Scavenging's new spirit

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of freebies in San Francisco
Photo by House of Herrera

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It's a warm September night, and I'm standing in a crowded art gallery in South San Francisco, staring at a metal octopus that moves its tentacles when you press a button. In many ways, it's like every other reception I've been to: a table with snacks and wine, a healthy feeling of snobbery in the air, and a swath of hipsters blocking my view of everything. But as I walk around I notice some differences. The smell of decomposing flesh, the sound of heavy machinery, the walk-in "free shed," dozens of trash cans, and the mounds of refuse on the horizon all suggest that I'm standing in the middle of a landfill. Which, well, I am. It's the site of the art exhibition "Waste Deep," by Nemo Gould, the San Francisco Dump's artist in residence. And what's most striking? I feel completely at home.

After spending most of September with junk collectors, vintage clothing nerds, and art diggers, I'm now completely accustomed to wallowing in trash and noticing freebies. For example, before driving to the SF Dump this evening I ate free baked goods at the X-rated Cake Gallery in SoMa, scrounged through leftovers at an estate sale in Bernal Heights, and knocked back pints of free Pabst at Broken Record in the Excelsior.

Yes, friends, I have become a bona fide freeloader. But like my newfound partners in grime I shun the connotations of the term. I choose instead to see myself as a sort of hip cultural revolutionary, one of the loose band of entrepreneurs and artists I've met over the past month who shamelessly revel in their personal gain because, at the end of the day, they know they're "working" for a good cause. Not only are we getting a lot of cool free shit, but we're also helping to transform the traditional hippy-dippy recycle-reuse-redistribute ethos into something more refreshing.

The freestyle movement is growing. Freeganism, a ragtag philosophy of cost-free living in a gift economy, has gained some national attention of late — especially in these economically challenging times — and the freegan ethos incubated in San Francisco, where groups like the Diggers gave away food during the '60s. This city knows a thing or two about priceless give-and-take. And thanks to the freegan types I've been hanging out with, I now look at scavenging as an art form, a party, and a necessary lifestyle, one that has more to do with fashion, art, music, booze, and friendly competition than with fighting world hunger, globalization, or the war machine. Oh, most scavengers are concerned with all of that too, but creating awareness (about irresponsible consumption and the effects of wastefulness on the environment and humanity) is the fortunate by-product of the lifestyle, rather than its focus — which is, of course, copping free stuff.


My journey from a life spent paying to consume to one consumed by the pursuit of freebies began two years ago, when I moved into a new building in the Mission. My neighbor was Aaron Schirmer — a reclusive artist who lives in a world of secondhand designer denim, seminew Macintosh computers, and used sound systems — whom I'd occasionally run into on my way to buy cigarettes and Jim Beam. Usually we'd smile and nod. But one day while he sat smoking on the stoop, he flagged me down. "Check out what I found today," he said.

At his side sat a large bag of American Apparel man panties and a crate of old-school electro cassettes. When I asked where they'd come from, he rambled on about free markets, dumpsters, and swap meets.

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