My daughter and I found the perfect sofa on the way to school today. It was just the size and color I was looking to add to the living room. Unfortunately, someone had dumped it upside down in the mud of my neighbor's front yard. Apparently it took too much energy to have a garage sale or haul it to the Salvation Army, or even to leave it on the curb with a "FREE" sign. Apparently this person was also unaware of the unwritten code in the nearby student condos: If it is still relatively clean and usable, place it beside a Dumpster. Then anyone can take it.
On my daily walk I've picked up shelves, chairs, lumber, wine glasses, even mattresses and a sturdy bed-frame this way. I've found barely used snow pants and coats and given them to my neighbor's granddaughters, though I don't volunteer where I got them. I also bring aluminum cans to the man in round glasses and a faded goatee who routinely climbs inside the Dumpsters.
"I'm working on my four millionth can," he bragged when I finally spoke to him. One year, he said, he earned $60,000 by gleaning. "The college students throw stuff out when they move in, and again when they move out," he said.
I come by my Dumpster fascination naturally. Whenever I took my young kids to visit my parents, we always arrived to a display of stuffed toys. Mom admitted she got them from the neighborhood Dumpster.
"They're perfectly good," she insisted. I wasn't happy about it, because she never washed them first, but no one ever got sick.
My mother grew up during the depression and was a country kid besides. She was handed a double-whammy of frugality from birth. But as a child, I resented feeling like a second-class citizen because my clothes were practical and my bicycle ancient. All through high school we argued about style versus cost. She couldn't understand my desperate need for a striped surfer shirt, and I couldn't explain it in her terms. Her biggest thrill was to run out of aluminum foil at Thanksgiving, and, with all the local stores closed, save the day with a patchwork of used foil.
After my father died, my mother began cleaning the 40-plus years of accumulation from the house. First, she made us go through everything and take anything we wanted. Then she began having garage sales of books, old clothes and generally useless things from the back of upper shelves. She was particularly pleased with her "Free Box."
"You just never know what people will want," she crowed. She even donated the old VW to charity, though she cried when they hauled it off. But the stuff she couldn't give away -- and there was lots of that -- she kept.
Over time, and particularly when I became a single mom, I found myself gravitating towards secondhand stores and reveling in my own deals. After a while, even secondhand prices seemed high. That's when I discovered the Dumpsters. It felt smart when I dove and wasn't as smelly as it sounds -- and I never collected stuffed toys.
My children wore used clothes until they were old enough to know the difference. Then if they asked for new they got it, but they didn't always ask. My son is not a shopper anyway, but my daughter truly is. She discovered early that she can get more stuff for the same money at the Salvation Army, and we both love the $200 dollar dollhouse we got for only $15.
She also likes going through her things and giving them to the three little girls down the street. Out with the old means in with the new, and the little neighbors always scream with glee when they see us coming. One day I saw my daughter's beloved pink cowboy boots set neatly together near the neighbor's tire-swing. Though I felt a little sad that they were gone, I was glad someone new could love them, too.
Recently my Mom visited us after one of these cleansings, and my daughter gave a tour of her newly organized bedroom. It featured shelves with multi-colored bins to contain her stuff, and a comfy doublewide armchair for reading and cats.
"What a nice chair," I overheard my mother comment.
"We got it from the Dumpster," my daughter said, without a hint of shame. My mother didn't miss a beat. "Good," she said.
Joann Wilke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Bozeman, Montana.