Taking the (Dumpster) Plunge

I don’t know why I didn’t wear a rubber suit. It would have helped me forget the festering association nestled at the bottom of each dumpster and that picking through trash is gross. Even while writing this, I am scratching my neck, I feel a rash. Each bag I touched was wet with something, except the bags in the Modern Skate dumpster where Jessie and I found two perfectly fine skate board beds. We snatched those up quick. All the dumpsters behind food companies, however, were merciless to my rummaging attempt. They offered limp cucumbers and dirty pita bread, smushed Styrofoam and the ominous smell of rancid mayo. There wasn’t any day-old bread beaming up at my face when I opened Panera Bread’s dumpster. Clearly, I was missing something the first night I took a stab at being a freegan.
My roommate Jessie and I were night riders, but we called ourselves the “Black Stallions.” The name suited the feel of this illegal activity, even if we were on bikes flying through the night rather than horses. It all started when I first learned there are a growing group of people who get food and other items from America’s waste. What? Who would do this? But the idea tickled me, and resulted in an itch to try it myself. Was it really possible to find edible food in containers known for their foul stench, like I had read on freegan Web sites? Would I really eat it? One site called it “urban foraging,” probably to reduce the image “dumpster diving” generates. I wanted to be in the bin, feel the steal, the redemption of attaining a free item, even if it was thrown out. There would not be laws against it if it was not somewhat taboo.
[peters3]”Rather than contributing to further waste, freegans curtail garbage and pollution, reducing the over-all volume in the waste stream,” www.freeganinfo.com reads. To freegans, who probably dress appropriately for the duty, dumpster diving is beyond getting free stuff. It is boycotting the consumer culture that brainwashes, telling us to renew instead of reuse. It is boycotting wastefulness.
According to a study done by University of Arizona in 2004, 40 to 50 percent of food ready for harvest never gets eaten and is purged despite the growling stomachs housed by America and the world. The profit motive of most companies outshines the ethical considerations that should be taken in production, often resulting in human rights violations, environmental destruction, animal abuse, and of course, landfills of wasted material. The problem rests in the system of production, and freegans’ response is to not support any of it.
“Freegan” stems from the combination of “free” and “vegan.” A vegan is a person who refrains from eating animal products. I think we know what “free” means: hugs. Often as a child I heard my dad say, “Nothing is free in this world,” and I would say, “Dad, except love!” But even love costs, he said. He obviously has never salvaged from another man’s trash. Joining free and vegan implores a whole different system of economics: sharing. Freegans not only search for outcast food – they barter with each other, bum rides and live together, with the heart of their beliefs pumping for the act of recycling.
Each dumpster bore a distinct scent – distinct enough to bottle and sell behind a glossy Marshall Fields counter. Giving Garlic, I would call Big Apple Bagels’ scent. Unpurified Cheese Grease would be Olga’s. Trippers’ trash was trippin: I would have to call it Hott Sick Ass. Panera’s trash smelled exactly like the store, I call it Panera Bread. Odd.
Taking any old food from a dumpster is somewhat risky, especially if you will be wearing its scent for a few hours. Ultimately, it depends on how willing the predator is. If the dumpster smells like it is internally rotting, it would probably be best to find another. “When you’re looking to get something, you have to worry about the condition of the dumpster,” journalism junior Brian Bower said. Bower lives in Vlach-Bower, one of the twelve co-op houses that occasionally dives headfirst into our city’s waste. I would never take dairy products or meat, he said. Prepackaged products are the way to go. Bagged bread or chips are great examples. This is probably why I had no luck with my trampling. The companies I snuck behind were local restaurants, whose trash was a collage of scrap food, used utensils and plates and the occasional Jimmy John’s wrapper.
People from Bower do not call themselves freegans. “I don’t really like the term,” Bower said. “It is a little confusing. My main intention of it is taking something and making it a moral choice.”
I did find it slightly confusing the same food being boycotted is being snatched from the trash: freegans are depending on the very system they want to change for their own sustenance. Who is to say what the better choice is if America’s greed feeds us all?
