Tao of the Dumpster

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.

We kids–me, my older sister, and younger brother–made him
happy, gorging on hot dogs and pancakes paid for by his
hammer-and-nailing, but that didn’t make a life, so he made a
decision: He’d move us to Mammoth Mountain and teach us to ski.
Screw all that empty labor and alienation. We would hike and have a
serious blast. Catch rainbow trout and go sledding and have
snowball fights. All he had to do was get fired–unemployment and
food stamps would carry us through the winter.

So he began a campaign to lose his construction job. He ignored
his pouch of nails. He lounged next to his best friend, Bob
Kindred, and made idle chat: The supermarket across the street
couldn’t be said to ‘actually exist,’ he’d say, because it was a
different Thing to every Being that experienced it.

Bob: Look. I see a market and you see a market.

Dad: Nope.

Bob: Bullshit. What do you see then?

Dad: .?.?.?not quite sure.

Dad sent a rumor down the elevator shaft with the equipment boy:
‘Someone’s slacking on the 15th floor. Hasn’t lifted a finger in
two hours!’ Then he perched himself on a ladder and waited for
sweet doom, chewing an entire bag of sunflower seeds, spitting
every shell on the floor and demanding that other men work harder.
Most of them laughed, but some thought he’d surrendered to
carpenter madness, and they whispered advice: ‘Listen, man, take a
day off or something. You’re losing it.’

‘Shut up! I’m in charge now. Get back to work, and somebody
sweep up these god-awful seeds!’

Dad needed a Judas, but nobody could stand the idea. Eventually,
Bob said he was willing, for ten bucks. The next day, the foreman
broke the news.

‘I’ve heard some things from the men, Burt. I hate to do it, but
I’m cutting you loose.’

‘What? Why? Those bastards! Can’t they say it to my face? I’ve
got a family to feed, Jerry!’

‘Damn it, I know that?.?.’

‘Christ. What’ll I do now?’

‘I can’t imagine having a life and then doing things you don’t
want to do with it.’

After being ‘laid off,’ Dad went straight to the market (the one
that ‘didn’t exist’) for moving boxes, but instead found an old man
grinning from inside the Dumpster like a euphoric half-wit, eating
cold spaghetti from a can. His face was covered with grime and his
teeth had rotted down to brown spikes, but, according to Dad, he
was ‘the happiest person I’d seen in years’ and wanted to share his
score–some nice chicken, broccoli, mangoes, a mystery novel, a bag
of hard candy–most of which was going to his 60-year-old
girlfriend waiting in a nearby trailer park. He offered Dad the
chicken. Plenty to go around, and just thrown out that morning. All
wrapped up tight in plastic. No worse than day-old bread, and Lord
knows the price is right.

Dad got the hell out of there. But he spent the entire afternoon
thinking about it, even took a half-assed shot at discussing it
with Mom. The old guy had looked more relaxed and content, hip-deep
in dregs, than Dad could remember ever feeling. Trashing made money
obsolete. No reason to pay for food–it waits out back, same as on
the shelf. Maybe it’s not as clean or spiffy, but it looks plenty
tasty, and it’s free, so he’s free. Making a living meant finding
something decent, then the rest of the day was wide open.

Mom was mortified. It was ludicrous to be envious of a homeless
person. Freedom meant choices, and that old guy had none. But Dad
had plenty and should be making something of his life instead of
thinking low-class thoughts.

Dad went back first thing in the morning. He watched an aproned
kid carry out a gallon jar of pickled eggs, and the passage from In
to Out was crystal clear. Nothing about the eggs had changed. But
in 30 seconds, the jar had been transformed from top-notch product
into utter swill. Dad went over ‘just for a look’ and found a
split-open 50-pound bag of dry dog food. Perfect initiation. He
could test the water without sticking anything in his mouth. He
could climb in for our loyal family dog and save the five dollars
the food cost every week. A few minutes in the Dumpster would equal
five smackers. That was . . . about a hundred
dollars an hour!

