Tao of the Dumpster

My father's love affair with trash

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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. Woooo!'

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!'

'We shit on life and wonder why it stinks.'

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, my 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 once 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 to sleep for good.' One February, she cried over a handmade 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.