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Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1 - FREEYOUR MIND The Philosophy ofScavenging
CHAPTER 2 - IN THEBEGINNING The Evolution ofScavenging
CHAPTER 3 - THE OLDESTPROFESSION The Rise and Fallof a Prejudice
CHAPTER 4 - SCAVENOMICS Nothing IsGarbage Anymore
CHAPTER 5 - FOUNDSTYLE The Aesthetics ofScavenging
CHAPTER 6 - FINDINGYOURSELF What Kind of ScavengerAre You?
CHAPTER 7 - LAND OFTHE FREE Living Thriftily
CHAPTER 8 - THE ACCIDENTALTAOIST The Spirituality ofScavenging
CHAPTER 9 - THE SCAVENGERCODE OF ETHICS The Twelve Commandmentsof Scavenging
JEREMY P. TARCHER/PENGUIN
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Copyright © 2009 by Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson
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LIBRARY Of CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Rufus, Anneli S.
The scavengers’ manifesto / Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
eISBN : 978-1-101-02476-8
1. Ragpickers—United States. 2. Salvage (Waste, etc.)—United States.
I. Lawson, Kristan. II. Title.
This book is printed on recycled paper.
While the authors have made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the authors assume any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
After this I went every Day on Board, and brought away what I could get. I had been now thirteen Days on Shore, and had been eleven Times on Board the Ship; in which Time I had brought away all that one Pair of Hands could well be suppos’d capable to bring, tho’ I believe verily, had the calm Weather held, I should have brought away the whole Ship Piece by Piece: But preparing the 12th Time to go on Board, I found the Wind begin to rise; however at low Water I went on Board, and tho’ I thought I had rumag’d the Cabbin so effectually, as that nothing more could be found, yet I discover’d a Locker with Drawers in it, in one of which I found two or three Razors, and one Pair of large Sizzers, with some ten or a Dozen of good Knives and Forks; in another I found about Thirty six Pounds value in Money, some European Coin, some Brazil, some Pieces of Eight, some Gold, some Silver. I smil ’d to my self at the Sight.
DANIEL DEFOE, Robinson Crusoe
ALL AROUND THE WORLD, A CHANGE IS NOW AFOOT. The way in which human beings acquire stuff is shifting. Expanding. Forever. All around the world, millions are salvaging stuff, trading stuff, recycling stuff. This is the end of the shopping monopoly.
All around the world, we are scavenging. Today that doesn’t mean only the squalid ragpicking it used to mean. So many pursuits count as scavenging today that they can no longer be tucked into any easy little category. We, the authors of this book, redefine scavenging as any way of legally acquiring stuff that does not involve paying full price. Just think how many ways you do this on a daily basis. You scavenge just by tracking down a good bargain.
It used to be that when anyone wanted anything, she automatically rushed out to the store and bought it new, full price. Mission accomplished. Back then—not so long ago—it was assumed that buying things new, retail, was the only way in which respectable civilized human beings could get them. Getting goods by any other means besides store-bought, new, and full price was considered suspicious: fit only for bottom-feeders, moochers, cheapskates, bums.
Four thousand years of prejudice dies hard.
Not long ago, just a few years ago, in our corporate consumer culture, the very idea of getting stuff by any means outside the standard retail channel at any speed but warp speed was anathema.
Not long ago, all of American society pledged loyalty to new-and-improved products. Not-shopping was treason.
In that unquestioning, unevolved age, not so long ago, not-shopping—at least, not shopping new, full price—would have made friends and neighbors call you radical. Antiestablishment. Heck, un-American.
And/or those friends and neighbors would have assumed you were poor. They might have pitied you. She must be destitute. Why else wouldn’t she like the mall?
BUT TIMES have changed. A confluence of factors—style, politics, technology, ecology, and the economy—have made more and more of us seek more and more alternate means of acquiring stuff. Modern-day scavengers are bold, committed, and resourceful. Goods and services now circle and recircle the world, connecting strangers, not a penny spent.
The more accepted scavenging becomes, the more of us there are.
And the lesser the prejudices.
Well, that took long enough.
Damned in the Book of Genesis, declared untouchable in the Book of Leviticus, shunned by cultures around the world, we’re scavengers.
We’re trash-pickers. We’re treasure-hunters. Bargain shoppers. Beachcombers. Recyclers. Freecyclers. Sample-sifters. Coupon shoppers. Swappers. Wherever we are, wherever we go, we find ways to not shop.
