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Mindful Garbage

by Thomas Naber

(formatting as per author's request)


“… hunched over, wearing nothing but rags, and her swollen, oh her poor, swollen and cracked hands, they were so awful, I tell you. I know.  I went up to her and tried to help her; give her some money or something and then with her hands in mine, well, I just felt so awful, you know? I didn’t know what to do, except…oh, that poor soul. It was so awful, I tell you.”

My sister, just back from a two-month trip, was describing her encounter with the extreme poverty she had witnessed in the slums of Calcutta and New Delhi. We were having lunch at one of the trendier Asian restaurants in town.

“…sewage… no garbage service…just thrown out into the streets, piled up everywhere.”

Moo goo gai pan, what a disgusting word for something I actually liked, I thought to myself, my attention flickering in and out between my food and the lack of food in her story.

“… rummaging through fly-infested, god-awful, stinking piles of garbage….”

It is getting harder to find someone to go dumpster diving. It had become one of my favorite hobbies while I was living out my twenty-something, “find myself” adventure years in San Diego. I found myself all right; found myself homeless amidst the palm trees in the streets of luxury, broke and hungry.

“… just for something to eat.”

Around the end of the month, which is the best time for diving, when people are moving, downsizing, or just getting thrown out, and I ask one of my friends if they want to go with me, lately—and invariably—the answers are not the resounding “yes” they used to be. Now I hear excuses like:


Or “I really like new things and I like to go to the mall and watch people and have lunch when I want and window shop and buy what I want, when I want and…”

 I’m thinking yeah, and pay full retail price too.

Or “like people look at us weird dude, like we’re poor, and we have to eat out of dumpsters or something.”                 

Around town there are endless money-saving, environmentally correct                                 garbage opportunities just waiting in the alleys.

          “I’m so bored. There’s nothing to do.”

          Or “I have nothing to wear.”

“…and then to think of the food we throw away. Could feed a town, I tell you.”

…catches my attention.

“…if it’s past the expiration date, I toss it.”


 I don’t know the current fascination I have with garbage except that I feel a kinship, an identification of sorts, with the objects of my nocturnal forays.

“…broken, don’t fix it, buy a new one!”

The other month, for example, I needed a Mr. Coffee carafe’—eight-cup—to replace the broken one I had. My first reaction was to hop in the car, drive down to Target, hoping they had the one I needed, and then fork out $29.99 for a replacement carafe’, all the while grumbling about how that cost almost more that I paid for the whole coffee machine. But then I thought to myself, just wait awhile and see if you happen to run across one in the garbage. Sure enough, the very next time I went diving, I found one. Exactly the one I needed.

“…and lives are thrown away….”

Open a dumpster…

“Grant me a wish…”

“Hoping someone…”

…could find…

“…that a wasted life hadn’t become….”

“…discarded lives....”

…something that was useful….

     “…after all.”

… valuable.          

On Sunday, I went again. Rising up against my first instinct to stay home and lounge in comfort in front of the television, I donned my diving garb:  old, long pants that a rip or some stinky smell wouldn’t ruin, heavy-soled shoes to protect against nails, broken glass and other sharp things, a long-sleeved shirt, my lucky baseball cap pulled down tight, close-fitting gloves to keep my sanitary distance from all things icky, and most importantly, a strong flashlight because you can’t see anything in a dark dumpster at night without a good, strong flashlight.  I headed out.

I didn’t take my usual route that night. I don’t know why. It could’ve been because I was thinking about my family….

“Take away the ghosts of their silent reproach.”

When my parents died, so did the family and I, bit by bit.  The regular phone calls and family gatherings were the first to go. I suppose not having anyone to report to, no obligations of any kind (isn’t that what I had dreamed of so long ago at the end of our driveway waiting for the school bus?) gave me leave from being connected to family, those roots and that belonging. No longer was I inconvenienced by having to spend an entire Saturday afternoon at Baker’s Square with…

“…Uncle Clifford and Aunt Leone, visiting from Washington State, they’re only here for a week…really like to see everybody….”

“I’m just having a hamburger, fries, a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie and a slice of chocolate silk and please, refill my water glass next time with more ice.”

 Maybe it was self-pity or loneliness that sent me out in the cold, buckling me up tight, telling me that getting out of the apartment and going for a drive was exactly what I needed to clear my head.

“Give you perspective!”

“…they said.”

As I turned into the alley, which in previous attempts had never yielded anything mentionable, I saw in the rear-view mirror what seemed to be a flying plate. I realized, as I looked again, that what I saw was the harvest moon: low, orange and heavy. I parked, left the motor running and checked my surroundings. To my right, there was movement in the shadows, and my eyes found him by the warm orange reflection of the moon in his.

“…angels in disguise.”

“…and they’ll think we’re bag ladies or something.”

I thought that having been homeless and being an experienced dumpster diver, nothing I encountered while diving would scare or surprise me. I had seen it all, until I saw this. A creature seemingly at home in the dark amongst the trash cans and rats of the sewer. I looked at him with disgust and should have (wanted to) turned away.  The vast amount of dirt upon him, the layer upon layer of crusty filth utterly entranced me.

 He looked at me funny, like he thought I was the weirdo homeless guy foraging for grub in the garbage. Before I had a chance to react defensively by ignoring him, or putting on airs above or below him, a stench of rotting red meat, fermented cat shit, and hair clippings came on me. My stomach wretched and I had the urge to vomit. A limp, sweetly sick smell rolled off of him and onto me. Instantly I wanted to spew all sorts of epithets, label him, and curse him blindly…

“…crawling up from….”

…the very pit of my being, my sullied solar reflex, coated with some unknown filthy scum.

“Damn scum! Should all be locked up!”

I condemned myself as I tried to accuse him. Blindly angry and defensive, I cried, “That man over there, yes him, that’s the one! He’s the one who done it!”

 I cringed audibly when, just for a moment, his coat was put upon me and I held his hand—saw the cards—that he was dealt in this life: sweet, vile, unfair, and real, so very real. He was a cast-off nobody who’d been rejected by his family or ridiculed by a lover, scorned by his heroes and counted as dead. Grime that only a city can throw on a man. Grease only a mother could love.

“…made me think. Yes, yes it did. Made me appreciate the convenience of modern living we take for granted here.”

For an instant, I saw myself crawl out of that garbage dumpster, saw my own self, and then I looked at myself squarely in the eye.

“There but for the grace…”

“…did I tell you how much I’ve saved, made really, dumpster diving?”


After that night in the alley of the harvest moon, in these later years, I find myself…

…asking a friend or two if they want to go dumpster diving.

Steve is sputtering something from the passenger seat.

“…saw some good dumpsters off Blaisdell. Prolly get some good computer parts tonight…saw a monitor on top of one of ‘em, you know what that usually means….”

 “…means you really need to clean out your car before we go trying to cram more junk in there,”  I said, thinking about the half-eaten spaghetti dinner I had tossed into the kitchen garbage earlier. I was still hungry.





Thomas Naber graduated in 2009 from Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota with a BA in professional writing. Although his writing is usually of the 9-5 business variety and non-profit grant writing, he has a fondness for writing about life growing up on the family farm, character sketches, and snippets of everyday life. His hobbies include camping, photography, antique furniture restoration, and dumpster diving.

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