IT was the most wonderful time of the year. Hearts were glowing and good cheer was flowing and friends were coming to call. It was, without a doubt, the hap-happiest season of all.
It was, after all, a hot summer night in August in the upper the west side of Manhattan, and the law students were moving out.
They were done. Articling: over. Law school: complete. Student life: ended.
The small but celebratory crowd gathered on the sidewalk outside the law school dormitories that night, though, could not have cared less whether the law students had passed their bar exams or not. They were a group of dumpster divers on bicycles and their eyes were twinkling and their spirits were high.
When law students move out of ivy-league school dormitories, they know what that means. It means cash-money.
Perhaps more so than in many other cities in the United States, dumpster divers in New York City can live off of the scraps and the dregs. Digging through commercial dumpsters behind organic food boutiques in Brooklyn yields seemingly endless supplies of raw organic kale salads and Kombucha. Cases of wheatgrass shots are stacked behind juice bars. Shampoos, razors, and Band-Aids are in no short supply outside the corner pharmacy. And when one needs furniture, they need only wait until the first of the month, when the curbside swells with discards as people pack up and move on.
But the pros know that the real crème-de-la-crème happens but once per year, one special weekend in mid-summer. Penciled neatly on any serious dumpster diver’s calendar are the dates set by the New York State Board of Law Examiners for the New York State Bar Exam.
Over eleven thousand students wrote the bar exam in New York state in the last two days of July 2013, and nearly ninety percent of them passed, going on to new lives and new careers and new prospects. These newly minted career men and women are leaving their student life behind–and they are packing it up in piles and piles of black plastic garbage bags.
Sweeeeeeeeet! A call rings out from one side of the great mountain of garbage on the sidewalk outside the dormitory. It is my roommate, Tad, and he has found another bag filled entirely with law textbooks. He sells used books on Amazon to pay rent.
I find a new Samsung cell phone, its charger carefully wrapped around it. Melissa finds an iPhone. Tad is stoked that he found a complete Hannah Montana Halloween costume and is parading around in a mask. Mitch is tired from all the digging and sits down on the sidewalk to eat some scavenged organic granola bars and pineapple. “Do you need some toilet paper?” he asks, offering us one of the many fresh, still packaged rolls he has found so that we can wipe pineapple juice from our fingers.
The bags are stacked on top of each other as though part of a containment wall in a coastal town preparing for a flood. Like a long dam of sand bags, they are lined up along the sidewalk in the dim evening light.
We have distributed ourselves on either side of the wall, each positioned at our own unique port-of-entry for the excavation, our headlamps alight. Each knot is carefully tied and untied, and bags already sorted through are piled separately. They all look the same, spare the desks, lamps, mops, and framed pictures poking out from the plastic escarpment.
Stuffed full like sacks of presents, the bags are bursting with binders, books, kitchenware, and bedding, along with unused aerosol cans of Evian Facial Spray (for “Mineral Water Skin Rehydration”), cases of unopened bottles of Pellegrino, and skirt suits on hangers, tags attached. There are at least a dozen toaster ovens and more chocolate Easter bunnies than one could count.
Dumpster diving is legal in the United States unless specifically prohibited by local laws. A 1988 Supreme Court Decision addressed the privacy concerns that arise from strangers digging through other strangers’ trash. “It is common knowledge that plastic garbage bags left on or at the side of a public street are readily accessible,” asserted the ruling, “to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public.”
Tonight, these scavengers are activists, anarchists, or counter-cultural riffraff of some form or another. While it is exciting to find so much free stuff (so much that the group pools cash to hire—and fills to the roof—an SUV taxi to take the extra loot home), I find myself depressed. It’s relentless. Each new bag contains yet another story of waste and frivolity.
A grad of an ivy-league New York City law school will earn an average starting salary of $160,000 (and 97.7 percent of them will be employed after graduation). It comes as no surprise that the IKEA furniture and student kitchen supplies are no longer of use to them. Something seems amiss, though, when the contents of entire apartments end up trashed, tossed into bags as haphazardly as when someone might hurriedly pack a suitcase if their house was on fire.
Every year, New Yorkers toss out fourteen million tons of garbage, a quarter of which comes from homes and public buildings, collected from the curb. Most ends up on dump trucks, then on bigger dump trucks, and eventually in landfills as far away as South Carolina, Ohio, or Virginia.
The New York system of curbside collection makes it difficult for the city or businesses to stop dumpster divers. Bags are heaped on sidewalks—public spaces—rather than stashed in locked dumpsters on private property—so it is free reign for the salvagers. Etiquette applies. Don’t make a mess, or things will get a whole lot more difficult in the future.
A new pile emerges on the sidewalk—our bounty. A few passersby step daintily around our heaps: cleaning supplies, books, movies, bags of chips, bottles of wine, blenders, shampoos, bags and bags of clothes. “Shit, that’s all from the trash?” says one man as he walks by. “That’s crazy!”
“Yeah,” we say, “it sure is.”
After hours of sorting along two streets’ worth of bulging sidewalk heaps, we are ready to go home. We load up the taxi and then our bicycles and walk them to the subway; the bikes are far too overloaded with bags hanging from the handlebars and boxes attached by bungee cords. Tad is already talking about the next round of move outs—a law school in Brooklyn next week. When I wake up the next morning, he is still standing triumphant in the kitchen amidst his loot, digging and sorting.
Weeks later, toaster ovens still tower over the kitchen, one on top of the other. They are stacked up, says Tad with a laugh, so we can test them all out and see which one works best. Their previous owners, I can only assume, have newer and better ones by now, but these all seem just fine to me.
Sharon Riley lives in Montréal. Her writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Harper’s Magazine online, and Utrikesperspektiv (in Sweden), among others. She has eaten a lot of trash.