I’ve walked these streets before. I stand on a street corner in the West Village, home to stately brownstone mansions, New York University’s halls of learning, and Washington Square Park— the domicile in different eras to drug addicts and the ragged homeless; swirling Sufis, chanting supplicants
and Buddhist meditators; and college students poring over their textbooks.
I’ve walked these streets before. Decades ago, en route to NYU’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, where I pursued a Master’s in literature; years later to the Steinhardt Center for adult education classes, most recently to the modernistic structure housing a warren of offices belonging to literary agents, including my own. I’ve traversed the West Village countless times, but this is the first time I’ve come to this legendary neighborhood looking for garbage.
It’s ten o’clock on a Monday night, and I stand nervously with a gaggle of jeans-clad strangers. I am the only one in the group who is wearing a skirt, and I am also wearing—as an e-mail advised—thick rubber gloves on my hands, sturdy boots on my feet, and clothes “you don’t much care about.” A shopping bag that dangles from my arm carries the prescribed flashlight, a slew of heavy-duty trash bags, and, most important of all, extra-strength hand sanitizer. I’m armed and prepared to do battle with the capitalistic system that encourages so much unnecessary waste and mindless consumption; in other words, I’m ready to go …“dumpster diving.”
The newly-coined term—only a recent entrant into the nation’s ever-changing lexicon—sends shivers up my spine. Will I be expected to clamber over a slime-covered dumpster and literally “dive” into a sea of reeking, putrid garbage? “Not headfirst,” smiles Janet, one of the organizers of the trash tour.
“Relax,” she reassures me. “There are no dumpsters in the commercial areas we’ll be visiting tonight. By law, all the stores have to put their trash out on the curb in garbage bags. We won’t be foraging through dumpsters, only sifting through trash bags on the sidewalk.”
What a relief.
“Do people really dive into dumpsters?” I inquire.
“In other states, yes,” she nods. “We have it easy here in New York.”
“Can you imagine?” I try to engage a short Russian woman from Yonkers, whose name is Marianna. “People actually go into dumpsters,” I say incredulously.
She looks at me blankly. “What’s wrong with that?” she asks.
Welcome to Freeganism 1.1., a trash tour of lower Fifth Avenue’s finest garbage spots.
As we pan for gold on the brightly-lit sidewalks of Fifth Avenue (not anonymously in dark alleyways as I had fervently hoped) in full view of hordes of both inquisitive and scornful passers-by, I send a little prayer up to Hashem: My Father in Heaven, King of Kings: Please don’t let my son be on a shidduch date anywhere in the area tonight.
I first heard about “Freeganism” (the term combines the words free—as in “it’s free because it comes from a dumpster”—plus veganism—the movement that eschews all animal food products) last year, and my curiosity was piqued. Growing up in Boro Park at a time when Holocaust survivors were just beginning to rebuild and circumstances were far more pinched than they are today, the concept of bal tashchis was a constant drumroll on our youthful, impressionable minds, an ongoing refrain that tap-danced its way across our consciousness: Don’t waste this; don’t discard that. Use it up; squeeze out more.