Diving into the Dumpsters of NY journalism

I was walking to work today when a familiar image caught my eye in the Metro newspaper box, causing me to skid to a halt, lose my footing on the snow covered sidewalk followed by being trampled underfoot by a crowd of rabid Liz Smith supporters before picking myself up and grabbing a copy. Here’s the front-page centerpiece story that did it:

‘Dumpster divers’ rate

best trash eats

Easy on the wallet, not as hard on stomach as you think

A Dumpster diver sifts for edible food outside the Trader Joe’s Brooklyn store.

A Dumpster diver sifts for edible food outside the Trader Joe’s Brooklyn store.

Most folks flock to the Brooklyn Trader Joe’s for discounts on bulk food. But another group heads there because it’s got the best place in the city to eat out of the garbage.

Kelly is typical of so-called “Dumpster divers,” who sift trash for useful items, including food.

“Pretty much all my food is from Dumpster diving,” said Kelly, 21, who did not want her last name published.

She follows a few rules, like “no sushi,” don’t leave a mess and “be polite” to store employees and authorities.

Read the rest of the online version here.

This story angered me something fierce. Not because the trash pickers are the bane of the existence of the TJ’s management. In truth, I could really give a shit about these folks picking through the trash, because the store does throw away quite a lot of food (even beyond the stuff we donate to local charities) ranging from bruised fruit to half-opened boxes of cookies to salad that’s a day away from its expiration date. Sure, the turkey slammer sandwiches pictured above are goddamn disgusting, even if they weren’t soaking in warm chicken juice for hours, even if I weren’t a vegetarian, but plenty of other food is often just missing a label or in a box that’s too damaged to sell, and some employees don’t take the time to put them in the donation pile.

The managers’ problem that they sometimes leave a mess all over the sidewalk, and they’ve discussed draconian measures such as pouring ammonia over the trash before putting it out or just opening and pouring out all the containers first. I suggested just talking to them one night. Then they asked me why I was busy telling them how to do their jobs and not using my protractor to make sure the labels on the cans of marinated bean salad were perfectly aligned, so I shut up.

I was upset because the story is terrible, and because it was in my tickler file of freelance stories to pitch around the city. Odds are it would have been a long shot to pull off without pissing off both current employer and prospective editor, seeing as I pull a paycheck from what is now considered the No. 1 freegan site in all the city.

But there is a bigger story here. Many articles have been written in recent years about freeganism and so-called Dumpster-diving, so that’s nothing new (side style note: “Dumpster” divers is not the correct term. Dumpster is a trademarked name, like Ziplock, Jetski, Jeep and even Velcro. Unless it is a Dumpster brand trash receptacle, which you can tell it is not from the photo, proper AP style would be the un-alliterative “trash-bin diver,” or, may I suggest, “trash troweler.” Style nerd!).

But trash troweling in New York City is clearly an art form. People show up with bikes with wagons attached. They obviously have a stealth system in place for avoiding detection by store management and law enforcement. And they must have a pattern down: Store X puts its trash out at this hour, we can get to store Y before the rats take over, etc. This means they must have some form of communication, a subculture of procedures and planning and organization, that the rest of us would never think about, followed by some sort of distinct preparation and serving techniques for half-opened food. I know for a fact there have been tense run-ins with the management at that store; surely other incidents elsewhere have involved the police at one point or another.

And, the bigger picture question that’s only hinted at in the story but never really discussed: how have the economic downturn and nationwide financial woes affected the trash troweler scene? Is it suddenly competitive? Are former top-executives at Fortune 500 companies among those face-deep in expired cage-free organic eggs (as this New York Times story hints may be the case)?

OK, so I know Metro is a crappy free commuter paper distributed as much, if not more, to sell ads to a broad audience as it is to actually provide news and journalism. The story was maybe 12 inches long (about 500 words) and probably included all the grand research of going to TJ’s one night and talking to three people.

I know this because I’ve done stories like this before, when an editor slinks up to your desk and is all “hey…. we need a front-page story. Fast. Like, tonight. Whattya got?” Not to mention the factual error anyone who had stepped foot inside the store would know: TJ’s doesn’t sell “bulk” food, despite what the lede suggests.

There was more even Metro could have done in its limited space, like at least made a somewhat scientific approach to the ranking of free trash food. The point is, there’s a very good story to tell here, one that speaks to the broader heart of the city in a rough winter of 2009, not just a quick synopsis. And it makes me worried that as papers from the seemingly doomed SF Chronicle up to the New York Times are worried about their futures, still nothing has really stepped up to offer an alternative.

I’ve been pitching a handful of stories to different publications since landing in New York, largely with no success, probably having something to do with naivette and terribleness and the fact that even my e-mails smell like unwashed, uncut Brooklyn hair. I’m still learning my way around the city and feeling out where the good stories are hiding, what untold things the city needs to know about itself to create and foster a worthwhile dialogue. I pick up all the papers, free and otherwise, regularly to help develop this kind of knowledge.

It’s hard not to wonder, when the big papers go away and all the freelance budgets at magazines and elsewhere dry up, where will the real conversations about our city and its people begin? Certainly parsed blog posts or quick-hit subway readers can be part of it, but sometimes you just need depth and time and research to truly paint a picture.

I don’t know the answer (SF Chronicle critics have some ideas) but for now let’s turn back to the Metro story and conclude this post with its list of trash troweler places. It is introduced by the aforementioned Kelly, who, upon looking at her picture, is kinda seriously cute, and should probably get in touch with me if she ever reads this. I’ll be one of the struggling writers working the cash register inside. You bring the turkey slammers:

"Pretty much all my food is from Dumpster diving.” Kelly

“Pretty much all my food
is from Dumpster diving.”

1. Everything: Trader Joe’s, Atlantic Avenue and Court Street, Brooklyn

2. Fruits and Vegetables: Atlantic Fruit & Vegetables, Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn

3. Bread: Caputo’s bakery, Court Street, Brooklyn, New York

4. Pastries: McNally-Jackson Bookstore, Prince Street, SoHo

Another note: the story references, but does not describe fully, the blog Abroad’r View, where author Courtney Scott is chronicling her efforts to eat completely off free samples and the like, almost like a MyOpenBar for free sustenance. Maybe someone wants a freelance story just on that experiment, if Metro doesn’t get to it first.

One response to “Diving into the Dumpsters of NY journalism

  1. As a former contributor to MetroNY I feel obliged to defend it. Good people work there. They do a lot with a little and care about their audience enough to not overestimate how much their audience cares.

    Eff freelance journalism. You could easily start a gonzo porn website to rival the Milfhunter, “Cum Dumpster Divers,” in which lowly Trader Joe’s employees seduce enterprising but shameless hungry hungry hipsters.

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