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Half of a “nutrition bar” sat before me on the wobbly café table. I couldn’t eat the rest because it was oily yet granular but also couldn’t force myself to throw it out. I had arranged to meet freegans at the Other Side coffeehouse on 30th and Lincoln. If they saw me toss out good food, they’d probably think, yeah, another wasteful American. Glancing around to make sure they hadn’t arrived, I wadded the bar up in its foil wrapper and whisked it into an overfilled trash can.

There are “regular people,” who apparently just cannot pass up a bargain. There are the homeless. And there were the philosophical freegans.

My friend Casey had arranged for us to meet the freegans to get the lowdown on their cause, and they’d agreed to take us along with them on their Dumpster-diving route. It was near midnight now. People buzzed about the café, sipping coffees and biting cookies.

“Maybe that’s them,” Casey said, pointing to a group of young men. “They look like they dig in the trash.”

We asked. Wrong guys.

“Maybe that group over there?”

“With the girl?” Casey said, unconvinced. “In an ivory angora sweater?”

“I guess you’re right.” White fuzz was wholly inappropriate for picking through garbage. “Let’s sit down and wait,” I suggested. “I think we’ll know them when we see them.”

From a wordy freegan website (freegan.info), part of their definition of a freegan goes:

“Freeganism is a total boycott of an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical considerations and where massively complex systems of productions ensure that all the products we buy will have detrimental impacts most of which we may never even consider. Thus, instead of avoiding the purchase of products from one bad company only to support another, we avoid buying anything to the greatest degree we are able.”

In other words, they don’t like to purchase things because they don’t want to support unethical production means, wastefulness, and rampant consumption. The word “freegan” is a portmanteau, combined from the words “free” and “vegan,” a “vegan” being someone who won’t eat or use products involved with animal harm. A “freegan” is someone who won’t eat or use products unless someone else has already discarded it. (They do this to the best of their ability — it’s gotta be kind of tough.)

I really wanted the freegans to surprise me. I hoped for that “And now a very special Facts of Life” quality that teaches us that we “can’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s not all that implausible. I myself am covered in tattoos, normally wear ill-fitting and cheap clothes, and look like what one might categorize as “dim-witted, incredulous, and worried.” But I’ve studied modern, classical, and contemporary art in the museums of 14 different European countries. So I really wanted that from these guys.

Oh, how I’d hoped that they’d be clean, groomed, wealthy, and healthy. I wanted them to come into the shop, set their rugby ball down, show me their last paycheck for starring in a toothpaste commercial, and roll their sleeves up so we could get down to the business of arm wrestling and long jumping. Alas. Alas. They passed our table, and we knew from the disheveled hair, greasy T-shirts, and aroma that they were our freegans.

I want to be nice to the guys because, as I was to find out shortly, they are all quite affable. But, if you imagine what four twentysomething males who dig in the trash for food look like, you’ve got them. They look exactly the way you think they do. Also, imagine what those trash-digging young men would smell like. And bingo.

Casey and I were a bit nervous. We were unsure of what exactly was taboo in this community, what we could talk about and what we couldn’t.

“Have you guys already been out tonight…um, Dumpster diving?” I asked, not knowing the proper term, trying to break the ice, and attempting to interpret the bouquet.

“No,” they each answered.

“Oh, um. Sorry,” I said. Still feeling pressure to put everyone at ease with some mindless chatter, I asked, “So, are these specially designated clothes for…digging in trash?”

“No,” they each answered, then glanced down at their shirts.

I wanted to cry I was so uncomfortable. I turned to Casey and mouthed, “Help…me.”

“So what do you guys do?” she blurted. Oh, thank God!

Turns out, one of them is a graphic designer, and the others work at an organic, vegan, and raw restaurant. The restaurant uses fresh foods and the employees don’t rummage in other outlets’ garbage to get the ingredients, but still, these guys were seriously grubby. I wrote the name of the restaurant in my book with a “NEVER EAT HERE!” note in the margin.

