Depression-Era Dumpster Food
I am so tired at the moment that I reached over and took a swig out of a bottle of Lizano sauce by accident. I nearly threw up on my keyboard, but the shock of pouring thin vegetable glop down my throat zapped me into semi-wakefulness. I think I might be confusing my awareness of my gag reflex with consciousness, though, because nothing else about me seems to be all that together. You are probably thinking that my typing of these sentences is proof of my being awake, but it took me over ten minutes to hammer these out in between bouts of slack-jawed near-drooling. Don't let appearances fool you.
Anyway, as I was drifting off to sleep just before the Lizano sauce incident, I was having this dream about dumpster diving. Back in the early- and mid-1990s, I used to dumpster dive all the time. My reasons for dumpster diving changed depending on my economic status at any given point. At times, I did it for survival, and, at others, I did it for creature comforts like clothing and furniture.
Like any other skill, I became pretty good at it after a while. When I was hungry, I knew which dumpsters had the best produce, which ones the best bread. This was before stores started pouring bleach over the food they threw out and locking the bins. One grocery store in particular often had fantastic fruit, only slightly bruised, and they threw their old bread on top of everything else. I think the employees did that so the bread wouldn't be crushed by the time people like myself came by to find breakfast.
My decision to eat out of dumpsters on occasion was not one I made lightly. I had some fairly severe economic pressure at some points, and the food bank only allowed you to get free groceries every two weeks, which groceries might only be a combination of day-old donut holes, a tomato, a loaf of bread, and some peanut butter. Unless I went on some kind of radical diet, the groceries from the food bank were not always plentiful enough to sustain me beyond a couple of days. The kindly woman who stamped my card there told me where the soup kitchen was, but I couldn't bring myself to sit at long tables with so many other people in my situation. It reminded me of how animals raised for slaughter are fed.
I wasn't alone in my pursuit of free food. A couple of people I knew found an amazing pile of gorgeous fruit and boxes of crackers one morning, and we invited all our hungry friends together to feast on peaches, strawberries, apples, kiwis, and coarse crackers after a huge bowl of lentils and tomatoes had been downed. It took the depressing edge off to share with everyone like that. Afterward, when most of the guests had gone home, I remember sitting on the back stoop with the stragglers smoking hand-rolled cigarettes while the sun set over the freeway. I felt fat and rich and sad that the night would end the day.
I don't think that I have ever been happier about food in all my life than when it was scarce. Corn was sweet, peanut butter was caviar, and fruits I had never enjoyed before became fleshy chunks of momentary bliss. Food was not about fulfilling unnecessary whims anymore, like the desire for sweet or salty; food was good to find, and it was a joy especially when it was good enough to eat.
On the other hand, I don't think that I have ever been sadder about food in all my life. When my next visit to the food bank was a week away and the only food in the dumpster was one uncrushed bread loaf and some slimy celery and I had to spend 35 cents of my last dollar on a package of ramen noodles, the same noodles that had been my staple for two weeks and were making me ill, I cried about it. It was getting dark that night, and I was so damn sad. If I could have been richer and more functional, I would have, but I wasn't. I was a pathetic freak snuffling her nose against her sleeve behind a dumpster in an alley. I didn't want to be there. There is relatively little glamour in poverty.
Luckily, I was not at that level for very long. For the life of me, I can't remember how I got there or how I got out, but soon enough I wasn't making my dumpster rounds anymore, and I didn't have to consider that when it came time for supper. I also stopped liking certain fruit again that had become so precious for a while, and I ate alone far more often than not after all the community food sharing that had been temporarily commonplace.
One hand gives, and the other takes away.
I realized this afternoon that you can't be grateful for the same thing over and over and over forever. We are animals that easily grow bored with repetition, because doing the same thing again and again tells us that we have not gone anywhere. It's how we learn, and we become less than our best selves without variety. I would have withered against the repeated excitement of eating something that was not bruised or bread that was not too stale. It is too narrow a focus to nose around one joy every day, and it would have sapped the humanity right out of me, as it would anyone, I suppose.