By Ian Lovett
We start the walk back up 20th Pl. “I’m looking for a dresser, for my van,” Roger says. “Hopefully closer to Rose.” We don’t touch anything on this street. Most of the dumpster lids here hang open, raided of anything of potential value. Some of the worst crack addicts hang out on this block, he says. But he still walks by, just to check.
We wind up Pacific, down 19th, up Speedway. He doesn’t even touch anything til we get to 18th Pl—presumably out of the crack addicts’ territory. He opens the blue recycling containers looking for reading material. Usually, a glance is enough—he lifts the blue plastic lid with one hand, leans forward, and gently lowers the lid again. Occasionally, he reaches in, rearranging the cardboard or plastic bottles on top to see if there’s a magazine below, or removing a few glossy pages only to find a catalogue, not a New Yorker.
He leaves the trash containers beside the recycling untouched, but does lift the big metal dumpsters’ plastic lids—raising them with one hand, just as he does with the blue containers, peering in, very, very occasionally reaching his other hand inside to inspect something. “I don’t like to dig around in there too much,” he says.
I lift lids, too. I grab the handle between my thumb and forefinger, raising it up, peering in. If it looks like there’s something of interest, I’ll reach inside, unlearning a gamut of childhood lessons to reach my hands into strangers’ trash. I don’t want him to feel squeamish because I’m here—this is his livelihood, after all. Yesterday, he took a trip up to Santa Monica to collect palm tree bark, to make treasure maps for tourists. Early this morning, he collected shells on the beach—to make jewelry, or maybe to bury as treasure. And now, the recycling.
We keep winding our way back towards the lot at Rose. East on the even blocks, north on Pacific, west on the odd blocks, north on Speedway. Roger says he usually makes $15 or so off what he find here, but as we exit the numbered blocks, turning up Windward Ct, he still hasn’t deemed anything worth keeping. On Zephyr, we find a pile of Sports Illustrateds, months of issues some girlfriend or mother got sick of seeing piled on the floor. Roger collects them together at the top of the bin, but decides to leave them there. He’s not a sports fan.
Our first keeper comes in a dumpster on Horizon. “Hmm,” Roger says, smiling. He climbs up the dumpster to extract the prize, resting his waist on the edge while his torso dangles down inside. Once retrieved, he examines it—a wind chime, with metal tubes suspended from a wooden blue bird. He places it in the plastic bag with the shells he collected this morning and we keep walking. East, north, west, north.
At the corner of Breeze and Speedway, we see a kid—maybe 17 years old and sporting a small ‘fro—edging a dumpster away from the wall. He leans behind it and extracts four skateboards—all without wheels—then pushes the dumpster back flush with the wall. Roger says hello as we walk by—a polite, cursory greeting: hey, how are you, great, good to see you. He doesn’t know the kid’s name, but, like most people who live down here, he’s seen him around. The kid helps Vegan Man get his cart down to the boardwalk and set up in the mornings—Vegan Man has a bad back. I ask Roger where the kid stays. Roger doesn’t know, but the answer to the question is clear from what we’ve just seen. During the day, sometimes, Roger lets people without their own places leave stuff on top of his van. Or sometimes he let’s them just come sit in his van.
We keep walking, winding towards the lot. And we find everything. I actually find a dresser. But it’s wrecked—one of the legs shattered, two drawers missing. We find a woman’s suit jacket. And shoes. And a duffle full of clothes. A couple weeks ago Roger found the vest Scotty was wearing at the lottery this morning.
We find books, a few of which Roger keeps. We find a beautiful, hand-carved wooden door leaning up against the dumpster’s side. A computer keyboard. The box for a drill. Roger digs around in that container more than usual. “New drill means there’s an old drill somewhere,” he says. He might make sure to come back and check this same one next week. But for now, we keep walking.
“Cats,” says Roger, as we start up Park. Eight or ten empty tins sit at the bottom of the container—I don’t think I’d have noticed, or known what they were, but Roger identifies them right away. “At first you don’t notice the smell,” he says. “But once you see it, you start to pick up the smell too.” And he’s right—now I smell the cat food.
As we round the next corner, we find all the bins empty, lids hanging open—the garbage truck has beaten us to the punch. We catch up to it a few blocks later. The garbage men wear surgical masks and gloves. They pick up the bins by the handles and throw them into the compactor without so much as a glance at what’s inside, insulating themselves as much as possible from what’s around them, even the knowledge of what exactly it is.
What we’re doing, by contrast—actually looking through people’s trash—is incredibly intimate. When I say this to Roger, he agrees. “Yeah, I get to see how they’re doing. If it’s been a good month, I can tell. Or maybe the next month I see it’s getting a little tighter with money.” But it’s more than that—people’s whole lives are in here. What they eat, what they wear, what they bought this week, if they’re getting laid, when it’s that time of the month, and, perhaps most personal of all, what they do and do not value—it’s all right here in the blue and black plastic bins they set out once a week.
It’s no wonder Roger skips the cans if a tenet’s outside getting the paper or leaving for work. Even though he’s not doing anything wrong—he’s putting things to use that would otherwise go to a landfill—there’s still an invasion of privacy involved.
By the time we squeeze around the side of the hulking, beeping truck, we’re almost back to Rose, and Roger’s enthusiasm has waned. He peers inside, still, but stops digging around much. One dumpster at the corner of Speedway he skips altogether. “That’s usually a nasty one.” He laughs. “I don’t know, maybe it’s because it’s near the beach and people like to walk their dogs down here, but it’s always full of dog shit.”
We don’t find anything else, entering the lot with the bag of shells, the wind chime, and four books. In the shade between Roger’s van and Scotty’s, parked, as always, side-by-side at the south end of the lot, a few guys sit around, passing a joint. Roger hands out the books, in case anyone’s interested. Vince flips through the one about John Lennon, setting the others on the ground. Scotty and Guy begin drumming. Next door, outside his van, Prospector plays chess against a guy with no shoes, carrying a loaf of bread in a plastic bag. Someone must have delivered bread this morning—bagels are scattered all over the nearby grass, where the seagulls pick at them.
Roger steps inside his van and shuts the door. Privacy, here, is hard to come by. This van is the only place that’s his—it’s where he sleeps and eats and shits and stores his stuff and watches TV. Even there, people are constantly knocking on the side, asking if he wants to smoke a joint, or if they can store something, or have a sit, or follow him in the alleys looking through garbage. And yet, he doesn’t shy away, doesn’t pretend to be asleep or refuse to answer the sliding door.
He emerges again a few minutes later, dressed just as he was before, in a Lakers shirt and the same jeans and zip-up sweatshirt he always wears. He has no gloves, no mask. The goatee and slightly graying hair and those soft blue eyes are all in plain view.