said. “That’s illegal. I’ve called the police.” We didn’t believe her, but we weren’t sure.

“We’re collecting food to feed people who don’t have anything to eat,” Mark finally said.

“I don’t care,” she said. “Get out of there right now. You’re breaking the law.”

Mark’s good humor disappears abruptly when he’s angry. He stood up inside the dumpster, riding the mountain of vegetables and cardboard cartons like a ship’s captain, and looked across the parking lot at the furious woman on the loading dock.

“What do you think is more important?” he shouted. “Feeding hungry people, or the law?”

“The LAW!”

We heard sirens in the distance. Mark got out of the dumpster. I slammed down the trunk lid and we left.

Which is more important: feeding hungry people or the law? If you ask yourself the question over and over again it becomes like that little place on the wall where the paint has buckled. Curious, you pick at the bubble one day and discover that the plaster underneath is cracked. You follow the line of the crack down to the floorboards. You wonder why the plaster cracked just there and you go down to the basement to investigate. You discover that one of the floor joists has moved. You look more closely and realize that the foundation of the house is tipped and crumbling. You call in an expert and discover that the ground beneath the house is sinking away. Deep below the house an underground cavern is widening, a great stone plate is shifting, a lava flow is making its way to the surface, a column of sand is settling. If you look too long you can no longer look away.

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Eew!

What is it about dumpster diving that excites such extreme disgust and disapproval? Sometimes I think it’s not just a visceral, illogical reaction to the thought of eating food that was—however briefly—considered trash. I think for some people caught in the earning and spending cycle the thought of anyone getting something for nothing makes them mad.

It’s been a strange couple of weeks. On Tuesday my old friend Stephen Dubner wrote about me and my life in his blog, and my own blog went from 40 or 50 views a day to over 3000. A few weeks ago when I began this blog Ed Cone was also kind enough to post something in his blog about mine too, exciting a little flurry of discussion. The people who posted comments here have, for the most part, been approving of the choices I’ve made in my life. Not so the people who have posted elsewhere! Of all the things I do and believe, dumpster diving seems to bring up the strongest emotion. I’m going to try to answer some of the comments here. As always, everyone—dumpster diver or dumpster diver-hater—is invited to chime in.

dd: “I went dumpster diving for food with mom and daughter; hung out as they cooked up dinner for their Food Not Bombs charity;” Is anyone else bothered by the juxtaposition of those two events? Shudder.

Liz: Well dd, as anyone who has ever worked in any kind of food service will probably tell you, paying for food is no guarantee of sanitation, but that aside obviously we inspect and wash everything before we cook it. Often the food we get out of the dumpster is still cold; why is something safe while it’s in a grocery store and suddenly dangerous half an hour later when it’s in a dumpster? One correction to Stephen’s post: Food Not Bombs is not a charity. Anyone who wants to can cook, anyone who wants to can eat—it is structured to work as effectively as possible against the “us” and “them” dynamic of a typical charity.

Justin James (excerpt): I had the occasion to meet some of my local neighborhood anarchists a few years ago. I was baffled at how they could be claiming to live “off of the grid” and with “no dependency on the government” considering their lifestyle: Eating food disposed of by a for-profit food store. Sounds to me like a pretty parasitic way to live off of the institutions you claim to despise…. Everyone I have met who claims to be an “anarchist” and tries to live that lifestyle was living no differently in function (albeit a bit differently in form) than the welfare cheats I have met and the criminals I have met. None of them could exist if everyone followed that lifestyle…Any system in which the world would stink if we all followed it, and is completely unsustainable if we all followed it? No way.

Liz: You sound very angry Justin! I wonder why? It seems almost as though you feel that anarchists are forcing you to be a kind of galley slave while they lounge around on the deck living off your labor. I’d be interested to understand what you find parasitic about eating food that would otherwise go to waste. Surely it’s not as parasitic as making a profit off of minimum wage workers, using up the world’s resources and leaving it to our children to pick up the tab, and contributing an outsized amount to climate change. For the record I have never claimed to be off the grid; I’m not even quite sure what “the grid” is. I do try to live responsibly and sensibly, but I’m no backwoods survivalist. We do agree on one thing though: I also say “no way” to any system in which the world would stink if we all followed it, and is completely unsustainable if we all followed it. It actually sounds a lot like the world we live in right now, doesn’t it?

The CA: People who willingly eat out of the trash can when they don’t have to and brag about it are worthy of some ridicule because that is just plain stupid for a number of reasons, health being at the top. Ridiculous actions deserve mocking responses. I could go on- for example, how do you live in an “anarchy” within your own home? Such foolishness seem calculated to draw attention. Sorry folks, but some things when done by educated adults are just plain silly.

Liz: I certainly agree with you, CA, that some things done by educated adults are just plain silly, but I think I’ll forgo the mocking response. I would guess that my housemates and I eat much more healthily than the average American. Dumpstered fruits and vegetables vs. McDonald’s? Tough call.

overeddie: I’m glad my mom isn’t doing any dumpster diving.

Liz: That is, of course, between you and your mom, overeddie, but you might be surprised. In my experience middle-aged women are up for a lot more adventure than most people give them credit for. It’s a big exciting world out there!

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