Here is my essay from the book with slight formatting changes.
The Lawrence DMZ
Since 1999, there has been a large gently sloping field at the southeast corner of 9th and New Hampshire that’s big enough for a soccer field or amphitheater. The field is bordered on the south by the windowless wall of the Lawrence Arts Center and on the east by five small buildings, two of which are residential houses, while the other three used by a massage studio, the Lawrence Percolator and the Social Service League. Ever since the field appeared it has been an active place. There have been concerts (Wilco played there in 2008), Day of the Dead ceremonies, snow sculpture flash mobs, Arts Center classes, poetry readings, Art Tougeau parties, and countless games of tag and frolic. And in the spring it’s transformed into a carpet of first golden and then silvery dandelions, the perfect cover for neighborhood rabbits and other critters to mingle.
This open green space adjacent to downtown allows people as far away as Massachusetts Street a clear view all the way over to the Social Service League. It was this view that first enticed Earline James to visit the dumpster behind the League “I was working at SRS taking an exercise class. I’m driving to class and I stop at the stop sign at 9th and New Hampshire. I could see it (the dumpster) was just overflowing. And all through class I was thinking, I have to get back and check and see what’s in there.”
That was many years ago. Earline has been coming to the dumpster two or three times a week ever since. At first she was looking for metal to sell to supplement her income but now, in retirement, she comes because it gives her pleasure and a sense of purpose. Her regular visits and familiarity with Lawrence’s other thrift stores and recycling centers have made her an expert agent of redistribution. When she can’t use a thing, she moves it along to where it’s needed most. KT Walsh says Earline and others like her are on the front lines of the real reuse and recycling efforts, and that we should take notice because someday soon we’ll all depend on their ingenuity and thrift.
This standard two cubic-yard trash receptacle may not be the most beautiful of designs, but its invention was transformative. Patented in 1937 by the Dempster brothers, the dumpster (a portmanteau combining the surname Dempster with dump) allowed trucks to mechanically collect garbage from standardized containers, saving both time and space and improving public health. It also made the way for dumpster diving.
Visually, the League’s dumpster isn’t unique except for it’s ephemeral skin of Food Not Bombs fliers, and the small concrete pad it sits on giving it the appearance of a sculpture on a pedestal. The dumpster resides in the marginal space between downtown and East Lawrence, a kind of demilitarized zone between the tides of capitalism and the historic working-class neighborhood once (maybe still by some) thought of as ‘dangerous.’ KT Walsh sees this ‘inter-zone’ as healthy for the community because it brings people from different walks of life into contact with each other,
Over here you have these people who truly believe in the capitalist system and rely on that and do the capitalist dance. And over here you have people who have struggled for a long time. It’s all these people who make other people uncomfortable. And it goes both ways, you know. I think its good because you’re forced to see and I hope talk to people who are not like you who may not speak like you who’s everyday paradigm is different than yours.
The cycle, the flow, the give take give
“I came around to the idea that the flow is endless. There is no shortage. Just let it flow.”
- KT Walsh, Social Service League manager from 1992 to 1999
There are those who give, those who take and then there are those who do both give and take. These are the ones who find themselves, by choice or custom, swept into the current that maintains this small un-moderated gift economy.
Each week the dumpster fills with our unwanted, forgotten or slightly damaged surplus. Archeologically inclined daydreamers, treasure hunters and urban gleaners come to explore and reimagine its bounty. No one is in charge. There are no rules. And as Kelly Nightengale says, “If nobody’s making rules, then nobody’s breaking rules.” It’s anarchy - until Monday when city sanitation workers unceremoniously attach the dumpster to the back of a garbage truck and watch as it’s emptied.
The unspoken shared sense of caretaking that maintains the dumpster and its environs is apparent to Jean Ann Pike, the current and beloved manager of the Social Service League. “I’m really impressed with the people who root through the dumpster. There are so many people who go through it but there are never piles on the ground. Everybody is so good about keeping it up.” When I asked her why she thought people kept it up, she said, “ If you got something, you want to take care of it.” The moment we begin ‘rooting through’ the dumpster, we become implicated in its future health and vitality. Like a river we take fish from or a friendship we depend on, without our care and maintenance they deteriorate.
