“On Dumpster Diving” contains Lars Eighner’s accounts of homelessness at the end of the 1980s. He chose to write his book (“Travels with Lizbeth”) as a manual of sorts, and is often a detached narrator. There are times however, when he breaks this character. This was a decade of high-consumerism and before the recycling initiatives implemented today, so I do not think it can be taken as an accurate source for our time. It can however, still give an over-all view of what that kind of life entails and the life experiences achieved. He speaks about the trials and tribulations of depending on dumpsters as a food source, but ultimately I found it to be a commentary of how North American culture is based on consumption.
The bulk of the essay takes the form of Eighner recounting his experiences of searching dumpsters for his food, and in some cases his clothing and other necessities as well. Sometimes there were so many salvageable items that he had to implement such a rule so that he wouldn’t become bombarded with ultimately gratuitous things. He doesn’t however refrain from taking what food he can, even in cases where he could do without—he’s of the mind that he never truly knows when he will find enough sustenance for himself and his dog, Lizbeth, so it’s sound for him to eat when possible. Through trial-and-error Eighner has come to know the best spots for safe foods, and the appropriate measures to take in procuring his finds. There is always room for error as this is risk-taking after all, but he makes sure the results aren’t fatal for him or any of his companions. Through it all he does quite well for himself and actually gains weight in the process making his consumption more than the basic means of survival.
Much of the food found had indeed been thrown out for good reason, expiration and mold being frequent cases, but there is plenty that’s simply thrown away without any real thought given. Eighner recalls that residential neighborhoods weren’t worth the effort of scavenging as the finds were typically minimal, but areas where college students propagated were well worth it. Whether it was fridges and cabinets emptied at the end of a semester or during breaks between classes, Eighner “[found] it advantageous to
keep an eye on the academic calendar”(201). This was food that even if touched was fairly fresh, or thrown away prematurely in case of future spoilage.
Food wasn’t the only thing being thrown away, Eighner found everything from old letters and homework, campaign buttons, sunglasses, and some other interesting finds. It wasn’t too uncommon to find change either, which he especially liked when he wasn’t the first to pick over a dumpster. Eighner credits these experiences with allowing him to see material possessions for what they are, and now exclusively possesses pre-owned materials “proving that what I own is valueless to someone” (207). He declares his shock that many material items aren’t worth acquiring, but he can now never go back. If it doesn’t have any value or use to him he doesn’t want it, no matter what kind of worth it may have. It’s not the physical object that holds sentiment, so he can let go.
It took Eighner living on the streets for three years for him to free himself of the possessiveness, and materiality that affects today’s humanity. This shows that one can’t simply “quit” what you’ve been taught from a young age, not when it’s an integral part of society. He has made the change now, and doesn’t sound like he regrets this discovery. It may have even been therapeutic now that the day-to-day struggles are hindsight.