The Zen of Dumpster Diving:
December 26, 2001 1:52 PM   Subscribe

The Zen of Dumpster Diving: The strangely moving tale of one frustrated man, and how he reinvented his life with trash. You can also listen to author Dirk Jamison read an abbreviated version of this story.
posted by ryanshepard (15 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Something about this story reminds me of Fight Club.

Seriously, though, when I was growing up, my father was something like this. My ma hooked up with a guy who was supplying her with dope, and my dad just rode out into the sunset. He dropped out of life and lived in a car in the parking lot of a Zody's in Burbank, California. He lived like he didn't have a care, but I'm pretty sure that it was the unbearable weight of how much he really did care that drove him there.

My dad has yet to rejoin the world in which most of us live. He's spent the last 20 years wandering around; he can't stand to stay in one place for more than a few days. The guy who wrote this story seems like he approves of his dad's life, but I'm not so sure I feel that way about mine. I've always felt like an important part of me just isn't attached--like a tarp with one side blowing loose, if you will. There's probably a lesson to be learned here, but I have no idea what it is.
posted by CalvinTheBold at 3:33 PM on December 26, 2001

The guy who wrote this story seems like he approves of his dad's life

Give a listen to the segment of the reading where he describes his mother's post-divorce opinion of his father - Jamison's tone of voice suggests to me that he (at least in part) sympathizes with her frustration. I came away from it believing he thought his father's living out of his dream might be both enlightened AND irresponsible (and that it might be impossible to draw a clear line between the two.)
posted by ryanshepard at 4:05 PM on December 26, 2001

Dirk Jamison is coauthor of Doing Good, a book concerning philosophy and religion, to be published by William Morrow in spring 1997. He is currently working on a book about his father and has recently completed a documentary film about his father.

A review of the film "Tao of the Dumpster," shown at Sundance Film Festival in 1996. No sign of a book about Burt Jamison, nor could I find "Doing Good."
posted by Carol Anne at 4:22 PM on December 26, 2001

If you read the film review it's obvious Dirk doesn't entirely approve of his father's lifestyle. I think ryanshepard hit the nail on the head: Dirk is torn between admiring and being ashamed of Burt.

My mom, while not quite a "dumpster diver", has lived with a similar outlook for a while. To her, it doesn't matter if her house looks like Ground Zero. (If the outside of the house looked as bad as the inside, it would've been condemned long ago.) To my younger siblings who still live there, it's a disgrace and a reason not to bring friends by. I'm a clean-cut, dress shoe-wearing college student with little to nothing in common with my mom, and end up feeling much like Dirk: I don't know whether to blindly love her and let her live her life, or try and help change her for the better, mostly for the benefit of my two sisters.
posted by tsumo at 4:48 PM on December 26, 2001

Calvin: Your comment about your dad let the reader in on more internal life than that piece did. (I liked the piece, too, but it left me thinking: I get it, the writer's dad feels like living on trashed food has freed him, but the point is?)
posted by sacre_bleu at 6:09 PM on December 26, 2001

Thank you ryanshepard for a very interesting FPP...I knew a man who was something like this; he would only work nights because his days were devoted to scrounging. Food, clothes, and he proudly told me he had furnished his house for $31; everything else he had found. He was neither lazy nor stupid, just different.
Young people hate being judged by adults, and I hope they will be willing to extend compassion and understanding toward adults they know or encounter who are different, leaving the judgmentalism aside.
posted by Mack Twain at 6:20 PM on December 26, 2001

I work in the department the deals with damages goods for a major retailer. If this man saw our dumpster he would have an orgasm. I have to throw away anything that doesn't look like the perfect selling unit. Even worse, I'll get in trouble if I eat any of those boxes of candy bars we throw away.

My first Mefi post. Yay.
posted by chiababe at 8:55 PM on December 26, 2001

One diving danger I am acquainted with is reaching into somewhere (in this case it was a briefcase) and pulling out what I thought was a pen. Actually it was a syringe. Luckily it had the cap still on. I have had friends who have been pricked and had to tested for HIV, hepatitis etc. Despite all the wonderful things I found there is something very dark and desperate about diving...
posted by nasim at 9:26 PM on December 26, 2001

ryanshepard: what Mack Twain said, thanks for a very interesting fpp. I work nightshift in an ER, and a high percentage of the population we see is 'different'. I think about these folks a lot. I'm not sure they're any happier or less happy than people with more conventional lifestyles, they simply have different stressors.

