No one is above dumpster diving. I recall an elegant upper east side socialite rummaging unapologetically through her neighbor’s trash. A single well-manicured hand dove deftly in for the “kill,” seconds later, she was the triumphant new owner of a pristine Givenchy handbag from the previous season.
An impressive maneuver that left me more than a little envious. In her wake, I glanced at the hodgepodge gaggle of garbage bins but all that remained was the usual fare; a broken chair, chipped saucers, dirty sneakers and a well-loved teddy bear whose crestfallen expression mirrored my own. Better luck next time.
New Yorkers are nothing if not savvy, resourceful creatures who love fabulous finds. If you think bargain hunting is an irresistible thrill, “free” is exhilarating beyond compare. From scoring apparel and sporting equipment to home décor and furniture, I learned the art of dumpster diving on the city streets as a college student.
In those days the high art of material transformation (dumpster diving if you must) was a viable even noble means of decorating, a necessity and rite of passage. While scoring the perfectly pristine purse or pretty patio set was always a possibility, it was more likely you’d need to get creative with your curbside treasures to transform them into things of beauty for your home.
While attending The Fashion Institute of Technology, I shared a gloomy one-bedroom apartment with two students who gave me a loosely defined area in the living room to call my own. Sure, it lacked privacy, glamor and a closet but I was too over the moon about living in New York to really care, and after all – was I not an interior design student newly accepted into a selective and competitive institution? As such could I not transform my space into a stylish sanctuary sure to be envy of my fellow students? Did I not have the means to do so? Um no, that last one – that would be a negative. But what I lacked in funds, I’d like to think I made up for in enthusiasm, imagination and ingenuity.
Dumpster diving was in play. My first piece de resistance was a giant semi-circular awning, domed at one end — the classic NYC awning generally found sheltering a path doorway to curb. I recall the moment my eyes lit upon its massive, metallic raw beauty. It was 4 a.m., raining, and I was teetering home from a nightclub dressed in a skimpy shock-frock and stilettos. The awning had been torn from the building, stripped of its fabric sheath and discarded. Poor thing was begging for a second act — after all it had previously been attached to the Catch A Rising Star Comedy Club.
A sudden inspiration hit me like well, a shooting star — the abandoned awning would make the perfect canopy for my bed. Envisioning diaphanous fabric draped seductively over the metal with string lights inside to add a soft twinkle, a little privacy and style to my living-study-sleeping space was easy. Envisioning lugging this thing home given the hour and its size was not so easy. Hauling it back to my apartment before the NYC Department of Sanitation had their way with it in the morning would be a challenge.
The only soul on the pre-dawn street was a shadowy figure, huddled tightly into a dank doorway, cupping a cigarette looking jumpy. Now, I’m not saying this shady-looking character shared my industrial chic vision of a canopy bed, but he did help me drag it to my building’s lobby without incident, and the following morning my super took a hacksaw to the long side to shorten it just enough to get it upstairs. Score!
My younger self’s sheer determination and naivete are at once awe inspiring and horrifying. Dumpster diving needn’t be a hair raising, life-risking mission — I mean unless you’re into that kind of thing. You only need curl into your sofa, log on and dive till you drop on local Facebook groups like Free on The Rock, Free on Bainbridge and Buy Nothing Bainbridge — which spawned the Buy Nothing Project that includes Buy Nothing Kingston and Buy Nothing Kitsap County. In addition to the Facebook groups, check out the project at buynothingproject.org, which was founded by two Bainbridge Island women, Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark.
Today’s version of dumpster diving is a social movement and more socially acceptable language has been assigned; recycling, repurposing, upcycling and gift-economy. The Buy Nothing Project is about, “setting the scarcity model of our cash economy aside in favor of creatively and collaboratively sharing the abundance around us.” And while I wholeheartedly agree and participate, that’s darn fancy language and lofty ideals for what is and will always be my unabashed love of dumpster diving.