Tao of the dumpster
A short story by Dirk Jamison
Just before sunrise, in a Dumpster behind Ralph’s in Fontana, California, Dad perks up over a jar of whitefish caviar. 'Whoa, baby, baby! Now we're cookin'! I've never eaten caviar in my life!' He spoons out a purple glob on his finger and sniffs it, then smiles and makes a reverent toast to me and the empty lot. 'My first caviar.'
He eats. 'Mmmmmm. Not that bad. A little salty. Wooooo!'
He grimaces and works his tongue around the right angle, but his face gets more and more twisted, and he finally clears his mouth in every direction. 'Son of a gun!'
'Rotten?' I ask.
'No, no! Just salty!' he keeps laughing, purple all over his teeth, and drops the jar. 'It'd be okay if you washed it off a little!' He bends down and immediately finds another jar. 'Hey, mint jam!'
Dad wasn't always into trash. But by 1976 he had gone into an ugly holding pattern; nothing was adding up. He was counting weeks like he used to count days. To Dad, Mother was a pining walrus wrapped in polyester who couldn't take a single sentence at face value. If he said two words, she heard five or six, and they scalded her guts. He gave her a soap-on-a-rope in the shape of an aspirin because she swallowed handfuls at night in order to sleep. But she considered this oversize pill a vicious hint that Dad wanted her to 'go sleep for good'. One February, she cried over a hand-made Valentine card because he had drawn the heart upside down. (He only wanted to juice up a tired ritual, but she was certain it alluded to her great big rear.) In a crowded mall, Dad let go of a door and it nailed her in the forehead. She stunned cheery Christmas shoppers with a high-decibel accusation: her husband was trying to kill her with doors.
We kids – me, my older sister and my younger brother – made him happy, gorging on hot dogs and pancakes paid for by his hammer and nailing, but that didn't make a life, so he made a decision: he'd move us to Mammoth Mountain and teach us to ski. Screw all that empty labor and alienation. We would hike and have a serious blast. Catch rainbow trout and go sledding and have snowball fights. All he had to do was get fired – unemployment and food stamps would carry us through the winter.
So he began a campaign to lose his construction job. He ignored his pouch of nails. He lounged next to his best friend, Bob Kindred, and made idle chat: the supermarket across the street couldn't be said to 'actually exist' he'd say, because it was a different Thing to every Being that experienced it.
Bob: Look, I see a market and you see a market.
Bob: Bullshit. What do you see then?
Dad: ...not quite sure.
Dad sent a rumour down the elevator shaft with the equipment boy: 'Someone's slacking on the 15th floor. Hasn't lifted a finger in two hours!' Then he perched himself on a ladder and waited for sweet doom, chewing an entire bag of sunflower seeds, spitting every shell on the floor and demanding that other men work harder.
Most of them laughed, but some thought he'd surrendered to carpenter madness, and they whispered advice: 'Listen, man, take a day off or something. You're losing it.'
'Shut up! I'm in charge now. Get back to work, and somebody sweep up these god-awful seeds!'
After being 'laid off' Dad went straight to the market (the one that didn't exist) for moving boxes, but instead he found an old man grinning from inside the Dumpster like a euphoric half-wit, eating cold spaghetti from a can. His face was covered with grime and his teeth had rotted down to brown spikes, but according to Dad he was 'the happiest person I'd seen in years' and wanted to share his score – some nice chicken, broccoli, mangoes, a mystery novel, a bag of hard candy – most of which was going to his 60-year old girlfriend in a nearby trailer park. He offered Dad the chicken. Plenty to go around, and just thrown out that morning. All wrapped up tight in plastic. No worse than day-old-bread, and Lord knows the price was right.
Dad got the hell out of there. But he spent the entire afternoon thinking about it, even took a half-assed shot at discussing it with Mom. Trashing made money obsolete. No reason to pay for food – it waits out back, same as on the shelf. Maybe it's not as clean or spiffy, but it looks plenty tasty, and it’s free, so he's free. Making a living meant finding something decent, then the rest of the day was wide open.
Mom was mortified. It was ludicrous to be envious of a homeless person. Freedom meant choices, and that old guy had none. But Dad had plenty and should be making something of his life instead of thinking low-class thoughts.
Dad went back first thing in the morning. He watched an aproned kid carry out a gallon jar of pickled eggs and the passage from In to Out was crystal clear. Nothing about the eggs had changed. But in 30 seconds, the jar had been transformed from top notch product into utter swill. Dad went over 'just for a look' and found a split open 50-pound bag of dry dog food. Perfect initiation. He could test the water without sticking anything in his mouth. He could climb in for our loyal family dog and save the five dollars the food costs every week. A few minutes in the Dumpster would equal five smackers. That was... about a hundred dollars an hour!
He climbed in and spotted the jar, expiration date one day past, lid snug. He opened it, the Dumpster suddenly feeling like half foxhole, half goldmine, and hesitated only long enough to smell the top egg, then wolfed it down. Delicious! He sped home and fed the dog and tried to pass out the eggs, but Mom was glaring at the menacing felt-tip X on the jar lid. 'That better not be what I think it is,' she said. 'So help me God.’