On its surface, this give and take may look unassuming, but self-regulating gift economies are a radical departure from the system we take for granted. Writer Lewis Hyde connects the dots when he says “both anarchism and gift exchange share the assumption that it is not when a part of the self is inhibited and restrained, but when a part of the self is given away, that community appears.”
Community appears at the dumpster. That’s why it’s so important and beloved and maybe even sacred if we use E. F. Schumacher’s definition, “Anything we can destroy, but are unable to make is, in a sense, sacred.”My friend Eric Farnsworth, who spends much of his free time enmeshed in gift exchanges like the Lawrence Fruit Tree Project, Farnsworth Bicycle Laboratory and Lawrence Percolator writes, “It comes back to an old idea: the quickest way to feel wealthy is to shift your focus onto the great abundance all around us. An act of generosity – a gift – is a very potent way to cause that shift to happen. I have no idea if people are looking around and deciding that being slightly more generous will make them slightly more happy, but I like to believe that such things are contagious, and might just be spreading.” Or as Lewis Hyde puts it, “ We do not deal in commodities when we wish to initiate or preserve ties of affection.”
“I’m ready to cut back, but I don’t want to do it until I know
that there’s somebody who will do it faithfully – like a job
or something. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about all those
hangers going to the landfill.” - Earline James
The gift is in the story
I take stuff to the dumpster for a couple of reasons. One is that I want to give the things away - not sell them, the other is that I want an excuse to go to the dumpster to see what and who’s there. Giving, an offering of sorts, is the gesture that signals one’s desire to enter the flow that is the give take give.
It’s like when you bring a dish to a potluck, the gift of a Jello salad or hummus dip expresses a desire to share time with the others there. The same is true with an engagement ring or buying a round of drinks, the gift giver in both is actually the one asking for something – companionship. The recipient, on the other hand, is the one who accepts the invitation by taking the gift. When we accept the offering, we begin a relationship.
This reminds me of a great short film I saw a few years ago called “Have You Seen This Man?” In the film, artist Geoff Lupo makes handmade fliers that advertise common items like a saltine cracker, a thumb-tack, and a pen cap. The curious respond to his ads and eventually meet him at his apartment to inspect the goods. Lupo plays it straight asking only for the thirty-five cents it was advertised for and a Polaroid photo with the buyers. He mentions that we use all sorts of elaborate conventions in order to meet other people and that his fliers are as good a way as any. He offers the gift of an experience. The payment for the cracker or pen cap is only a formality, a symbol for the more significant exchange taking place - an exchange that involves Lupo’s whimsical creativity and the ‘buyer’s’ adventurous spirit.
When I interviewed, Dr. Rachel Vaughn, who has written extensively about dumpster-diving , she described a similar story that took place at an auction house her parents used to run in Illinois. She said, referring to people who’s possessions were up for sale and how they attached short narratives to the price tags, “That’s the only way some people, in my experience, can part with a thing. It’s if the story goes along with it.”
What we look for and what we find
I have never found anything I was looking for in the League dumpster, but most of what I hope to find can’t be held in your hands. I go looking for a surprise, a sign, a poetic juxtaposition, a break from the literal and rational, a challenge, a missing piece, a story, a push, a friend. This puts me in one of the two main groups of people who frequent the dumpster – those looking for meaning. The other group comes looking for more practical things to sell or to use because they can’t afford or choose not to buy stuff. Our interests overlap and we end up giving and taking from each other, but our initial motivations are different.
Earline James spends most of her time looking for metal to sell to supplement her retirement income and plush items for cats and dogs that she helps take care of at the Humane Society. So Earline’s part of the that second group, although occasionally she stumbles into more ephemeral items, “I see all those cards and letters that belonged to someone. It seems kind of sad. So many people start journals, the first five or six pages. I take them home to read them – like a diary and you don’t even know who they were.” Like the Word Tamer from the movie Leoló, Earline bears witness to the words of others, trying to make meaning of them from afar.
When Kelly Nightengale, a community health worker from East Lawrence, tells her life story, the League dumpster appears again and again as a combined talisman, altar, and fashion outlet. For her “ Its more than a dumpster. Its like this whole expansion of culture, aesthetics, courtesy, relationships, and community that can really be an entire world.” Kelly is part of that first group like me looking for inspiration and meaning at the dumpster, but as she told me recently sometimes a doo-dad taken for its poetic charm can change your life in profound ways. Pointing to what looks like antique lapel pin she explains,
This is a needle threader. It’s a little silver oval shaped flat metal item with a small thin wire that you use to thread a needle. The great thing about this is that when I first found it, I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was some kind of decorative item, so I started making earrings out of them, necklaces, wearing them with a safety pin on my shirt. And then one day somebody said ‘Oh, that’s such a good idea what you’re doing with that needle threader.’