“Okay, what do you guys call what we’re going to do tonight?” I finally asked.

They preferred the term “Dumpstering,” although they sprinkled into the conversation “Dumpster diving” and just plain old “diving.” Tom, unofficial spokesman for this group, said, “Shopping at D-Mart,” which I thought was the best. But they didn’t use it often.

After getting all their names and ages, I told them I wouldn’t use their real identities. “No, it’s okay,” they all agreed. “You can use our real names.”


They didn’t mind. What they wanted me to assure them of was that I wouldn’t name specifically which stores, locations, and trash bins we’d be visiting in our night of Dumpstering.

“Is it because it’s illegal and you might get a ticket or something?” I asked.

“No,” Tom said. “It’s because, you know, you’ll have this awesome Dumpster, where you just get all kinds of food and stuff. One week it’s fine, the next week there’s a fence around it, there are locks all over it, it’s chained up.”

They were also concerned that if I named the location of an “awesome Dumpster,” there might arise competition in the picking over of leavings. You know how it is when you find a nice little restaurant. If word gets out, the place becomes clogged with newcomers and the quality of the food spirals downward. Same principle.

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Ollie June 27, 2008 @ 8:25 a.m.

This story was better before Ernie Grimm, editor and opera singer, hacksawed it apart and Krazy Glued it together while scratching his head and making fart noises with his lips like an orangutan. At his next opera performance, I want my fans to throw rotten fruit and trash. Luckily, I know just the spot to pick some up.


Casey June 27, 2008 @ 12:21 p.m.

Settle down, cowboy. It's still very good. Put your pants back on and get your Smurfs VHS ready....I'll warm the gin.


Josh Board June 27, 2008 @ 4:02 p.m.

A comment for both Ollie and Ernie.

Ernie, have you heard the song "Opera Sing" from Cake? It's awesome.

Ollie, as a writer, I can feel your pain. But I'm curious. And, I'm sure the editors would have no objections to this (if they do, they can just delete). I've been disappointed with some edits on a few of my pieces. Sometimes, when it was YO DJ pieces, since local DJs are expecting one thing, and if their words come out slightly different, they can be seriously P.O'd. So, a few times, I've posted on this website, the full length of what they had to say.

So, why don't you...right here, post (in 25 different segments, if that's what it takes) your original version. And, we can read it in all it's glory.

As the piece is now, though, I gotta say, it was a good read. My girlfriend and I were cracking up reading it at Subway the other day. We'd go back and forth with things like "Hey...did you get to the part where...."


pete78 June 27, 2008 @ 6:27 p.m.

That was a great story Oliver...Your bike ride story was entertaining as well. Where did you meet these D-Mart shoppers? Did you put an ad on Craigslist or something? I bet these kids probably have some diseases by now.


Ollie June 27, 2008 @ 6:40 p.m.

Josh, it's not that bad. I was just teasin' Señor Grimm.

Pete, Casey found them online. I think she found our guys on Myspace.

Thanks to both of you for reading.


pete78 June 27, 2008 @ 6:54 p.m.

Ollie, Were these guys hipster/scenester kids?


Ollie June 27, 2008 @ 7:29 p.m.

Not really. Although, the older I get the harder it is for me to tell.


Liza June 29, 2008 @ 9:18 a.m.

Ollie-You captured the humorless piety of the Freegans perfectly. I work in a small company that promotes "team spirit" by forcing me attend a potluck in a windowless room once a month with my colleagues. At one point we had one Freegan, two Vegans and one Vegetarian on our "team". You can imagine how much fun they are to dine with! I really tried. No eggs, no meat, no cheese, no cane sugar, no honey. But I refuse to pull wilted foodstuffs out of trash bins. After enduring their scorn (and water-based sauces) for yet another year, I give up. For our next "party" I'm either going to schedule a root canal or make deviled eggs.


