I scramble through piles of things you would call trash. I excavate the treasures that most of the world is blind to. The civilized world teaches its children that “trash” is disgusting and diseased: a no-go zone to be shunned, perhaps even feared.
I am standing in the middle of a heap of trash next to the train station. The pile had probably started as a neat collection of boxes, filled with unwanted old clothes, papers, and knick knacks, placed on the curb to be picked up by the Sperrmüll company. But others had already riffled through it, letting sweaters and unopened bills lay where they fell. I already had two plastic bags full of winter clothing. They could use a wash, but were otherwise in good condition.
A few days before I had been contemplating what to do about winter clothing. I needed a few more sweaters and a warm coat. Buying them was out of the question. But, I thought, with winter coming, people would probably be tossing out-of-fashion summer items and unpacking last year’s coats and sweaters into their drawers. I have fallen far outside of the consumer loop. I had forgotten that the start of winter is when stores bring out new coats. The fashion-conscious unpack their old coat, think “Oh, that is so last year” toss it in the trash and buy a new one at McH&M.
A little girl walked by clutching her mother’s hand. Her mother’s step quickened when she saw me, and she looked away. The little girl stared open-mouthed. She was old enough to have already learned the trash=bad paradigm. And yet here was someone digging through piles of it in broad daylight, next to the most highly trafficked square in the city. And the person digging through the trash didn’t even look particularly hard up or scary. She looked kind of like her babysitter.
Her eyes were wide with questions, and her mother pulled her along behind her as the little girl tried to get a better look. The question in her eyes wasn’t “Why do people throw so much perfectly good stuff away?” but, if she had thought to formulate it in this way, probably “Why would someone do something that I have been taught is bad?”
I could wish that this question would result in the speedy realization that a lot of things that your parents and teachers tell you simply isn’t true, but it is more likely that the situation would end in a filing of the people who pick through trash in the same category as the trash itself. An untouchable, disgusting person that you should avoid talking to, or even looking at. People look at you like you’re contagious. Perhaps it’s true. Everyone I’ve ever taken dumpster diving has become terribly, irreversibly addicted, and it was this addiction that finally led to the question I wished the little girl had been asking herself. Words were never enough. Action always was.