Money is the key factor. If you buy product from Tyson animal products, with knowledge of PETA’s 2007 cruelty reports (including severe chicken beatings and stabbings committed by the slaughter machines), you are supporting this operation by default. Freegans avoid contributing to an economy that yields goods from ill-practiced means.
If you pick a pickled pepper already punished to purgatory, does it really matter? “Yes, people are relying off other people’s ostentatious wealth, but a lot of regulation comes from the FDA. Good stuff is being thrown away simply because the FDA says you can’t sell it,” Bower said.
Meijer’s dumpster would have been a sea of natural greens, had I the sense to gander. Too bad; I really enjoy a fresh swim. Maso Sabotic, a Lake Lansing Meijer produce employee, said it is sad throwing away good looking produce. “It’s every day. Every day we throw away so much. For example, a bag of mushrooms. If we look at the expiration date, and it is today, we throw it away even if it still looks good,” he said. I guess I know where to find mushrooms now. Bower said his housemates can find greens, veggies, bread products, juice boxes and even soap behind companies like Meijer. The strict hygiene laws preventing these companies from salvaging are really feeding us small, environmentally intact freegan armies. Yes, trying it one night clusters me in this group, momentarily.
Psychology junior Bobby Singh knows campus like his mother’s face. He can walk from Holmes to Albert blind folded, through wind and rain and still impeccably sniff out the bins he rifles through every day. “I walk around to recycle,” he said. “You see that trash can over there,” – he pointed to a lone bin by the stark library fountain – “there’s probably one Mountain Dew bottle in there. If I walk around the entire campus I can get two bags full.” Singh is technically unemployed; picking through MSU’s trash and recycling is his job. He recycles cans and bottles he finds, which in no way pays for his housing or education. He does it for Mother Nature.
“I’ve gotten looks like I’m homeless before, but I nod them off because I have my iPod with me,” he said. It is probably the beast of hair glued to his chin, which looks good, may I add. The great thing about Singh is his spirit, his freedom in admitting he picks through garbage, his vibe others feel when seeing him help a general cause he makes personal. Slowly I am starting to see everyone’s garbage is not just a bulk of castaways, but individually useful, beautiful.
[singh]If we looked around East Lansing, at the places most avoided, maybe we’d think more about the immense consumption and excretion quietly operating. “Outside of Bruegger’s Bagels, they have a lot of bagels they throw away, like 15 or 20 bags every day which starving people can eat. It’s just one store,” Singh said. Little Caesars throws away pizzas all the time, he added. Living the freegan life is in the realm of possibility for Singh. “Most people spend their lives maintaining. If I were to lose it all, I would be happy to know I could survive. I could live off the food people waste here,” he said.
I, however, may need a little egging on. Despite how easy freegans make salvaging seem, it takes a brave spirit to eat the food you find. I arrived to Big Apple Bagels on bike with my eco-friendly grocery purse slung over my left shoulder. I felt the suspense required to lift open the government owned waste receptacle while constantly checking for the garbage police. I couldn’t get in the dumpster. It wasn’t the clothes, it was the concept. No bags of bagels were found by my uselessly limited arms, despite my prior imagination of swiping assorted onion, everything and cinnamon raison bags. Instead, we found lone mangled bagels scattered within costumers’ trash, coffee grind and smeared veggie cheese. I should have jumped in the dumpster, ripped apart everything to make sure, but that idea takes some time to get used to. Eco bag empty and swinging, I left for Frandor with the high hopes of a first timer. During my night of dumpster diving, I learned not to wear my street clothes. I learned how thoughtless a piece of trash seems.
I think I’m going to mount my garbage picked skateboard to my wall, make a nice little shelf out of it.

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In a Haze of Music and a Sea of Tents

[lane11]They say some kids don’t make it back to their tents at all the first night. I was almost a part of that statistic. The only way – and I mean the only way – to navigate back to my tent was to apply my high school geometry knowledge to my surroundings. If I conjured a misshapen triangle from the beaming Ferris wheel marking the entrance of the festival area, an angry pirate flag and a particular colony of portable toilets, I could almost single out my tent from the others. Even this was asking too much for my carefree spirit, which didn’t mind wandering through the assembled hoovervilles in hopes of a free beer or even a simple “Hello!” from my festival neighbors. Friendly faces, a diverse menu of drugs and hair mashed into dreadlocks made up the majority of Langerado Music Festival, my 2008 spring break destination. It was rock, bluegrass, reggae and one big slumber party. Four days of spontaneity were pounding on my tent flap while I was personally getting to know the grounds of Big Cypress Indian Reservation in Florida, the home of this chaotic party.