He climbed in and spotted the jar, expiration date one day past,
lid snug. He opened it, the Dumpster suddenly feeling like half
foxhole, half gold mine, and hesitated only long enough to smell
the top egg, then wolfed it down. Delicious! He sped home and fed
the dog and tried to pass out the eggs, but Mom was glaring at the
menacing felt-tip X on the jar lid. ‘That better not be what I
think it is,’ she said. ‘So help me God.’

Dad said, ‘OK, fine,’ deciding to try to be himself even if his
wife didn’t want him to. ‘It’s trash.’

Mom stomped into the bedroom, and Dad followed with a story of
Bob Kindred scrambling from the Bob’s Big Boy bathroom, pale as a
ghost. He’d been doing his thing, straining away, surrounded by
festive tile and a chemical stench, when suddenly he felt
out-and-out terror. ‘What if I die in here?!’ Now Dad finally
understood exactly what he meant and he wanted to punch his own
head in. He’d been working for furniture and new shoes and magazine
subscriptions, making petty habits a priority and handing authority
to some persona–who he thought he should be, instead of who he
was. But those eggs were undeniable. More trash meant less work.
Less work meant more time and, finally, more life. Think of it.
They could do whatever the hell they wanted. No work, just skiing,
sledding, snowballs . . . food stamps.

Mom despised food stamps. People snickered in line, and the
checkers were condescending. She wanted a normal, above-board life.
Her father had raised ten children and never once resorted to
crummy welfare or scavenging. Couldn’t they move to Oregon instead
and be near her eight Mormon sisters, who cherished her? Dad could
hang drywall with her brothers and ski on the weekends.

But she was missing the point, so Dad spoke slowly. ‘I don’t
want to waste any more days . . . at all.’

Mom smothered herself with a pillow and blurted, ‘I won’t do
it.’

Dad found us kids on the porch, eggs stuffed in our cheeks. He
sat down, had an egg, and told us about an African snake he’d seen
on National Geographic, the two-step something. It bites
you, you take two steps, and you’re dead. That’s how he wanted to
live. The snake just nailed us, and we’ve got two steps. Make ’em
good, huh?

In three weeks we would leave for Mammoth Mountain.

‘I don’t have to know anything but that next step.’

Dad had heard that Mammoth had the most square footage of
terrifying slope in the country. Pine sap smelled like vanilla, and
for $250 a month we rented a place four miles below some 30 ski
lifts and a space-age gondola that raced to nosebleed altitudes and
stopped half way down the run at a cafeteria where everyone
collapsed and refueled on corned beef and cabbage and steins of
beer. Our house was an A-frame crowded by wild Christmas trees, and
on the very day we moved in, a fish hatchery truck backed down our
driveway to stock the backyard creek with brook trout. ‘Talk about
a good omen!’ exclaimed Dad. There was no time to locate fishing
rods. We just blitzed in and started groping for fish, while Dad
cheered from the bank. My first fish ever, nabbed with cold bare
hands, was 12 inches long. I raised it over my head and we were all
screaming.

‘If you’re worried about getting your hands dirty, it’s hard to
do this.’

At first Mom and Dad shopped together. Mom headed for the
electric doors, clutching those dreaded food stamps, and Dad called
out, ‘The adventure’s in back, babe!’ (He says it was a
wholehearted invitation, but even now there’s a taunting edge to
his voice that he doesn’t acknowledge.)

The amount of food being cast out in Mammoth was astounding. The
economy was tourist-driven, and fancy skiers preferred high-class
eats, so the instant a piece of fruit showed age, it was ditched.
Dad scored racks of papayas so ripe they were oozing and split. If
the corner of a cereal box got crunched, managers considered the
cereal inside irrelevant. A manager who needed shelf space for
granola bars and trail mix would abandon a slow seller, and Dad
lugged home crates of onion-flavored potato chips, unfresh bagels,
a dozen cartons of cottage cheese. Finding enough to feed a family
of five was a breeze, but afterward, when he wanted to compare
hauls, Mom looked at him with disdain and kept her bags away from
his, afraid of contamination, setting her prediction of his
death-by-poisoning at two weeks.Years later, after he and Mom had
long been divorced, Dad explained his rationale. ‘My wife was part
of that cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness culture in this country.
She would say, `I don’t want to raise the kids with these low
values.’ I had to ignore her, I guess. I didn’t know how to deal
with it.’

