The Joys of the Dumpster Dive 

Leaving the Rat Race to Race the Rats

There’s something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while, and more and more in the past few weeks. But I’ve been a little squeamish, because I want to talk about happiness. I’m a New Yorker, and happiness isn’t high on the list of NYC priorities — it never has been. Happiness is for hippies, religious types, people who live in the country or college towns and bake their own bread, or participate in community theater. In New York we compete. We spend money on things that make us more culturally au courant, things that make us more attractive, things that impress the people around us. As a kid I was encouraged to start my own business (I was but 10), to become a Supreme Court justice, to go to Spence, Exeter, Harvard, to study abroad, and to learn the difference between cocktail attire and formal. But I don’t ever remember anyone telling me to try to be happy. Or that any of the above could or would or should make me happy.

Now, in my 30s, I’ve finally figured out why: none of these things will make you happy. They CAN make you happy, but it’s not built into the program. And at best it’s a fleeting happiness.

In my travels and travails as an “environmentalist” or whatever you want to call it, I’m often asked if all the ridiculous, labor-intensive, self-denying things I do don’t make me feel bad. You know, recycling water to flush the toilet, giving up meat, giving up plastic, wearing second-hand clothes, drinking tap water, composting, doing unpaid volunteer work, digging through trash for food and furniture, hanging laundry out to dry. The amazing (to other people) answer is no. All these things are, in their own ways, fun, or at least well worth the effort (super-stinky compost bucket aside). But in the last month or so, I’ve gone deeper into my “kooky” environmentalism, and I’ve discovered an entirely new level of action, and attendant to it, a new kind of happiness. I’ve crossed the Rubicon, brothers and sisters, and I ain’t ever going back.

Two weeks ago my friend Catherine and I were doing an intense trash dive through a Manhattan supermarket’s leavings. We talked merrily with other trash pickers. There were bags and bags of pristine potatoes, and when a nice looking woman in a minivan stopped at a red light mere feet from us I held one up and asked her if she wanted some free spuds. After a moment’s hesitation, she took the bag, and asked what we were doing. Then she pulled over, intrigued by the boxes and bags of produce we were holding up. She told us she was a teacher, and began filling the back of her car with salad and vegetables she was going to take to her fellow teachers, while we told her about food wasted, freegans and how easy it is to feed oneself out of the trash.

Later that night, as I unpacked my treasures and bored Mr. Objector with the story of this conversion experience, I realized that I had enjoyed that evening more than I had ever enjoyed a conventional shopping experience, of any kind. I enjoyed it more than any Broadway show or play I’d ever attended. I enjoyed that food more than I’ve ever enjoyed food I’ve paid for. I would have paid someone to be as happy as I was that night, but I didn’t have to.

As regular readers know, I’ve been doing a minute amount of volunteer work, walking dogs at my local shelter. I look forward to it the way I used to look forward to $12 cocktails, or $15 yoga classes, but it’s free, and I don’t have to dress up. I’ve been telling friends that I‘m walking dogs instead of taking antidepressants, and it’s true. The more I do and the less I spend, the better I feel. And I won’t even go into the hours I don’t have to spend in a soul-sucking office, earning money to buy the food/clothing/entertainment that barely takes the edge off the misery that builds up… sitting in the office. It’s a vicious cycle, kinda like end-stage capitalism.

Step off the wheel my friends. You’re gonna have to trust me on this one: like sex, you won’t get it until you do it. But it just might blow your mind when you do.

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