We were lucky to arrive early Thursday before Mother Nature really let the campers have it. I don’t know what I would have preferred: sweating my body’s near 60 percent water content into the tent as we put it together, or trying to contain the whipping flaps later in the day as nature’s ferocity poured in. Either way, the campground was perfect for mud-wrestling. Having constructed our tent earlier in the heat of the day, I separated from Josh and Eugene, the two boys I went with, with a Coors Light in each hand, off to meet a friend at the Ferris wheel who then showed me a completely different area of the campground. We passed drunk and stumbling campers and police on horseback who didn’t hinder the hippies from selling and consuming drugs (I later learned all the horses’ names – Eeyore was my favorite). Drum circles were beginning to form that pounded into my heart and vibrated the “town” of the campground, which was a hodgepodge of tiny boutiques and food shops, plus an overpriced general store and a first-aid tent. [puppet]
We arrived at my friend David’s tent as plans were being discussed. There were at least eight people in his tent waiting for the rain to stop smearing the mud outside when I realized it wouldn’t stop raining, and I would have to walk back nonetheless. Good thing I was wearing my little bikini top. I bid farewell to my friends who were soon to be tripping, and stepped into the cool rain. I love walking in the rain, especially through my fellow campers’ backyards. You meet so many interesting people. Unsuspecting guys would walk by and chirp, “Headies, I got your doses. Who wants molly?” and I would politely decline. My drug vocabulary grew substantially as the festival caroused on.
I sought the pirate flag, but, due to the declining sun, it was a bit hard to locate. I wandered for at least an hour before I made it back to the site. I wandered up and down the make-shift aisles, between tents, under tent lines and over lazily perched coolers, squishing in mud, horse manure and probably many other unnamed liquids. Josh and Eugene had made a dent in the beer, and I joined in as we prepped for a night of dancing.
Around 9 p.m., the music began. The camping grounds were adjacent to the festival ground, and our tent was only a seven-minute walk to the gates. Red wine in hand, we traversed the tent-dotted field, letting the beginning jams of the night puppet our limbs. The guards at the gate patted me down and I was let into the magical world of Langerado. The Ferris wheel looked spectacular in the night ablaze with red, orange and yellow lights and illuminated the creation of the park designers. Big walls of interchanging faces morphed in the middle of the festival ground, a fenced pit with a sign advertising gator fights occupied the north region, a small village of Dr. Seuss-esque huts bordered the exit. It was as if they expected kids to get lost in this story world.
[lane12]Jam lovers were stationing at the Everglade stage for Les Claypool and I was running around going crazy with Josh. Les was one funky cat with his innovative finger tapping and a bass line that rattled my brain, which kept drifting to That 1 Guy, a concurrent band playing at a nearby stage. At the time, the name That 1 Guy was the most hilarious thing; linked arm in arm, Josh and I kept asking each other who we were listening to only to chortle and snicker, “That one guy!” This musician created his own instrument – a double helix of pipes that most resembled a harp, which he tapped and caressed in hillbilly fashion, producing the best backyard grab-your-neighbor-and-twirl kind of music. Between these two bands we galloped, letting the emotion of the area fuse into our skin, listening to other campers hoot and holler. I danced my toes off when Dark Star Orchestra came on; it was as if Jerry Garcia was reincarnated in front of us. The light show was incredible: rainbows of patterns and shadows rayed over the band, sweet flashes of purple, orange and fuchsia fed my eyes like nectar. “Here Comes Sunshine” flowed through me lucidly and guided my hips, feet and swaying arms in rhythmic movement. Sunset Stage never saw a better performer. [party]
Finding our way back to the festival entrance was like being a rat running through a maze; people were shuffling everywhere as I continued to dance my way back to the tent. We met up with Eugene at the gates. “Whatever they say about hippies being all about love, peace and happiness is complete bullshit!” he said. “No one would help me; no one would give me a flashlight, they would only shine one in my eyes and run away laughing.” He was lost in the tents the entire time Josh and I jammed. Poor boy. I reminded him there is nothing better than a good laugh, even at his expense. Thus began the real tent search and the attack of the red fire ants. It was dark, the land unfamiliar because it was the first night, and the ants were biting. Hard. My feet were covered in red bites the next morning, yet I traversed the campgrounds without shoes on as if I was invincible.