Ollie June 29, 2008 @ 12:13 p.m.

Liza, thanks for reading and commenting. Honestly, our guys were very funny and had a good sense of humor, especially about being kind of grubby. Tom is a charismatic young man who will do well at whatever he chooses once he's out of his live-poor lifestyle.

Good luck with your collection of finicky coworkers. Perhaps just leave half a bag of Fritos in the conference room at all times. It's corn, oil, salt, and free. Done.


BadToenails July 1, 2008 @ 9:01 a.m.

... typical whining about editors ... stopit

  1. What happened to the gloves?

  2. Is the sweatshirt a loss, or what?

  3. Who is "Alice?"


Josh Board July 2, 2008 @ 12:26 a.m.

I remember being at a pot luck somewhere about a year ago, and this guy put on his reading glasses. He examined this delicious looking cake very closely. He then asked the ingredients in it. Since I can't cook for crap, I had a girlfriend make it. I had to call her on my cell phone. As she's rattling off the ingredients, he's telling me why he can't eat certain things. One item he's allergic to. Another item, because he's a Vegan. It went on and on, without 15 items he couldn't eat. Since I didn't know the crowd all that well, I merely told him what the ingredients were. What I wanted to say was, "Dude, if you are that picky about what you eat, then it's not everyone elses responsibility to bring a recipe book with them and their dishes. Just don't eat anything that doesn't look kosher or whatever. Stick to the slice of bread and the 2-liter of Pepsi."


uncleleo July 2, 2008 @ 11 a.m.

Dear Editor & Readers:

Am I the only one who found this story juvenile and lacking substance? It was as if the whole piece was saying "ewww boogers!" while these two little kids went around playing in trash cans. There isn't really any humor in people being afraid of germs. I mean, there might be. But not here. The humor comes off as ignorant and pompous.

"Excuse me, homeless man, you're going to get Hep C by going through that trash bin. Ewwwwww boogers!"

Also, what happened to the food? Did the freegans cook up a feast? And why didn't our fearless author and her Babysitter's Club pal eat with them? Was this just bad editing or just poor writing?

Furthermore: I was really excited to read this article when I picked up this issue last week. I mean, I like free stuff and I'm not scared of the fantasy world of germs. And I like adventure. But there was nothing here. I just felt like picking my nose and eating it. Alas.


towelheadedcameljockey July 3, 2008 @ 10:18 a.m.

AJ's Playhouse (93.3) mentioned this cover story on their radio show this morning. They said they sent out one of the guys who works there on a dumpster diving mission because he was inspired by this cover story on the Reader. They went on about Freegans then connected with the guy going diving and had him descibe what he found. I switch stations. He was in back of an In N Out descibing all the half eaten food he found.


lucky2liveNtheMidwest July 7, 2008 @ 2:35 a.m.

I have to agree with uncleleo about this story being sophomoric and disappointing. Even considering that the dumpsters in San Diego seem to be light years away from the treasure trove of goodies I find on a daily basis in my midwestern city, the prissy attitude of the 'journalists' was far from professional.

I am so grateful that my suburban home is filled with fresh roses, gourmet bread and pastries, organic vegetables, and imported fresh raspberries etc. etc. and all from very clean dumpsters with handy doors on each side so I never even have to lean over to partake of the bounty. No smell, no goo, and not even the remote possibility that I would ever have to climb inside.

I dress like the suburban housewife that I am to do my undirty deeds and have gone from a $900 budget down to $280 a month for all food and gasoline for a family of three adults.

I suppose if a person is foolish or shortsighted enough, they might enjoy throwing their money out of the car window as they whiz down the freeway towards their next purchase of a $5 latte at Starbucks. A goodly portion of my gray matter would have to shrivel and die before I'd choose that option over 'diving for dinner'.


Ollie July 8, 2008 @ 6:33 a.m.

Midwest, I take particular offense at your personal attack and name-calling: I'm certainly not a (gah!) "journalist".


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