Wait a minute. Wait, wait, wait. Let me tell you a brief story of something nice, really quick. This little story will cleanse the palate, and then we’ll forge on.
On a baking-hot afternoon last week, I rode my bike up University Avenue. A man pushed a cooler cart emblazoned with images and names of icy treats like “Daffy Duck Taffy Pop!” and “Cherry Creamsicle!” I stopped my bike and fished around in my back pocket, only to discover I’d left my wallet at home. I asked how much a “watermelon Bomb Pop!” was and hunted for change.
When he said, “One dollar twenty-five, my friend,” my palm turned over, filled with pocket gatherings, and revealed five quarters. Incredible providence!
If you’ve never had one, let me tell you, a watermelon Bomb Pop descends to Earth on little pink wings of sweet goodness. Mine was so frosty it stuck to my lips at first but, as it melted, offered itself up to me in the form of sugary juicy love. After our divine encounter, I set the watermelon Bomb Pop’s stick and wrapper in a nearby trash can, without touching the receptacle.
That’s my little story of Everything That Went Right and Nothing Gross Happened. Feel better? Now, let’s get to the nasty stuff. (I promise to use sensitivity.)
Back to the Dumpsters. These particular Dumpsters surprised me. They were shorter than the normal ones. The edge of the Dumpsters behind my apartment building were probably collarbone height, but those we first encountered with the freegans that night might have reached the waistband of my jeans.
“Our” Dumpsters also weren’t gut-wrenchingly disgusting inside. Gusts from the nearby coast delivered scents of seaweed and salt; the area was not at all “Dumpster-y” smelling. Before we’d gone out, I’d steeled my constitution in preparation for the worst. Really, I hadn’t needed to be so uptight. Inside, the metal walls of the bins were dusty but not horrendous and offensive. You wouldn’t want to bend over the lip of the thing at your waist with your mouth open and drag your tongue around, but the interiors weren’t slime covered and reeking of forgotten meat as I had imagined they would be.
Looking into the bins, I saw that there wasn’t much in them. Two stood completely empty, one had inconsequential papers in it, and only one had anything of any use to anyone: random wilted fruits and vegetables along its floor. I popped my finger into my mouth and extracted it, holding it up. Testing for wind velocity and barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity, I concluded the air was just right for shopping at D-Mart. I grabbed the edge, leaned over, and swung myself in.
“I got a plant!” one of the guys exclaimed.
Tom took the little brown plastic cube with the green sprout out of the top and inspected it. “Dude,” he said, “you can take this home if you’d like, but it’s a shamrock. Shamrocks are basically free. This is a weed.”
Dejected, the other young man replaced the plant in the bin.
Casey hustled to the van to retrieve milk crates we’d brought along with us, while everyone else took seats along the Dumpster edge, our legs inside.
“Get the gloves too,” I yelled. I had brought a bag of latex gloves along. They sat on a seat bench in the van, but they seemed prissy to me now as I stood in an almost empty and practically clean receptacle with four guys who had spent two weekends per month of the last six years in real gunk up to their ankles. “Uh, never mind,” I called to Casey.
She brought the bag of gloves anyway. “You want these, Alice?”
“Too late now, isn’t it,” I said and held my hands up. What I wanted to say was “Psssh! I’m super tough!” but I didn’t. I put the bag of gloves in the front pocket of my sweatshirt. We all bobbed down and picked at things.
“Why am I putting these artichokes into this box?” Tom asked rhetorically. “This box is sickening.” I didn’t dare look inside the cardboard box he had across his lap. He removed the artichokes from it and placed them in the milk crate Casey set on the edge of the Dumpster next to where Tom sat.
We filled the crate with everything we had then exited the can. After editing out some produce that had decidedly joined the dark forces, the haul was complete and we took inventory. “What do we have here?”
“Four artichokes; five bell peppers; and one watermelon.”
“And a shamrock,” one of them said and dropped the small brown container with the lucky weed into the Milk Crate o’ Treasure.
“Kind of a crappy haul,” I said. “We drove about 15 miles in a Volkswagen bus to get here…let’s see, that’s about…” I wanted to figure out how much fuel we’d consumed in our pursuit of four brown artichokes smeared in red gelatinous goo. The guys stopped me before I had it calculated.
“We know,” one said. “It doesn’t work out sometimes. We’ve had a lot of bad luck lately. It doesn’t even pay to do it anymore.”
They felt bad about the pitiful load. They wanted to show us, the newcomers, that it wasn’t a wasted pursuit. Casey and I wanted to believe that what they were doing made a difference. But there it sat, a watermelon and an armload of wilted vegetables in a milk crate, our vessel of disappointments, small and illuminated by embarrassing parking-lot light.
“So why do you do it?” Casey asked. “For the chicks?”
“That’s the running joke,” Tom said. “Matter of fact, you’re the first one.”
“We’ll try one other place,” the driver of the van said. “Nobody’s ever found it, but we might tonight. It might pan out.”
We loaded the Crate o’ Sad Plunderings into the van and embarked. We rattled out of the lot and onto the road. Streetlights and palm trees whizzed past in the navy blue night, and the guys talked of our potential next target. It existed in rumor only. Friends of friends knew people who worked at this grocery chain, and the rhapsody unwound about the freshness and cleanliness of the offerings. To hear the tale you’d think this grocery outlet stopped just short of setting out café tables with napkins and silverware for their fresh, hot, complimentary comestibles.