If I hadn’t had the two boys with me, I would have nestled in the grass somewhere and become part of the statistic. A kid I met, Matt, didn’t find his tent until 2:00 p.m. the next day. Some people passed out at random people’s cars. [lane13]
None of us could make out the pirate flag from the dark blanket of night that covered Big Cypress Indian Reservation and we strolled through tents until 4:00 a.m., but, finally, we found our tent. I clambered into the tent after Josh and Eugene only to find my side doused in rain. Perfect kicker for my first night. Oh well, I thought, and plopped between the two to fall instantly asleep after a few giggles. I dreamed of bagels and cream cheese, Umphrey’s Mcgee and Matisyahu’s serenading voice all to come the next day. Outside our tent the festival was still going on; drunk campers were shuffling past on their own journeys, people were blaring music from their car stereos, even a few fireworks were crackling somewhere behind us. In the distance the pounding of a gang of hippie hands could be heard on drums, metal orange barrels and pots. It didn’t matter – I was out like Jamie Lynn’s protruding bump.

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Shrouded by Choice

The room is dimly lit and balloons inflate slowly and disperse lazily onto the tile floor. Cupcakes are laced with bubblegum pink frosting and hijabs are left at the door. The energy in the room is happily electric and threatens to burst, like the unfortunate balloons popped by finicky feet as girls quickly decorate the room. It is as if the main gift of Eid, the Islamic holiday that was celebrated on Dec. 22, is the opportunity to open up and get down and girly, not dirty. Eid signifies the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, and the girls of MSU’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) are celebrating. Food concoctions engulf the cramped table, ranging from lasagna to Mexican taco dip to hummus, flan to chocolate cake to cookies – a scrumptious symbol of the range of ethnicities present at the Eid party.
“A lot of the girls have to wear the head scarves [in the presence of men]; this is for the girls to have fun and dress up,” said Asma Hasan, the Sisters’ social coordinator for MSA. Wavy dark hair without head scarves were complimented by manicured outfits, matching pumps that tapped around the room and faces decorated pleasantly with ivory-toned make-up. The divine nature of the hijab requires it to be worn in the presence of males; this all-girl get-together was a bite into the fabled forbidden apple. [muslim11]
The Qu’ran, the Muslim holy book, describes the hijab as a spatial divider that provides privacy to the woman believer. It states in verse 59, “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close around them. That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed.” In a world that objectifies women, the hijab is the divider from the male gaze and judgment; it provides the opportunity to reflect inner strength and self respect.
“Take it off!” the girls told international relations sophomore Nada Zohdy. Zohdy, the head of MSA’s political action committee, sported an elaborately embroidered black hijab from Egypt, her parents’ country of origin. She removed the pins fastening the draping scarf in modest fashion, while retaining the poise associated with the self-respected Muslim woman. Self-respect, modesty and chastity characterize the hijab, which is often misconceived by Western culture as a form of oppression. To Muslim women, it is not just something covering the head. It represents the acceptance of a modest, virtuous life and the woman’s promise to herself to expose her beauty from within, not superficially with the aid of an Urban Outfitter’s patterned dress (I know it’s cute) and dark makeup. There comes a point in every Muslim woman’s life, usually during adolescence, when she must decide her religious preference in adopting the hijab or not. The decision is hers, a notion that is far from oppressive.
[z3]”The two most pervasive misconceptions are that Islam is inherently violent and oppressive towards women. As a young Muslim woman, I feel it’s so ironic – we view it exactly the opposite. By adopting modesty, it is liberating because you respect yourself,” Zohdy said.