The image of them veering apart at the mouth of the store sticks
with me as a kind of defining moment, but that’s not exactly how
Mom remembers it. ‘No, no, I offered to go to the back of the
store,’ she recalls. ‘I wanted to, because I didn’t understand what
he was doing. But he said no, you don’t wanna do that. So when I
came out, he had this plastic bag with produce in it. I said,
`Where’d you get that?’ He said, `In the back,’ and it dawned on
me. I realized what he was doing. Very repulsive to me, as you can
imagine. Someone who’s supposed to be your companion for life. It
was very hard. I lost a lot of respect for him. A tremendous amount
of respect.’

‘Nobody cares if I trash. I can’t see them caring very much at
all.’

Mom warned us about the trash bins. Dad was immune to the filth,
she said, because selfishness and spiritual corruption had made him
thick-skinned, but we might suffocate on the stink or, worse, slip
and bash our heads, then literally drown in two inches of immoral
muck. She said trash was a horrible thing, but that was difficult
to believe. Dad was obviously having big fun, and one thing
children understand: Fun is not horrible.

Mom declared the refrigerator off-limits.

Dad found an old fridge and stashed his booty in the garage.

Mom banned trashing at her favorite stores.

Dad sneaked out at night and hid convenience desserts under our
pillows.

Mom found licked-clean pudding cartons and forbade us to eat
‘that.’

Dad picked us up from school, and we hit the trash bins at candy
stores and pastry shops on the sly.

Jackpot! became the code word when my sister found a
jumbo-pack of Twinkies designed to be carried like a backpack. She
ran at top speed with a tube of decorative crepe paper, flailing
her arms and sprinting a huge circle back to the Twinkies. The red
paper unraveled behind her like a parade streamer.

We made ourselves sick gorging on Twinkies on the drive home,
then laid around the house and groaned.

Mom put two and two together, then staged a protest–she
wouldn’t speak again until her children were garbage-free. She
wouldn’t do a single chore.

For a week, we saw her only twice a day–going straight to her
room after work to read romance novels and stomping out to the car
in the morning.

Dad prepared all-trash meals. A sourdough culture thrived in a
Mason jar above the stove. Dad mixed it into secondhand flour and
made humongous stacks of pancakes, referred to as gooners,
smothered with coconut syrup from behind the health-food store.

‘Who wants gooners?’

‘Me, me, me!’

Mom packed her bags. She gathered us at the door to explain that
Dad was a heartless son of a bitch whom she couldn’t stand for
another second. But she would come visit us on the weekends, and we
could stay with her whenever we wanted.

We begged her to stay. We got on our knees and gradually
convinced her that life would be pointless without her. (I’ve
created endless psychobabble about why their entire marriage played
out on the cliff of divorce, and why it felt good to turn their
children into desperate little negotiators but at the time I simply
understood that when one of them was happy, the other was
miserable.) As Mom unpacked, I sobbed with relief. But when she
packed her bags again four days later, we barely glanced up from
the television. From then on, she had to convince herself to stick
around.

‘You can’t wait for a situation to happen. You’ve gotta make your
freedom.’

The snow finally hit Mammoth with a vengeance, but there wasn’t
enough money for ski-lift tickets. Dad was saving up for a season
pass. So he drove us to an isolated stretch of mountain in his old
Dodge panel truck. He jacked up one side of the truck and swapped
the back tire for a bare wheel, then took another wheel up the hill
and hooked it to a tree. He ran a rope around both wheels, cut the
rope, and spliced the ends together. We’d hang on to the rope, and
it would pull us up the hill. It was our own personal rope tow.

He cut some old skis in half for us and screwed on garage-sale
bindings. We used thick gloves so the rope wouldn’t burn our hands.
My brother was small and afraid of the hill, so Dad stood him on
the front of his skis, and they glided down together. A guy came by
in a car and yelled out of the window, `My God, I thought I was
crazy about fishing!‘ ‘

‘It was a difficult situation, because I was asking other people
to make this change . . . and they weren’t always
able to.’

