There was a time in my life, back before alcohol was legal for me, when I was barely getting by with two little babies at home and a single income from my husband of that time. We had moved into a small two bedroom, semi-furnished apartment and had barely enough to squeak by each month. After moving into the complex, we met some of our neighbors, most whom were just as strapped for cash as we were. Now this was back in the late 80’s and early 90’s and any Gen-X‘er knows what kind of world we lived in back then.
So my new neighbors would sit and talk with me while my babies were scooting around and we’d of course complain about how tight our budgets were and what could we do to make that dollar stretch. One of my neighbors told me that she had a way to get just about anything we needed for our apartment, including food, and all for free! I, of course, perked up my ears to hear this great news. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “Trash pickin’ and dumpster diving is all you need!” I was taken aback. This was not what I expected to hear.
Now just as an aside to give you a little more insight into my thought process. I was raised by upper middle class parents in a nice suburban neighborhood. I never went hungry and to tell you the truth, as I was my mother’s only child, I was spoiled rotten. Moving out as a rebellious teen at 17 gave me a nice dose of reality, but by 18 I was married to the man I had been dating since 16 and was on my way to adulting. So when this garbage grabbing concept was introduced to me, I had huge reservations. But, I was young and dumb and thought I’d go along for the ride.
So the next night happened to be Thursday, garbage night for our area. So about an hour or so before dusk, we all jammed into my car. It was the biggest, therefore could hold more stuff. So off we go in my 1985 green Grand Am to troll the neighborhood. First thing I notice are the piles of garbage on everyone’s curb. We drive about 10-15 mph down each block and whenever someone saw something they liked, we’d stop, they’d get out, grab the item and hop back in to go to the next house. Now in all this time, not a single person raised an eyebrow. No one called the police. One person actually called out from the garage that they had more stuff, if we’d help them bring it down to the curb. It was a completely crazy experience to go through, but I ended up with a vacuum, a stereo, a few odds and ends, and baby things from that night and everything worked as it was supposed to!
I spent that night telling my then-husband all about the experience. He was shocked and thought I was crazy, but certainly didn’t care too much when I switched on his new stereo with working turntable for all his Poison and Van Halen albums!
The next day, I was out at the local Walmart strip mall doing some shopping and happened to drive to the backside of the building to see what was back there. I thought I landed in Mecca. Behind each building were all these dumpsters with side sliding doors for easy access. I found one dumpster that was behind a florist’s shop. I looked inside and saw tons of ribbon and bows, boxes, flowers galore, and other cool decorating items. Now one of my very first jobs was working in a florist’s shop, so I knew how to take all these items and make incredible bouquets and such, so I decided to do just that.
I began fishing around in this sweet, floral smelling dumpster while my babies napped in the car next to me. I figured, if I get enough good stuff, I could make up a bunch of centerpieces and bouquets and sell them for a little bit of money to save for Christmas. So as I gathered items, I put them on the hood of my car. About the time my hood was covered, a local police car drove up. I turned and waved, as my family was pretty well known and knew most of the law enforcement in the area.
The officer pulled up, parked his car behind mine and got out to come see me. He asked me who I was and what I was doing. I told him the entire story and began showing him my ideas for the items I had already gathered on my hood. He had a weird look on his face. He explained that even though these stores had thrown these items away, they weren’t mine or anyone’s for the taking. I was confused. He explained that because these items were on private property, that if I were to take these things without paying for them or without permission from the store owner, that I would be stealing.
I looked at the bounty of fresh flowers, ribbons, baubles, vases and more on my hood and couldn’t understand why any of this would be thrown out and why on Earth it couldn’t be used by someone that wants and/or needs it. I shook my head and gathered all the items back up and threw them, reluctantly, back into the dumpster. I was crushed. I looked at the officer and asked him what he thought of all of it. He told me that he’s seen homeless people in the dumpsters behind the grocery stores constantly grabbing out food that was unopened and still fresh. He said he didn’t have the heart to ever stop them, but that flowers and ribbons were a totally different animal. He also said that someone saw me and if I had come at night, I may have gotten away with it.
Now this entire diatribe serves only to allow me to state that we live in a time where Americans are starving, homeless, under employed, unemployed, forgotten and alone. We are a nation of waste. We throw everything away all the time. Grocery stores throw out perfectly good food. Florists and every other store out there throw away items that are absolutely usable. There are a million items that could be repurposed, but are ending up in our overflowing landfills. There are tons of food products that could be feeding the homeless or downtrodden, but they end up feeding roaches and maggots in the landfills.
What’s wrong with this country? Have we become so jaded? Have we become that sue happy? That is the real problem. The stores are scared to give away food they can’t sell because they’re worried someone might get sick and sue them. So better these folks starve to death. No one can sue you if they’re dead. Maybe it’s time to change some of these laws. Maybe we should stop being so damn wasteful. It’s no fun to watch someone who is skin and bones and just looking for a little sustenance. It’s heartbreaking to see a homeless child that doesn’t even own a single teddy bear.
C’mon America. Let’s step up and stop the waste. Let’s start helping our fellow Americans, rich, poor or otherwise. We need to change the laws. We need to stop the worry of liability suits against these entities. We need to have a heart.