Go ahead--throw away your life.
When you do, it's a cinch John Hoffman will be around to pick up the pieces.
"Americans are so dumb, they waste so much, that a clear-headed individual who practices a little common sense can make a killing," says Hoffman, a mental-health counselor who spends about an hour a day poking through Dumpsters. "I never buy clothes, I never buy furniture and I never buy food. Our society has become so wasteful and so consumer-oriented that we've got the best garbage in the world."
If anyone should know, it's the twentysomething Hoffman, who, when not trashing society, is digging through society's trash. During two decades of diving, Hoffman has reportedly unearthed such diverse treasures as 12-dozen long-stemmed roses, jewelry, several housefuls of furniture, cash, color television sets, guns, plants, appliances, toys, videotapes, prescription drugs, toiletries and enough food to stock a grocery store, as well as coupons entitling him to free services ranging from an oil change to photocopying.
Author of the just-published The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving ($12.95, Loompanics Unlimited), Hoffman advocates Dumpster diving for the common man as a hedge against inflation. A combination autobiography (Hoffman is descended from a long line of Dumpsterphiles) and how-to manual, the book outlines diving technique, highlights Dumpster hot spots and even features recipes for Dumpster cuisine.
The book also explodes more than a few Dumpster myths: In nearly 20 years of ferreting through trash, Hoffman has only encountered one rodent. And never once has he found that stereotypical Dumpster staple, the skeletal fish with xs for eyes.
Actually, dirty diapers, watermelon rinds, eggshells and coffee grounds have little place in Hoffman's Dumpster demimonde. "Dumpster diving does not mean scavenging amid somebody's kitchen scraps, consuming half-rotten, half-eaten chicken legs la Hefty bag. Yes, some people do that--and those people need a hot shower and mental healthcare, badly."
Although he never rules out any Dumpster (he once "dove" a cemetery where he found a bunch of flowerpots), Hoffman spends most of his time casing "hot" Dumpsters behind retail outlets like bakeries, supermarkets and bookstores.
"I have a busy life; this isn't all I do," explains the pseudonymous Hoffman (an homage to the late hippie activist Abbie Hoffman), who works in a Texas city he will not identify for fear of losing his job. "But if I have to go up and get some gas, yeah, I'll drive behind the store and check out the Dumpsters while I'm there."
Despite his affinity for castoff culture, the scavenger warns that "Dumpster diving is a way of life, not a way to stay alive." Don't quit your day job.
"The best way to profit from all this incredible stuff people throw in Dumpsters is to have a nice mainstream job as a back-up," cautions Hoffman. "That way you have a steady income to take care of your major purchases, things you can't possibly find in Dumpsters."
Whatever that might be.
"Just when I think there's something that will never turn up in the Dumpster, I find that item or hear about someone else who's found it." So says Hoffman, who put a computer high on that list until recently learning that a fellow diver had uncovered a fully functional word processor.
"Actually, you tend to find the things you're looking for," he continues. "I don't drink, so I mentioned in the book that you rarely find any alcohol in the trash. Since writing that, I've been looking a little harder, and now I'm finding bottles of liquor all the time." A third-generation diver, Hoffman claims he's been dining out on society's waste his entire life. Raised on a farm in the Midwest, he literally learned Dumpster diving at his father's knee. "For approximately two decades, my family lived what I will describe as a 'maximum diving lifestyle,'" reports Hoffman, explaining that the clan tapped into an entire underground economy fueled largely by society's castoffs. "On paper, at least, it looked as if we had nothing," he recalls. "When I applied for a college scholarship, the school had an 'ability to pay' scale that ranged from zero to ten. I was automatically assigned a zero, and someone in the administration office told me that if there had been a negative scale, I'd probably have ranked about minus-16--they should have paid me to go to the school. "But the funny thing was that, because we were divers, my family wanted for nothing," he recalls. "There was so much food, we were always giving it away or bartering it for something else."
Given his background, Hoffman has a hard time understanding why supermarket shoppers pay top dollar for what is essentially the same food he's able to salvage out behind the store for free.
"People fear garbage vastly out of proportion to its real danger," he theorizes. "They're obsessed with this idea that if you dig around in garbage, you're sure to catch a disease. Never mind that sanitation workers throw this stuff in trucks every day of their lives and they never get sick. Never mind that a kindergarten teacher has a far greater chance of contracting a respiratory infection than a Dumpster diver like myself. Look at me--I've been eating out of Dumpsters for years, and I'm still alive to tell the tale."
And, thanks to the wastefulness of the nation's grocery stores, he's been eating quite well. Because many supermarkets routinely discard slightly bruised fruit and produce, discontinued products, cans and boxes that have been torn or dented and a variety of other products that have outlived their expiration dates, Hoffman maintains that the diligent diver need never go through anything but the express lane again. "Practically everything I eat comes from a Dumpster," says Hoffman. Sounding like a zonked-out Heloise, he boasts of how he pared a five-pound block of moldy cheese to three pounds of fromage bliss; of how he used a simple can opener to transform a bulging can of fermenting fruit into delicious "peach liqueur"; and how, thanks to "the lovely, complicated world of garbage," his family gorged on four truckloads of grapes during a Chilean grape scare a few years back.
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"If you're a diver, food scares can be great," explains Hoffman. "It's one thing if you read in the media reports not to eat Brand X soup, lot 6. But who knows where grapes come from? Nobody knew, so the stores were throwing out all kinds of grapes."
His book does offer several specific Dumpster-dining caveats. Hoffman advises freezing and/or cooking all meat to kill any possible bacteria. Readers are also warned never to eat the contents of any bloated can that contains meat or any trace of meat product, such as pork and beans. Ultimately, he says, common sense should dictate the answers to most to-eat-or-not-to-eat dilemmas.
"You should always look at the food you're about to eat, whether you found the food in a Dumpster or bought it at the store," he says. "When I open a can--any can--I always look at it, smell it, maybe pour it in a bowl and stir it up a little. If it looks good, I eat it. If it doesn't, I don't. Some people think that I'm crazy for eating food I've found in a Dumpster. But believe me, I'm not eating rotting meat."
After reading Hoffman's book, some of his critics may be eating crow--particularly if they're among those people who routinely pitch anything and everything into the nearest trash can, with little thought about the ultimate consequences.
"Many people mistakenly believe that if they throw something into a Dumpster, it's like casting it into a volcano," says Hoffman. "They honestly believe that once something is in that Dumpster, it will never again be seen by the human eye." Wrong. During his daily dives, Hoffman claims he routinely unearths credit cards, job rsums, drivers' licenses, bank books and even blank checks--oftentimes carelessly deep-sixed in one tidy package.
"Of course, the people who throw this stuff away are the same people who later wonder how their bank account was mysteriously drained," says Hoffman. "When I find that someone has thrown away stuff like this without making any attempt to destroy it, I'm often tempted to go to their homes, wave the checks in their face and bawl them out for being so damned dumb.