Dad was handing out mini-jugs of orange juice from a Dumpster
when my sister spotted a boy from grade school, staring at us from
his bicycle at the far end of the lot. Her expression made Dad
think she’d cut her finger or smashed a toe. She ducked behind the
Dumpster and hissed, ‘I know him!’ Later she confessed to Mom that
she had a crush on the boy. When the boy ridiculed her at recess,
she sucker-punched him in the throat and was suspended from fifth
grade for three days. She refused to leave her room, so Mom
delivered her favorite meals on a big platter.

Dad wanted to talk her through it but took the wrong approach,
suggesting that she see shame as a concept and not just a feeling.
It was a replacement emotion, like anger. We used it when we
couldn’t distinguish exactly how we felt. It didn’t work this time.
He ended up simply attaching a stigma to her reaction by implying
that her feelings weren’t real. So he finally shut up and tried to
empathize instead. He squatted in Dumpsters and pictured the person
he’d least like to see him there–an old girlfriend, the president,
John Wayne. He tried to humiliate himself, but couldn’t.

She said, ‘I don’t want any more trash, Dad.‘I found a whole
turkey before. On Thanksgiving. I cooked the whole thing. Isn’t
that funny?’

Whenever things got ugly between my parents, Dad would split for
a while. Mom always said ‘separated’ on the telephone with her
friends. Dad said ‘vacation.’ Once, he drove his orange Honda 350
to Baja to spearfish and lounge in his hammock. He sent a postcard
claiming that trash in Mexico really was trash. Another time, he
flew alone to Hawaii (knowing Mom had always been dreamy for it),
bleached his hair white, and got a permanent, which he wore like a
haystack with a red bandana around it. He was touring reefs on
small rented catamarans while Mom was crawling under the house with
that damn propane torch to thaw the pipes.

One winter, Dad’s vacation destination was Los Angeles, but Mom
had a plan to ruin it, by putting my brother and me on a bus with
two turkey sandwiches and a dollar each and shipping us down there.
The bus took 30 hours. When it stopped at a restaurant, we sat on
the curb and ate our sandwiches, which turned out to be just meat
and bread. The bus was idling; we breathed diesel fumes and somehow
didn’t think to move.

Dad, his head shaved, was thrilled to see us when we arrived and
drove us straight to the ocean for an hour of bodysurfing. Then he
drove to the alley behind a grocery store. There was something
different about him, a new kind of abandon, and I realized that up
until then he’d been reining himself in for the sake of the family.
Now, digging up our lunch–a cantaloupe and a box of candy bars
covered with what looked like powdered detergent–he was the person
I’d heard him wishing to be. Not Dad, but a happy, crazy guy with
no context and nothing to worry about besides being true to
himself. The only restriction left was his marriage.

We drove to Mom’s sister’s house, but she wouldn’t even let us
stay the night, wouldn’t even let us park outside her house and
sleep in the van. Mom had called ahead and asked her to turn us
away, presumably to teach Dad responsibility. So we found a park
and played Frisbee. When a nearby party broke up, Dad went over and
found a big tray of half-eaten lasagna in the trash bin. It was
still warm, and we used plastic spoons.

I was about 12 at the time. As it got dark, Dad said he needed
to tell me something, but wanted to give me a little background
first. He waited until my brother wandered over to the swings. He
described the way he and Mom had met. It was a few days after he
had jumped off a 35-foot pier at Redondo Beach to save a boy who
was drowning. Mom had seen his picture in the newspaper, then
recognized him in the street. Pretty soon they were going out. When
Mom got pregnant, she wanted to be married, but Dad was freshly
divorced, so he made a deal. He would marry her if they could get a
divorce the very same day. Mom was reluctant, but what she wanted
more than anything was a baby, a legitimate one, and this way she
could honestly say to her family, ‘We got married.’