Dad said: 'OK, fine,' deciding to try to be himself even if his wife didn't want him to. 'It's trash.’
Mom stomped into the bedroom.
But those eggs were undeniable. More trash meant less work. Less work meant more time and, finally, more life. Think of it. They could do whatever the hell they wanted. No work, just skiing, sledding, snowballs...
In three weeks we would leave for Mammoth Mountain.
At first Mom and Dad shopped together. Mom headed to the electric doors clutching those dreaded food stamps, and Dad called out: 'The adventure's in the back, babe!' (He says it was a wholehearted invitation, but even now there's a taunting edge to his voice that he doesn't acknowledge).
The amount of food being cast out in Mammoth was astounding. The economy was tourist driven, and fancy skiers preferred high-class eats, so the instant a piece of fruit showed age, it was ditched. Dad scored racks of papayas so ripe they were oozing and split. If the corner of a cereal box got crunched, managers considered the cereal inside irrelevant. A manager who needed shelf space for granola bars and trail mix would abandon a slow seller, and Dad lugged home crates of onion-flavoured potato chips, unfresh bagels, a dozen cartons of cottage cheese. Finding enough to feed a family of five was a breeze, but afterward, when he wanted to compare hauls Mom looked at him with disdain and kept her bags away from his, afraid of contamination, setting her prediction of his death by poisoning at two weeks.
Years later, after he and Mom had long been divorced, Dad explained his rationale. 'My wife was part of that cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness culture in this country. She would say: "I don't want to raise kids with these low values." I had to ignore her; I guess I didn't know how to deal with it.'
The image of them veering apart at the mouth of the store sticks with me as a kind of defining moment, but that's not exactly how Mom remembers it.
'No, no, I offered to go to the back of the store,' she recalls. ‘I wanted to, because I didn't understand what he was doing. But he said, “no, you don't want to do that”. So when I came out he had this plastic bag with produce in it. I said: “Where did you get that?” He said: “In the back,” and it dawned on me. I realized what he was doing. Very repulsive to me, as you can imagine. Someone who's supposed to be your companion for life. It was very hard. I lost a lot of respect for him. A tremendous amount of respect.’
Mom had warned us about trash bins. Dad was immune to the filth, she said because selfishness and spiritual corruption had made him thick-skinned, but we might suffocate on the stink or, worse, slip and bash our heads, then literally drown in two inches of immoral muck. She said trash was a horrible thing, but that was difficult to believe. Dad was obviously having big fun, and one thing children understand: fun is not horrible.
Mom declared the refrigerator off-limits.
Dad found an old fridge and stashed booty in the garage.
Mom banned trashing at her favourite stores.
Dad sneaked out at night and hid convenience desserts under our pillows.
Mom found licked-clean pudding cartons and forbade us to eat ‘that'.
Dad picked us up from school, and we hit the trash bins at candy stores and pastry shops on the sly.
'Jackpot' became the code word when my sister found a jumbo pack of Twinkies designed to be carried like a backpack. She ran at top speed with a tube of decorative crepe paper, flailing her arms and sprinting a huge circle back to her Twinkies. The red paper unravelled behind her like a parade streamer.
We made ourselves sick gorging on Twinkies on the drive home, then laid around the house and groaned.
Mom put two and two together, then staged a protest – she wouldn't speak again until the children were garbage-free. She wouldn't do a single chore.
For a week we saw her only twice a day – going straight to her room to read romance novels and stomping out to the car in the morning.
Dad prepared all-trash meals. A sourdough culture thrived in a mason jar above the stove. Dad mixed it into second hand flour and made humongous stacks of pancakes, referred to as gooners, smothered with coconut syrup from behind the health-food store.
Who wants gooners?'
'Me, me, me!'
Mom packed her bags. She gathered us at the door to explain that Dad was a heartless son-of-a-bitch whom she couldn't stand for another second. But she would come and visit on the weekends and we could stay with her whenever we wanted.
We begged her to stay. We got on our knees and gradually convinced her that life would be pointless without her.
As Mom unpacked, I sobbed with relief. But when she packed her bags again four days later, we barely glanced up from the television.
Now he's building a 15-metre catamaran with an A-frame mast and geriatric rig-roller furled sails that allow a plodding 67-year-old to cruise the coast of Baja in total control. There's one problem. It has taken him ten years to build.
I understand that he 'wasted' so much of his life building homes and restaurants for money, and this albatross of a boat, like trash, is obviously for his heart – one last big project. I desperately want it to be OK. I want to be proud of the integrity in such an effort, but when I see those giant hulls rising up out of nowhere, docked in this weedy lot (he calls it a 'compound') 100 kilometres from the open sea, I can barely keep myself from screaming: 'Sail, you dingy bastard! Do something you really want!'
But hey... maybe I'm missing the point.
Besides, the end – or the beginning – is apparently in sight. Dad claims he is 'almost done'. The name of the ship? The Heathen Scavenger.
Dirk Jamison is working on a memoir to be published by Warner Books in the US. A documentary film about his father was shown at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking a European distributor. A longer version of this story first appeared in LA Weekly.
© Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997
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