We don’t steal.
We don’t scam.
But we don’t pay full price. We don’t pay at all if we can help it. In which case, to be true to our ethics, the authors feel like saying: Pssst. Scavenge this book. Find it in the street. Buy it for spare change at a yard sale or a flea market or a thrift shop. Snatch it from a FREE box. Fish it from a Dumpster—although we hope it would never end up there. Borrow it from the library.
Whoops, there goes our future income.
We seldom know what we will acquire, or where or when or how or even if. But admit it: you love a mystery.
AN E-MAIL that circulated around New York City in May 2008 exhorted:
“Come attend the first planning meeting for the Freegan Fashion Show fundraiser coming up on June 6. The Freegan Fashion Show kicks off with a week of freegan clothing making work-shops using scrap material we redeem from the fabric district. Fashion week ends with our models walking the runway and showing how creativity is beautiful and sexy. Create your own style instead of buying a corporate version of your self-identity. This is a big event and all help is appreciated.”
TWO THOUSAND years ago, half the world’s population still survived by hunting and gathering. Over the last four hundred years, traditional hunting and gathering has, in the strictest sense, become nearly extinct. But all modern-day scavengers—whether at thrift shops or in Dumpsters or in CurbCycle groups or at yard sales—are in some sense hunter-gatherers. Define hunting-gathering as foraging, taking what comes. Define it as sublimating choice to the bigger thrill of chance. It translates to saving money and potentially working less. It translates to dodging whatever market sector some genius thinks you belong to. Modern scavenging means wearing discards cast off by a throng of strangers, thus you can’t be deciphered. You are the mystery. Hunting and gathering downtown, eyes to the ground in an urban landscape, the authors of this book found, in one week: a pearl-and-amber earring, four free-sample cans of pomegranate soda, two empty wire-handled five-gallon plastic vats, three bus transfers worth twenty-five cents apiece, a mysterious doohickey that turned out to be a digital pedometer, eighty-seven cents in change, and a ten-dollar bill. One day we plucked a clutch of perfumey, fuzzy-fleshed, creamy-meated Chinese loquats from a dark-leafed tree. Some days we find nothing. Last Saturday we bought an electric hedge trimmer at a yard sale for two bucks. Later that day, in a box marked FREE, we found fourteen shirts. We go days at a span without even opening our wallets. Our garden grows with scavenged seeds. Sometimes we do not know what they are when we plant them and find out only when plants come up: tomatoes, collards, tomatillos, parsley, three kinds of bok choy. You never know.
That is the point.
That is the challenge and the payoff and the thrill of scavenging: the never knowing, then the accidental reward. And can you handle the unknown?
In a paved-over world, the modern scavenger reclaims discovery.
The modern scavenger reclaims the quest.
WE, THE AUTHORS Of THIS BOOK, have scavenged for as long as we can remember. We didn’t know each other when we were kids—lived in different cities far apart, though contemporaneously. Yet each of us, in his or her own way, was foraging, scrounging, saving, and repurposing practically as soon as he or she could walk and talk. One of us lived near a beach and was frequently taken there. Found shells, smooth pebbles, sea glass, driftwood, sand, and dried seaweed turned into countless dollhouse furnishings and early art projects even before the first day of first grade. Another of us lived in a town studded with hippie communes, whose residents demonstrated how to construct furniture from scrap wood and to pick plums from sidewalk trees. One of us was mocked by classmates for picking up spare change from the street or sidewalk. The other one searched for coins at the feet of parking meters first thing in the morning in order to buy lunch at school. Ten years before we met, both of us bought metal detectors, in both cases the cheapest Radio Shack model. One of us trolled the beach. The other trolled parks and playgrounds. In college, still not having yet met, we filled our closets with thrift-shop clothes, our shelves with secondhand textbooks, and our fridges with leftovers from the restaurants where we worked. Once we met, neither of us ever had to explain or apologize to the other for bending down to pick up coins or standing on tiptoes to peer inside Dumpsters. In all these years, choosing the least expensive item, place, or option has never sparked a spat. We do not socialize with others much, for better or worse. We know that, behind our backs, others surmise that we are parsimonious or poor. Or they remember encounters like this: One day we were at the home of a friend when she realized that she needed to jot a quick note for the postal carrier. A trash bag at her feet was full of scrap paper on which she could have jotted it: torn envelopes, wrappers, receipts. Rather than grab one of these and scribble the note on it, she sighed, strode over to a desk, opened a drawer, and pulled a sheet of thick, expensive stationery from a silver box. Upon this creamy monogrammed sheet, she scribbled: “Leave packages on porch.” “Okay,” she said, and stood.