They drove to Tijuana and found someone willing to perform both
ceremonies. It took 20 minutes and cost $75, which Mom paid. My
sister was born. Two years later, me. Another four years, my
brother came out blue, refusing to breathe until the doctor shook
him violently. Then one summer, Bob Kindred was headed to Mexico to
marry his new sweetheart, and he invited Dad. Let’s make it a
double wedding, he said. Sure, what the hell, Dad replied. They had
three kids anyway.

I interrupted him: Why’re you telling me all this?

Dad picked at something on his shirt, then watched my brother on
the swing.

You’re getting divorced again?

‘Yeah, but everything’s gonna be fine. It’ll be better.’

Is that why Mom sent us here? We’re living with you now?

‘No. She doesn’t know yet. I just signed the papers last week. I
didn’t want to send them up there and wait around, so I signed for
her. That way we can avoid a big fight over it.’

You forged Mom’s name?

‘No. I signed for her.’

‘If you have time, then maybe you can do something you
want.’

One of the obvious benefits of forging divorce papers, if your
wife feels too defeated to challenge you, is that you get around
$20,000 cash from the savings account and your wife gets the house
that’s been on the market, without a nibble, for two years. But if
you’re Dad, and all your life you wanted to live on a sailboat, you
don’t simply use the cash to buy one. You buy wood instead.

He’s building a 45-foot catamaran with an A-frame mast and a
‘geriatric rig’–roller-furled sails that allow a plodding
67-year-old to cruise the coast of Baja in complete control.
There’s one problem, though. It has taken him ten years to
build.

He started piecing it together next to Bob Kindred’s house, with
no actual plans, only a sketch from a boating magazine. When it
started taking up too much room, Bob helped him move the hulls into
a field next door, and he’s been squatting there ever since. The
landlord eventually came up to him and said, ‘Um, what are you
doing?’

‘Oh, just building a boat. I thought I could do a little
construction work in exchange for rent.’

Dad replaced one window pane in an apartment and patched a
section of roof, but that’s all. When the landlord decided he
wanted money instead, Dad told him a deal’s a deal. So for ten
years, the landlord has been asking for $100 every so often, then
threatening to have him evicted. Dad usually says, ‘Well, you gotta
do what you gotta do.’

He’s done well with the boat. The hulls look straight; it has
endless shelf space, rotating drawers, little round windows, a nice
kitchen area, four bunk beds in each hull. But he’s too meticulous
with detail. Rather than buy a special fastener for three dollars,
he spends all day pounding and bending one from the hundreds of
pounds of scrap metal he’s accumulated from Dumpsters. I keep
telling him to finish, then work on the clever things. Paint that
gangplank on his way to Hawaii. By the time he’s done, he might be
too old for ocean life.

(Mom says sailing is only a dream and he’ll never do it. She
refers to the boat as an elaborate coffin.)

Dad rants about time being so categorically vital, but has no
sense of it being wasted. ‘It’s the journey that counts, right?
Time is life, and the faster you move, the less you have.’

But enough is enough: He’s made his point, and I can’t help but
accuse him of postponing his moment of truth, now that he’s spent a
decade in the smoggiest shit-trap neighborhood I’ve ever seen,
preparing for some beatific life on that elusive Baha
shoreline.

I understand that he ‘wasted’ much of his life building homes
and restaurants for money, and this albatross of a boat, like
trash, is obviously for his heart–one last big project. I
desperately want that to be OK. I want to be proud of the integrity
in such an effort, but when I see those giant hulls rising up out
of nowhere, docked in this weedy lot (he calls it a ‘compound’) 60
miles from open ocean, I can barely keep from screaming, ‘Sail, you
dingy bastard! Do something you really want!’

But, hey . . . maybe I’m missing the point.

Besides, the end–or beginning–is apparently in sight. Dad
claims he is ‘almost done.’

The name of his ship?

Aark, the Heathen Scavenger.

Dirk Jamison is coauthor of Doing
Good
, a book concerning philosophy and religion.

From L.A. Weekly (June 14, 1996).
Subscriptions: $52/yr. (52 issues) from Box 5720, Glendale, CA
91221.

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