Life, liberty, and the pursuit of freebies in San Francisco
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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. Then he stopped abruptly, fished for the keys to his house, and said, "Here, I'll show you."
I followed him into a hallway lined with half-finished paintings and strategically cracked mirrors, through a '50s-style kitchen, and into his living room. In the corner, beneath a dangling gold and green Eames-style lamp, sat a 50-inch color television. His bedroom walls were lined with random bric-a-brac and outsider art, and his couch was a row of velvet-lined theater seats. Schirmer spread his arms and did his best Vanna White. "Here it is," he said. "I found all of this shit on the streets. People leave piles everywhere, and I just roam around all day and pick through them."
I quickly fell into a routine with Schirmer, a retired world-traveling DJ who now spends his days spinning rare records, tending his garden, and scavenging. I would come over to his house after work, crack a beer, and check out his finds, occasionally claiming certain items for myself. We'd then scroll through the Free section on Craigslist to devise a tentative map for the following day's scavenge. I rarely had time to join him on his daily hunts, but I quickly learned that the free pot is virtually bottomless. And I was hooked.
These days I roam the neighborhood (corporate dumpsters are always a good bet) or scour the Internet anytime I need something. On my most recent search I found a stuffed bunny, a six-foot-tall stack of records, a pair of cowboy boots, and I shit you not Sharon Stone's old couch. But I'm no expert. Anyone can search a Web site, but it takes a true connoisseur, someone like Kelly Malone, to build a business from scavenging.
Malone, cofounder of the Mission Indie Mart, spent 10 years climbing the retail ladder at places like the Gap and Limited until she worked her way up to a glamorous life as a traveling designer. But then tragedy struck in the form of ovarian cancer and its debilitating treatment process and she had to quit. After spending the first few days of her indefinite vacation watching television, drinking too much at the Phone Booth, and watching old movies, she decided to revisit an old hobby: scavenging. "I just started over and kept positive," Malone said. "When I wasn't sick from the chemo, I was trash-picking for cool stuff to sew and reconstruct." Malone began meticulously scouring estate sales, flea markets, and garage sales for that perfect owl clock or a one-of-a-kind sundress. She also got into interior and exterior design, grabbing spare paint and building materials off the streets, then enlisting her friends to help construct a backyard oasis.
Soon, though, Malone's home had morphed into a retro junk museum. Her backyard was now dotted with old benches, barbecue grills, sculptures, and a sound system. Clothes were spilling out all over the place, and she had enough paint to cover a mansion. It was time to expand.
Malone began taking her stuff down to the flea market in South San Francisco. She set up a booth with music and goodies, offered free beer and hot dogs to friends, and spent whole weekends selling dolled-up vintage goods and making friends with others who did the same. It was there that she struck up a business relationship with Charles Hurbert, a public relations representative at a marketing firm who has a penchant for outsider art and found fashion. Soon Malone and Hurbert combined forces and decided to look beyond sanctioned venues. Malone's backyard beckoned. The Mission Indie Mart was born.
The first mart went off without a hitch. Malone and Hurbert invited swap meetinterested friends to set up booths in Malone's backyard. Cheapo flyers were designed, beer was purchased and resold at cost, and reimagined found apparel was offered for sale. It was a thrifty one-off that felt like an illegal rave, and people loved it. Mission District locals swarmed Malone's backyard and nearly bought up her entire inventory. When she held it again the next month, the mart was even more successful and attracted more people so many that her landlord threatened to evict her. So Malone sought sponsors and a new venue. The next Mission Indie Mart will be at 12 Galaxies and will feature a set by DJ Lovedust, extremely cheap Stella Artois, and an even bigger collection of vendors.
The mart's success suggests that this model benefits its founders, who make some income from the event, and attendees, who get cheap goods, as much as it does San Francisco's thriving community of independent designers, vintage-clothing dealers, and the recycling-scavenging movement in general. Malone and Hurbert are proving again that with a little effort and creativity, free shit can be turned into gold.
That's also what Jason Lewis and Monica Hernandez, the founders of SwapSF, are doing at CELLspace but for them the party and the product are more important than the money.
The couple started SwapSF a few years ago as a way to poach their friends' unwanted apparel. "I had this friend who owned like a million pairs of limited-edition sneakers that he never wore," Lewis said. "The swap idea started as a way for me to get my hands on some of them." So Hernandez and Lewis, who have been throwing events since they met at a party five years ago, did what came naturally: they drew up a flyer, bought a bunch of cheap beer and pizza, and invited their friends to get down.