We gazed at her as if she were an alien.
She gazed back at us the same way.
We blanched at her brash, mindless, needless waste. A perfectly good sheet of blank paper.
And she thought: What?
Sometimes scavenging is the Great Divide.
WE BRING plastic bags everywhere we go, folded small, tucked into pockets, because we never know what we might find. They’re especially handy for fruit gleaned from the innumerable sidewalk trees in our neighborhood. We do know: Free is the best price.
Not all scavengers scavenge with the same goals in mind. Yes, we want free stuff—or at least cheap stuff. From that point on, we diverge.
SOME SCAVENGE for fun. Some scavenge to save. Money. The world. While millions all around us drown in debt, we liberate ourselves with every cent we save while liberating tons of would-be garbage. We know that the difference between brand-new, full-price products and their scratched secondhand counterparts is—
Some scavenge to recycle. Repurpose. Reduce. Reuse. They know that some 254 million tons of trash is thrown out every year in the United States alone. In New York City, 64,000 tons per week.
Some scavenge to revolt.
Some scavenge to survive.
Some scavenge for the sake of spontaneity. The long-forgotten magic of the random.
Some scavenge for art. Some scavenge for adventure. Some scavenge for self-sufficiency. For some, scavenging is a test. For some, it’s spiritual.
We do not all scavenge for the same reasons, yet we share certain understandings, certain values, certain principles. We share a way of life. A way of looking at the world. Having, each of us, shattered the chains that locked us to consumer culture, we walk free under a clear new sky, scanning a changed terrain studded with buried treasure.
This book is our manifesto and our map.
We seek but do not always find. This makes each find a miracle.
CONSUMER CULTURE causes atrophy. Instant gratification renders the gratified lazy. Weak. Incurious. Consumers say they would never be scavengers because—they say—they could not stand the sacrifice. They say, I deserve better. They say, I deserve the best. They say, I love myself too much to collect junk.
We will not let ourselves be told what is worth what.
THIS MIGHT BE the last book you ever buy.
The Philosophy of
ON A HOT SUMMER SATURDAY, WE ARE RUSHING—late—to a family birthday party. We are rushing; we’ve told each other: Not one more delay. But then we see a yard-sale sign.
And wordlessly we diverge from our route, follow the arrow on the sign and arc left to where we see balloons and clamor halfway down the block, and ahhh.
It’s not just any yard sale but a big one, stretching from the sidewalk, where blue satin cushions lean against a stop sign, up a driveway studded with chairs, and across a front lawn strewn with clothes, books, tools, kitchenware, toys. As luck would have it, this yard sale is ending just as we arrive. From her porch, the seller announces that the sale is over and that everything remaining is now free for the taking.
Not all sales end this way. Some sellers pack their unsold stuff back up and haul it inside or drive it to Goodwill. Some, though, give it all away. When word gets out, a buzz goes through the air and everything speeds up. Hands dart. Receptacles are sought to hold the DVDs, the baseball mitt, the vase.
This is a free-for-all.
At any free-for-all, you can immediately spot the inexperienced. Gobsmacked, they hover over pomanders and clocks but reach for nothing, as if fearing germs or tricks or that they will be called thieves.
And you can spot the scavengers. We glide, our movements purposeful and lithe. Our eyes cut wide arcs, back and forth. We gaze from side to side, like lighthouse beacons, even as we kneel and reach with one hand for shirts—stripes, button-down, yes—and with the other for swim goggles, garden gloves, a blender. Yoink! Into the backpack pops the spoon, the copper horse, the coffeepot. Quick. Competent. Assess each item in a nanosecond. Do I want this? Do I need it? Show it to a friend and ask: Do you?
We will be late to the family party. And when we get there and they ask why we are late and we say we were scavenging free clothes and toys and kitchenware from a stranger’s front lawn, they laugh. When they see we are serious, they withdraw from us with shocked looks and ask: But why? Wasn’t it dirty? What if someone bled on those shirts? What if someone cooked meth in that coffeepot? What if the blender’s broken? Can’t you afford new goggles?