And these,” pulling some sheets out of her shoulder pack, “are pieces of tissue paper with color transfers on them. I didn’t know what they were. I found out later the way I did with the needle threader. You iron them onto cloth so you can embroider over them. Both the transfers and the needle threader inspired me to start embroidering. It’s truly changed my life. It made me feel like an artist when I didn’t feel like I had any artistic skills. And that happened because of the dumpster.
The alchemy and past lives of trash
Finding value and meaning from the League dumpster requires an open mind and a sense of purpose. For some this means how to make useful or profitable the castoff bits of capitalism’s over abundance, for others it means conjuring magic and a story from the lifeless leftovers, but for all it means reimagining and repurposing what’s found in ways that may not initially appear possible or practical. Out of need and inspiration, participants extract the hidden essences from discarded toys, trinkets and obsolesced technology, like alleyway alchemists, melding them to new purposes and identities.
This ‘garbage’, which can first appear drained of energy and usefulness, simmers under the surface with the residue of past lives and uses. Like the ruby slippers in the Wizard of Oz, the magic of the stuff in the dumpster stagnates without our active conjuring and belief. Reanimating a thing is done by reconnecting it to a story, like the folks at the auction house, and infusing it with new life and powers.
In Agnes Varda’s beautiful documentary film, The Gleaners and I, she meets the artist, Herve who goes by the moniker VR 99, at his studio in France. VR 99 repurposes found objects from the trash to embellish his paintings. As a self-proclaimed ‘retriever,’ he uses a city sanitation pick-up map to plan his gleaning trips. When Varda asks him about why he uses these cast-off bits in his art, VR 99 says, “What’s good about these objects is that they have a past, they’ve already had a life, and they’re still very much alive. All you have to do is give them a second chance.” He was speaking of objects, but I think this applies to many of the folks, struggling to make ends meet, who come to the dumpster hoping to find a second chance - like many of us.
Earline turns coat hangers into cash, Eric Farnsworth fashions hybrid cycling machines from what is at hand including retired furniture, and the Lawrence Percolator puts on a show every year called the Dime Bag Show that asks participants to make art out their League finds. It’s when we relinquish strict control over what we think a thing is for, and cast our fortunes to the fates, that we are opened to the possibilities that the dumpster holds. And sometimes it’s not the stuff that’s the draw. In the 1970’s, C.J. Brune says that activists would meet at the dumpster to “hang out and talk to friends about the speaker at the Union tonight or the latest demonstration.”
“It’s a cultural icon,” says KT Walsh, a place in public where chance meetings occur, conversations arise, and people who once passed each other without even a nod become familiar, adding a new link to the chain of relationships that give texture to the neighborhood . Community appears, or as Kelly Nightengale puts it, at the dumpster, “We’re all at the same party.”
A temporary autonomous zone of good will
Those of us who maintain the dumpster challenge the assumption that chaos will ensue without strictly enforced rules that govern how goods are used and distributed. “The little dumpster that could,” as Rachel Vaughn calls it, insists on being public, free and relatively unsupervised. It encourages a flow of gratitude and mutual indebtedness against the prevailing current of anxiety and suspicion that has led to building ever higher fences and installing security cameras on every corner. It is cared for by a loose affiliation of those of us who frequent it and is therefore vulnerable to our misuse. In other words, there is risk inherent in trust.
The dumpster will return to being filled with garbage if we don’t renew the source of its wealth. It is a temporary autonomous zone of good will, hidden in plain sight, which relies on collaboration and an extended network of givers and takers in order to thrive. If all we do is take and not give, it will disappear. If all we do is give and not take, it will become overwhelmed and unmanageable. We provide the current that moves things along.
By shedding light on the this little gem, I hope that others will be inspired to reflect on how gifts of labor, teaching and time, as well as things, can help bind us together in a connected circuit of good will. In other words, how this asymmetrical cycle of giving and taking engenders new relationships, creating a network of mutual indebtedness.