Monday, August 01, 2005

The Case for Dumpster Diving

When I was a younger Meimei, there was nothing I enjoyed more than shopping. It didn't matter to me that I didn't work for my money since it all came from the good ol' Bank of Dad, as long as I was happy and surrounded by pretty things. This may have worked when I was in high school, but by the time I moved to Hawaii for college I had to face up to the fact that my allowance was not going to get any bigger any time soon. I thought that getting a job out of college would help me feel better about having my own money, but working long hours in a cubicle sometimes has a way of taking the joy out of a girl's life, and listening to other workers in my building talk about going to debt over shoes and logo bags only made me even more cynical.

Now that I'm a full-time grad student bankrolled (again) by the Bank of Dad, my shopping priorities have shifted to whatever gets me through the day. There's no time or space for me to spend money on "hot" brand-name clothes and shoes, especially if there's no other place to wear them than school, church, or the occasional dinner-at-a-restaurant. And while I can still drool over fashion spreads touting the Next Great Thing of Beauty, there's a part of me that laughs at the hype, knowing that I'll be able to get the knockoff at Wal-Mart or Ross in a matter of weeks - or get the real thing, at a deep discount, from Goodwill or a garage sale in a matter of months.

Which brings me to the matter at hand: dumpster diving.

Yes, it's not exactly the best way of doing things. Yes, I do this knowing that I may have to refurbish my finds on my own. And yes, I always ask before I take them away - Lord knows I've been in situations when I've had neighbors in my building give my luggage "the eye," even if I'm just rushing into my apartment to get spare change. But when it comes to a great deal, nothing's better than the ultimate four-finger discount.

This morning, for example, I was able to score not one but two Circulon-style pans that a neighbor had left nonchalantly on the sidewalk, along with some CDs, Tupperware, and a used iron. A few months ago, I was able to get a bookcase and a dining table after the landlords at the high-rise next door started throwing out the unclaimed furniture. More often than not, I'm never alone - on any given night (or day) I'm joined by people on my street who are always looking for new stuff to add to their rentals, and even a few "experts" on trucks who may end up reselling the stuff on deeper discount. With a little elbow grease, some of these finds may pass for something you'd find at a decorator's showroom.

"But you live in a nice neighborhood," you say. True, I would probably not have gotten anything of this caliber if I went looking for it at, say, the cul-de-sac where I used to live, with the flooding problem and the ice addicts. And yet I can't help but make up stories about the people who throw this stuff away. Maybe they got kicked out of the landlord on short notice. Maybe they had to go on the lam when they realized that the cops were on to them, and they had to get rid of the excess baggage. Identity theft? Drugs? Not paying rent?

The stories get wilder if I find them next to the nicer houses in the neighborhood. The leather sofa and glass coffee table was thrown out by a vengeful wife or lover scorned, who couldn't find the time to throw the garage sale after torching the car. The computer on the curb was a teenager's way of getting back at his folks - or could it be the other way around? Maybe the Salvation Army was supposed to pick up the drawers, but the truckers must've taken one look before saying "meh." Maybe that was the wide-screen TV that I saw at the apartment of one of the guys I dated, which probably expalins why he punked out on me. Or not.

It dosn't always have to be this dirty, though. Sometimes my neighbors would leave things that they don't want in the laundry room - a candelabra, some plates, a CD-ROM drive. A friend of mine, who's moving to the Mainland, ended up giving me tons of pillows, a DVD player, and some art supplies. The rest of the furniture in my apartment, in fact, came from a former tenant who disappeared one day, leaving the landladies with too much stuff that was too good to leave on the sidewalk. See, there are some things that don't have to go to waste.

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