The idea has taken off, as I witnessed Sept. 22 when I threw a few shirts, a pair of pants, and some old hats in a bag and pedaled down to Bryant and 18th Street to volunteer at their recent event, the Most Hyperbolically Stupendous Clothing Swap Ever. It was to be a win-win situation: a little time in exchange for first dibs at free clothes. I arrived at CELLspace at 11 a.m. to find a DJ spinning downtempo hip-hop, a handful of kids sorting through bags, and Hernandez, who greeted me with a smile, a name badge, and a beer. I'd envisioned spending a leisurely afternoon sipping beer provided by Trumer Pilsner (the event sponsor) with about a hundred other scavengers, and the day seemed to be turning out that way.
But neither I nor the organizers were quite prepared for the four-hour clusterfuck that awaited us. Soon the volunteers were drowning in a mile-high volcano of pants, shirts, scarves, and underwear. By noon, the event's official start time, a line wound around 19th Street. At 12:30 p.m. the place was packed. It was as if every hipster in the Mission had gotten wind of an opportunity for free music, beer, and dancing and had gathered up their unwanted clothes to join the party a party that happened to result in free clothing for charity organizations like A Woman's Place, the AIDS Emergency Fund, and San Francisco General Hospital.
Since starting in Lewis and Hernandez's apartment and then relocating, the SwapSF event has become so popular that it's getting hard to handle. Even the duo have been surprised by its sudden and exponential growth. It seems that by using sarcastic graphic design on their flyers, guerrilla promotion techniques (word of mouth, stickers, blogs, etc.), and a refrigerator full of beer, Hernandez and Lewis have tapped into a new way to market charity events to a community of self-obsessed hipsters. Like Malone, the SwapSF duo see something wrong with the way our culture consumes and wastes, but they're reluctant to jump on a soapbox or even stand close to one.
Which may be why their parties have been garnering more attention and support than have the more traditional free markets that have been held across the nation for years. Malone and her contemporaries are creating awareness with no pretenses, no preaching, and no Hacky Sackplaying hippies. They are nurturing a world of gift exchange that speaks to a new generation of recyclers who enjoy the selfish thrills of scoring, a good party, and daytime drinking more than or at least as much as the satisfaction people find in collective self-sacrifice and charity.
Even San Francisco Dump artist Nemo Gould isn't making his garbage art purely, or even mostly, as a political statement. "By virtue of it being made out of garbage, my art does make a statement about waste and overconsumption," Gould said. "But that's not what it's really about." Although Gould sees the danger in the complex environmental situations that create places like the SF Dump, his desire to work there had more to do with personal satisfaction than with changing the world. The dump's Artist in Residence Program offers one of the most coveted positions in the city because it guarantees lifelong access to free garbage.
"There's a scavenger spirit," Gould said. "Whoever has it is compelled to collect. Whatever comes after that is up to the scavenger."
The scavenger spirit is currently creating a subculture. Like skateboarders who view the city's byways as a concrete playground, the new breed of scavengers looks at the urban environment from a different perspective. In their eyes the streets of San Francisco are aisles in a seven-mile-by-seven-mile warehouse of free shit. Their primary goal is to decorate their homes with one-of-a-kind furniture, dress their bodies in fly gear, and pad their pocketbooks, all while avoiding overdraft charges and, on the side, helping to generate awareness. In their separate and edgy styles, Gould, Malone, Hernandez, Lewis, and Schirmer have managed to turn this spirit into a lifestyle that doesn't alienate people with its self-righteousness. I mean, everyone wants free shit, right? Who can't relate to that?
THE (FREE) SHIT LIST
There's a fine line between scavenging to make a statement and being a straight-up freeloader. Luckily, it's up to the individual to decide exactly where that line is drawn. Here are some resources for learning more about the score.
Information about strategies for sustainable living beyond capitalism; includes freegan hot spots in San Francisco.
A monthly alternate-economy festival and a really good place to get rid of your old stuff.
Kelly Malone and Charles Hurbert's unique party take on the freegan ethos.
Jason Lewis and Monica Hernandez's fabulous swap bonanza.
A list of every open bar, happy hour, and extremely cheap alcohol event in the city.
A cross between MySpace and Yelp that focuses entirely on events, including a free section featuring happy hours, art openings, and concert ticket giveaways.
Official city site for recycling, disposal, and reuse information.
Learn about our city's unique take on garbage and strategies for recycling.
An art foundation dedicated to transforming trash into interactive public sculptures.
Mission Indie Mart cofounder Hurbert blogs his best scavenger finds.
The latest artist in residence at the SF Dump has been making cool stuff from garbage for years.