Wednesday, September 30, 2009


My eyes are lighthouse beacons. Enroute to a family gathering, I spot a box marked FREE on a curb. This, right here, is the meaning of life. Swim goggles: Yes. Pink T-shirt: Yes. Blender: I already have one, so no. "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" apron: No. Six bars of hotel soap, sealed in their wrappers: Yoink. Into the backpack pops the salad fork, the crocheted scarf. Assess each in a nanosecond. Do I want this? Do I need it? Does my friend?

When they ask at the family gathering why I am late and I say I was garnering a stranger's discards, they laugh. When they realize I am serious, they flinch, their faces masks of pity, fear, disgust. They ask: But why? Weren't those discards dirty? What if someone bled on that T-shirt? Can't you afford a salad fork?

Oh, that. Scavengers hear it all the time.

And more:

What if it doesn't fit?

What if it's dented/scratched/stained/faded/ripped?

Wouldn't you rather pick the exact color/style/size/features you want?

Um, no.

In consumer culture, the very idea of getting stuff by any means outside the standard retail channel at any speed but warp speed is sacrilege.

A sin.

In corporate America, not-shopping is treason.

An abomination.

Yet a confluence of factors — style, politics, technology, ecology and the economy — is making more and more of us seek more and more alternate (but legal) means of acquiring stuff. We're scavengers. We're consumer culture's cleanup crew. Goods and services circle the world, connecting strangers: not a penny spent.

The Book of Genesis damns us. And the Book of Leviticus deems us untouchable.

We are thrift-shoppers, coupon-clippers, bargain-hunters, beachcombers, trash-pickers. We are treasure-seekers, recyclers, freecyclers.

We don't steal.

We don't scam.

But we don't pay full-price. We don't pay at all if we can help it.

Two thousand years ago, half the world's population survived by hunting and gathering. With the rise of civilization, old-fashioned hunting and gathering became virtually obsolete. But all modern-day scavengers are hunter-gatherers. Define hunter-gathering as foraging, taking what comes. Define it as sublimating choice to the bigger thrill of chance. It translates to saving money and potentially working less. It translates to dodging whatever market sector some genius thinks you belong to. Modern scavenging means wearing, using and eating castoff goods from countless strangers, thus you cannot be predicted, tracked, deciphered. You are the mystery. With lighthouse eyes, you find furniture, fashions, art, appliances, jewelry, food. You scavenge seeds. Sometimes you do not know what they are when you plant them, and find out only when plants rise: My garden grows parsley, purple tomatillos, three kinds of bok choy. You never know.

That is the point.

That is the challenge and the payoff and the thrill: the never knowing, then the waiting, then the finding out. Can you handle uncertainty?

This is the magic, the apotheosis, of the random. In a paved world, modern scavengers reclaim discovery. Adventure. Self-reliance. Self-sufficiency.

The modern scavenger reclaims the quest.

Some scavenge for fun. Some scavenge to save. Money. The world. Their souls. While consumers around us drown in debt, we liberate ourselves with every cent we save while liberating would-be trash. We know the difference between brand-new, full-price products and their dented, scavenged counterparts is —


Some scavenge to recycle. Repurpose. Reduce. Reuse.

Some scavenge to revolt.

Some scavenge to survive.

Some scavenge for the sake of spontaneity. That is another primal ecstasy that consumer culture has quashed. Consumer culture wants consumers to imagine themselves free and democratic, decisive and bold. Consumer culture teaches that choosing the color of your phone is creativity. Up to a point, it is. A tiny calculated creativity comprising elements designed and sold by corporations. Control disguised as creativity. A short-leashed independence based on your ability and willingness to buy. But what is missing from this picture?

It's funny: Consumers think they're free.

How do we tell them how it is for us? How do we tell them that, for us, old stuff and stuff that has been previously owned attains a patina, almost a soul? How do we say that every find not only saves us cash but makes us wonder whose it was, our minds skittering down the years of all those whens and whys. How do we tell consumers that mass-produced new merchandise bores and depresses us? How do we say that it is we who pity them when they spend $90 on the same shoes that cost (or will, soon) $6 at the thrift shop? How can we describe the size of landfills, the islands of trash — ten million pounds' worth, experts say — floating at sea? Do we cite findings by the Clean Air Council that every American alive discards fifty-six tons of trash per year?