The rules of the game: Go slow. Have a station wagon.
Spring cleaning means it's high season for dumpster diving. "It's like shopping at a thrift store," Mary says. "You can't be looking for something specific." But while on the road with veteran divers Mary and Tony, who are as blasé about the sport as one might be about clipping one's toenails, you quickly learn that diving is more than looking for stuff, though it is that: You're also looking for fragments of day-to-day social history, clues about how everyday people live their lives. It's contemporary archaeology, a surreptitious backyard dig for items that are often less than spectacular, yet...telling.
"There's always stuff to look at, even if you don't find anything you want," Mary says, lifting the lid on another dumpster. "Let's see how full these are...oh, yeah. These are full." Full of what? Ten old ristras, brown with age ("I bet you could plant the seeds," says Mary), a bird feeder and a broken sprinkler that looks like someone got mad at it and broke off a piece. But down the street, between Fourth and Fifth avenues and Lafayette and Humboldt streets, we hit a social-history jackpot. We've got space heaters, adding-machine paper, a whole box of jumbo paper clips, a pile of phone-cord extension wire, nicely bound old check ledgers from a San Francisco firm, a vintage-look Caledonian Railway golf poster, a brass fireplace screen and a carbon-monoxide alarm that goes off indiscriminately when you touch it. "Apparently it still works!" Tony declares.
Too bad it rained. But nonetheless this alley's smokin': We find an avocado-green trash compactor, a metal wheelbarrow and a bunch of hyacinth bulbs with the spent blooms lopped off, tossed casually over empty petunia flats. Another dumpster yields day lilies, thinned out of the beds. Here's a couch with all of its cushions -- a rarity, it seems. "It's not even wet," Tony says. There's a broken yard chaise with a perfectly sound green canvas cushion, which would go perfectly with the sound chaise with a torn cushion we found a few blocks back. We stop again. "This is fun because they are full," notes Mary. "But not full enough to take anything," adds Tony.
Hold it -- just down the alley, there's a filigree birdcage and a weathered hand-hewn hobby horse attached to a broomstick. Folk art for the garden. Across the alley we find a sad little rubber plant. "Is it real?" asks Tony. "I thought it was plastic." Mary, the sort of person who likes to rescue half-dead tomato plants from in front of the supermarket at the end of the season (they deserve a chance, too, don't they?), leaves it out on the ground, outside the dumpster. "Someone will take it, don't you think?" Mary also advocates scavenging other people's pulled-up weeds to throw on your compost heap. Just about anything has a potential second life in it.
For quality, the ritzy neighborhood north of Speer Boulevard and west of University Boulevard often offers fine pickings. But beware: The alleys are well-walled, and some people actually lock up their trash like rabbits in cages. We do spy a robin with something big in its beak. There's good scavenging, it appears, for the creatures here. But not for us. "We should head up the hill to Cheesman Park," Tony announces. "People are more casual about their trash up there," adds Mary. But look here: A jettisoned bike sticks out of a rollaway, parked just outside the Denver Country Club gates. Notes Tony: "The tire's still inflated -- that's a good sign."
Which offers better hunting, cans or dumpsters? Maybe dumpsters. "People get carried away when they throw things away in a dumpster," says Mary. "But you do have to look inside the dumpsters. That requires more time. Though on Capitol Hill, people will drape things over the top of the dumpster for you." In the old days, Mary used to drape herself over the tops of dumpsters to get a better look inside. "But I didn't climb in them," she assures. Nowadays, she's more discreet, though the trash she's just found isn't: "Somebody threw away a pair of toddler pants -- how can I put this delicately? -- that were pooped in. They looked perfectly fine, otherwise."
It's getting late. It's cold and windy. We spy other garbage-snoopers in the alleys. Time for hot chocolate. We head back to the fort.
One functional birdhouse.
One weathered hobby horse.
One portable phone.
One crazed carbon-monoxide detector.
One roll of fax paper, suitable for drawing.
One tangle of telephone cord.
One box of jumbo paper clips.
Several used hyacinth bulbs.
A partial case of barware.
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One blackboard/bulletin board.
Not bad, but Tony's reluctant to quit. Other alleys are calling, and the competition is moving in, quick. There's still good stuff out there. "Down there is where we found one of our stoves," he recalls reflectively. (It's a beaut, by the way -- a big porcelain number that's cozy in Tony's partly renovated kitchen-in-progress.) "And down there, we once saw a vacuum when we out for our run. But when we came back, it was gone. And we don't run that long."
"Serendipity is such a good part of this," Mary persuades. Uh-oh. Here's a car, moving slowly down the alley. "Beep beep," Tony proclaims. "Out of the alley please. This is not your alley!"