Zohdy started to wear the hijab after high school and her introduction to the chaos of this college town happened in tandem with her recent decision. “I was kind of apprehensive at first because I didn’t know how people would react. The only thing I could say is on occasion I would get a few extra glances on the bus,” she said.
Fortunately, Zohdy has had more positive experiences than negative ones, on and off the bus. In fact, sideways glances from strangers have proved to be an opportunity for education. “More than once I’ve had the experience of a stranger asking about my religion – it’s a really cool thing. The scarf is an open symbol of my identity and it’s good to educate people about it,” Zohdy said.
Education junior Abby Siegel said the veil is intimidating to the dominant culture because the two societies are so different. “We have such a structural, superficial way of what we should be. We automatically think it’s weird,” she said. Classes Siegel has taken at MSU have helped tone down this concept, yet the veil still holds an idea of fear for many. To some, the veil is like the turban is to the stereotypical terrorist.
Finance sophomore Rob Forte also finds the veil catches his eye. “It’s pretty odd to tell you the truth. It’s not normal in our culture and society. I really wouldn’t understand why [a Muslim woman] is wearing it; she is kind of unapproachable,” he said.
A lack of Islamic knowledge typically influences thoughts like these and fashions the slightly intimidating first impression a veil bestows upon the wide-eyed, uninformed person. But the veil is becoming more prominent and a more popular choice. Young Muslim women are choosing to wear the hijab more than their parents did when they went to college, as a response to their interpretations of Sept. 11 and its associated biases. More girls are turning to Islamic identity to show a reclaiming of their faith, according to Zohdy.
But as for availability, the Western hijab market is almost as big as a peanut. Not many retail stores in Michigan sell tunics and kurta tops (long shirts), burqas (entire body cloaks) or hijabs. Close your eyes and imagine good old Meridian Mall or flashy Eastwood Towne Center – is Islam fashion promoted? Finding cute hijabs is difficult, even if this aspect is not important to all Muslim girls. Most have to go to specialty stores, like Houda Fashion of Dearborn, Mich. Houda Fashion imports Lebanese hijabs and Islamic clothes from Italy and supplies a range of hijabs fitting to modest tastes. “It’s better to go to a specialty store,” owner Samaia Covou said. “In all the cities of Michigan, you can’t find them [hijabs]. It depends on demand in the area.”
And it might be a good idea to invest in Islam fashion. JWT, a New York advertising agency, released a major study on Muslim marketing this year and revealed American-Muslim buying power at around $170 billion. That’s a ton of untapped hijabs.
[zohdy2]On her last visit to Egypt, Zohdy stocked up on exotic and modern hijabs, thanks to the country’s more elaborate head scarf market. Wearing the head scarf, however, has nothing to do with fashion that Western icons often symbolize. “Some people are discontent with the overwhelming [Western] dominance because they want to preserve their identity, but I really believe in moving beyond that idea.” In fact, the growing popularity of the hijab among Muslim-Americans can be viewed as a unifying practice, bridging Eastern practices with Western norms. “Muslims in the West can really provide a new outlook – we believe in striking a balance in living in Western society,” Zohdy said.
The divide between the East and West originated in the 18th century, when controversies over determining women’s position in public affairs emerged, said English professor Dr. Steve Rachman. “We still argue about this in our society in a different way. The veil becomes for us the outward sign of difference,” said Rachman.
It is this difference that sparks the initial curiosity toward understanding Islam and its divine traditions. If given the opportunity to tell one truth about the hijab to the unknowing public, said Maweza Razzaq, MSA president and international studies and pre-med senior, “Change your mindset – you have to be open to education. Beliefs and people’s actions are two different things.”[muslim12]
After being serenaded with “Hellos!” and gracious introductions at the Eid party, I learned the women wearing hijabs are just as interested in informing others about their religion as those giving them an inquisitive stare are in determining why they are wearing a scarf in that way. As I zip up my shield from the cold, I leave the gathering humming of a mix of East Asian, Indian and fragments of the latest club scene rap some girls were enjoying at the party. I also leave with a humble swirl of insight. The “haves” of the East do not pertain to having wealth of capital, but wealth of spirituality – a concept that would not hurt for many of us to consider.

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