Oh, that. We hear it all the time.
What if it doesn’t fit?
What if it’s dented/scratched/stained/faded/ripped?
Wouldn’t you rather just go to a store and buy the exact color/ size/style/components that you like best?
What are you going to do with that?
Do you even know what it is?
DON’T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD
Admit that you have scavenged anything and you can automatically expect questions. Misconceptions. Misperceptions. Even accusations. Thousands of years of prejudice die hard. Most non-scavengers—we call them standard consumers—recoil at the very thought of not buying things brand-new at full price. They never question this. Standard consumers presume that theirs is the only way to acquire, that any other way reeks of squalor or theft.
How do we tell them how it is for us? How do we tell them that, for us, old stuff and stuff that has been owned before acquires a patina composed of history and mystery, almost a soul? How do we say that a shiny new nickel is just cash to us but an oxidized greenish 1954 nickel, worn so smooth that Thomas Jefferson lacks eyes, excites us, sets our minds skittering up and down the years, wondering, Who held this coin, where, when, why? How do we tell standard consumers that new merchandise bores and depresses us? That mass production makes them into drones? How do we tell them we despair for those who spend sixty-five dollars at the store on the same shirt that costs (or will, within a year) three dollars at the thrift shop? How can we explain the size of landfills, the amount of solid waste now littering the Earth? Do we cite findings by the Clean Air Council that every American alive discards fifty-six tons of trash per year? Do we mention the millions of pounds of trash floating on the seas? Do we say that, by scavenging, we can make a dent in these figures?
How do we tell them we appreciate our scavenged goods in ways they cannot possibly appreciate their brand-new full-price purchases? How can we say that every scavenged item came to us in a unique, often unexpected way, so each one adds another story to our lives? How can we say: Full-price shopping is easy, but scavenging takes talent, luck, skill, and expertise? Thus every scavenged item is a reward or a miracle. How can we explain that not paying full price for things gives us the best assessment of true value: we appreciate our scavenged goods not for how much they cost us but for what they have been through and what they are.
How can we tell standard consumers that every saved penny counts, that saved pennies add up? They call us cheap. They call us poor. Yet the average standard consumer carries a four-figure debt. How can we make them understand that they accumulated these debts by paying full price? How can we say: What would you prefer—discount-outlet food, library DVDs to watch, and no debt; or restaurant food, cinema tickets, and debt? How do we show them that what they would call insufferable sacrifices set us free?
Do we say: We shrink landfills?
Do we say: We are archaeologists?
Do we say: Not buying at full price makes us creative, independent, self-sufficient, clear-sighted, communitarian, appreciative, liberated, and adventurous?
Do we say: Finding stuff is fun?
Do we say: Money saved is money saved?
Wait. We just did.
FINDING AS IDENTITY
We always find stuff. We two authors. Us.
We find stuff everywhere: some of it you would want, some you would not. The Ray-Ban sunglasses. Ripe apricots. The life-sized lifelike rubber vampire bat, with rubber string for easy, bouncy hanging. None of it our choice, but that’s the point. We find it, but more likely it finds us. Sometimes we feel like it’s almost cosmic, like we’re plugged into some kind of magic network, like we find certain stuff at certain times for certain reasons. Shhh, though. That’s too weird. Don’t tell.
We pluck nickels from gutters, toasters from thrift-shop shelves, and Kate Spade bags from other people’s trash. When one of us was six, her father asked what she would be when she grew up. She said she didn’t know. A nurse, her father said, a ballerina? She said no. He snorted: Okay then—a beachcomber? He was trying to be sarcastic. She took it as instructions. Okay, Dad! Imagining the palm-frond hat, the shack.
It has come true.
Scavenging, finding the slightly damaged radio, the box of wartime-Tokyo photographs, feels like rescue, feels like recovery, feels like discovery.
It feels like victory.
Some scavenged finds feel like gifts whose meaning—hmmm, a deck of transparent playing cards—we will someday grasp. This makes them numinous. If we have any faith, it is in luck. Everyday grails. Some scavengers procure commodities: they barter and resell. For some, scavenging is an ethos, not a source of income but an income extender, just as Hamburger Helper extends ground beef. The more we find, the less we buy.
Some, like us, can’t bring ourselves to eat food rescued from Dumpsters; others don’t flinch. We all have our limits. But still: