Sunday, November 11, 2001

(August 29) My sleep schedule was still bizarre, and my moods followed suit. It had been four days since I got back. I was alternately excited about all the possibilities and depressed about all the limitations. Money was the focus of my anxiety. I had a limited amount of it, and it wouldn't take me very far if I didn't watch it carefully.

I woke up not long after dawn, full of vim and vigor. I'd been sleeping on the floor of Brat's footbag room. He'd had special floors installed to give just the right spring when one is playing hacky sack. Donald and Greg W. were also on the floor in their sleeping bags, still crashed out like sane people. James, the only official resident of Brat's lower floor, was sleeping in the other room.

I'd known Donald for some years, through Strick, and had stayed with him at his place in Atlanta while I was on my American Walkabout. Since then he'd moved to Tucson and was up visiting.

Greg and I had met in Dharamsala some time ago, and again when I was in Delhi with James. How he'd ended up sleeping on the floor of Brat's footbag room is a long extension of that story, which perhaps you'll count yourself lucky not to hear right now.

I dressed and snuck out, my mood elevated by the sun just beginning to shine obliquely over the suburban rooftops. I walked. Just for walking, at first. Feeling the peace of the morning, noticing the immaculate gutters and pristine hedges and gardens of Redwood City.

Redwood City. Somebody made a joke once about how the city planners name streets and towns after whatever they destroyed to build them. Sad but all too true.

This high-tech suburbia is far cry from India, where nobody walks on the sidewalks -- if they exist -- because the sidewalks are actually just slabs of concrete laid over the sewers, and it's not uncommon for one to be broken or missing.

It certainly is easy on the eyes, I thought. There were no smoldering trash heaps, no slimy cow pies, nobody sleeping in the street.

The undercurrent of my observations was barely perceptible. "What a luxury," I thought, "to have all of this, so perfect and unblemished. What a life of fantasy, to cover the earth completely in concrete."

Indeed, the landscaped gardens were small plots of dirt seemingly installed as an afterthought to the ubiquitous pavement. The trees lining the street were spaced suspiciously regularly. We learn nothing from nature when we control it utterly.

My walk took me toward a strip mall. I skirted the parking lot and went around back, to see what I could see. This was my foray into an activity known as dumpster diving. I'd been thinking about it for some time but until now had been too afraid to try it. Afraid of what, I asked myself. Of being seen. Of being judged. Of making people uncomfortable. But I couldn't defend any of these fears, so I just let them be. The idea was too powerful to let go.

America is so rich, by world standards. With affluence comes excess, and with excess comes waste. Our standards are very high, much higher than necessary for survival. Certainly higher than necessary for my happiness. We create enough waste to feed the whole world. More than enough to feed me, anyway, I thought.

So I did the kora around the strip mall, circumambulating it like a stupa in Tibet, paying homage to the dumpsters. A little nervous that someone should peek out one of the back doorways, I made my way down the alley trying not to make too much noise. I found nothing. Until the deli. Right next to the dumpster, two huge plastic bags of bread, all wrapped in their original bags. French rolls, dutch crunch, sliced rye -- jackpot! And a box full of cookies -- chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin. What a score, I thought. I guess they hadn't sold enough and these were past their freshness date. Typical American waste.

I couldn't carry it all, so I put an assortment of goodies into one of the bags and took it home. Then I went to the grocery store to buy some peanut butter and jelly. Now I could eat at prices I was used to, less than 50 cents a meal.

When I opened the box of cookies, I discovered a surprise. A piece of paper, a receipt. Oh, wait, it's in invoice. Hmm, it lists all the bread and cookies. And the delivery the place I found the stuff. And the today. Oh no.

I couldn't believe it. Why would they put the delivery outside next to the dumpsters? It makes no sense. I didn't want it to be true. I didn't want to have stolen the morning delivery. "Nobody would do that," I thought, "Americans think garbage is gross, they wouldn't deliver food next to it."

Over time, however, there was no way to escape the undesired conclusion. My first successful dumpster dive had actually been a theft. I had become a food outlaw, on the run from the deli police.

I considered turning myself in, but didn't see whom it would benefit -- the deli was a business, and they'd recover. Everyone working there would get paid anyway. Perhaps some customers went away distraught, but I didn't see anything I could do about it. Maybe I should have gone to apologize anyway, if not return the food, but I talked myself out of it. I'll be more careful next time, I said.