I think the writer is sympathetic to both his mom and his dad. Neither is a 'bad' person, but they're really bad for each other. This is a pair that should never, ever have married. This story is sort a counterpoint to this discussion. Maybe people who procreate with other people exactly like them increase the incidence of psychological homozygotes in their offspring, but marriages of wildly different personality types have other problems.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 10:54 PM on December 26, 2001

I remember the second time I stayed with my aunt and uncle in Chicago, my uncle took me and my brother out 'alley shopping' as he called it.

That afternoon we found an 8 x12 handwoven Persian rug, the real thing, with the nap slightly worn down around one corner like there were two doors at the end of the room where it lay. I can't even imagine what it would fetch today, worn as it was.

The next day he took us to Market street where my brother bought a brass bird cage for 50 cents and I saw newspaper windows and god knows who playing blues right there on the street, but the real thing, whoever it was--There's a great documentary on Maxwell Street with Robert Nighthawk, by the way...

And between the two, I've been addicted to flea markets, garage sales and alley shopping ever since. Of course, in my neighborhood the opportunities for the last are limited by the sheer numbers of people going through all the dumpsters. And I usually have to clean up after them...

But after spending the summer making ends meet by buying and selling CDs, yinyl and books over the weekend,
I can relate to the father's story. You really are your own boss...

And then, too, I think of my friends who bought a a signed bowl with a jazz motif pattern for four dollars at a yard sale, spent two hundred nore having a crack healed, and, even with that reoair dully noted and limned in an ultraviolet dye for the discerning to see, sold it for twenty odd thousand through Sotheby's. Then they made the down payment on a new house. Which is a nice story but ultimately as likely as winning the lottery. Still, I am amazed at what people throw away still...
posted by y2karl at 12:25 AM on December 27, 2001

I can relate to the father's story. You really are your own boss...

I'll allow that the father had the right to live as he pleased--up until he had children. However, once people are parents their responsiblities change.
posted by Carol Anne at 4:53 AM on December 27, 2001

I love the "like a tarp with one side blowing loose" simile. That is the closest thing I have ever read that approaches how I feel somtimes. My dad used to dumpster dive. He resold the junk he found at flea markets. I remember sitting in our old station wagon wishing he'd just get the hell out of the dumpster as my friends rode by on thier bikes.

Later in life I lived in LA. I was a dirt poor musician and I ate out of dumpsters. Dad would have been proud.

Now I just pick up rusty metal I find on the street and use it for artistic expression, or at least threaten to.

My mom and dad have been married for almost 40 years now, and they don't listen to each other. Sometimes when I visit I just want to scream at them to open their god damn ears for a while.
posted by internook at 5:15 AM on December 27, 2001

Whatever makes you happy..

The thing I wonder is, what do you do with all the free time?

Work is what I do to kill time and provide a life, otherwise I'd just be watching TV and smoking pot all the time..

Weekends are a nice change, but basically slow and boring. Fast friends are okay, but who's gonna help you move?
posted by Leonard at 7:26 AM on December 27, 2001

Parenting can be a lesson in futility, because no matter what you do to provide food and shelter, no matter if you are a banker or a bum, your kids will reach an age where they form opinions about you. Your efforts matter little to most teenagers, who are by default self-absorbed and elitist.

I am reminded of the movie "Mosquito Coast" (which I recommend for those who haven't seen it)... the father in that movie only wanted what was best for his family. But the best intentions are often laden with the worst possible consequences, as we all eventually learn. You do what you can, and hope things don't get too crazy.

My own teenage children are living with my ex, so any negative impact I might have on them is reduced. But at the same time, so is any positive impact I might have. They rarely, if ever, call; my calls to them most times are not returned. Is this because they don't love me? Of course not. I remember only too well being a teen, and how incredibly self-absorbed I was. I didn't remember birthdays other than my own, and I didn't call to say 'Hi', I called because I needed money... I expect that the day will come when they will realize, as I eventually did, how important a parent's role is in life.
posted by fahfooh at 8:05 AM on December 27, 2001

I could empathize at times with the dad here, but he also could be an annoying and stubborn ass. I think the author was far too quick to take his dad's side; it could have been so much better if he recognized it from more angles.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:29 AM on December 28, 2001

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