Divas and Divos:

🕔Sep 22, 2008
If you haven’t been to the dump in a while, you’re in for a big surprise. Dumps are going green. Now they’re “transfer stations” where trash is sorted and transferred—not just to landfills, but back into circulation. Gone is the bellicose ballad of bears and raucous ravens feasting on rotting remains of fish heads and bum-guts. In its place is an orange-peel opera of Divas and Divos championing the merits of recycle, reuse, regenerate and rejuvenate. What years ago we thought unthinkable will soon be the iconic norm: mining our dumps for fun and survival. Some cities like Kiev generate electricity from trash. In Managua, the scavenger kids are unionizing and specializing, PC versus Mac, transponders versus transformers. Hazelton’s dump is hardwired with an electric bear fence, New Westminster charges and Seattle has free municipal composting sites. And why not? With soaring fuel prices and the harsh reality that five percent of the planet’s population (that’s us) consumes most of the energy, resources, and finished products—which we soon throw away. No, the traditional concept of dumps as a final resting place is, in a word, rubbish. Dumps have had a bad name for some time, as in, “I’m down in the dumps today,” or “I hear Betty-Sue dumped Billy-Bob.” And then there’s the parent’s “Child, you’re room looks like a dump. And don’t just dump everything in the closet! You should major in dumpology.”Even without the smell, many people have a certain stigma against rooting around in another person’s trash (unless, of course, it’s tabloid gossip about that person’s sex life or cellulite levels). In fact, the term “garbology” was coined by A.J. Weberman after digging around in Bob Dylan’s trash. Of late, the term has achieved legitimacy in the bastions of high finance. No, not junk bonds, but corporate garbology: big businesses spying on each other by searching the competition’s trash, including their computers’ “trash folder.” (Oh, you didn’t know your trash can be electronically picked through?) As Dylan said “The times they are a-changin’.” Dump Divas aren’t dumpster divers, just opposite poles of the same magnetism. From their mutual perspectives, a recycling center or dumpster is pure potentiality, the perpetual unopened Christmas package. For theirs is a passion fueled not by the need to find, but the need to search. This common thread of perpetual searching is shared by prospectors, be they panners of gold, diggers of diamonds, garage-sale junkies or flea-market flies. Each is addicted to the same drug: the dopamine high of hunting for hidden treasure, scanning the oceans for sunken Spanish galleons, spurred on by stories of precious rings found in couches and Van Goghs in attics. Hope is the operative word here. They hope one day to find the treasure which another person thought trash, and hope that they can actually use it. “I could probably use that sometime,” is a common mantra of the afflicted; the words I hope are left unsaid. “I can fix that” is another common rationale, again with a silent I hope assumed. If all else fails, “Ya never know…” is the final justification employed when no other excuses warrant taking a piece of trash (treasure) home. Alas, gone from the modern dump are the common cliché’s like “you can find it by its smell or its sound”: listen for the raven rhapsody, intensified by the occasional growl of a belligerent black bear. Mainly ravens: ravens discussing the merits of rotting cabbage versus culled cow’s carcass, ravens fighting, and ravens at play. (Once, for a documentary, we filmed two ravens playing tag at the Dease Lake dump. Like two Jedi fighters they dived and ducked, twisted and tucked, evading each other’s best maneuvers, even flying upside-down. If you like the Abbotsford Air Show, go to the dump.)Besides the absence of the old sounds and smells, another difference between the transfer stations and the dumps of yore is what you do when you get there. Historically, dumps were not places to linger. There is a social structure to the transfer station, however, and while it might seem to be a centre of free enterprise, there are rules: “Closed at 6:00 pm. No gas tanks, explosives, or caustic chemicals. No batteries in the landfill trash.” Rule #2: if a treasure is in your hands, it’s yours to keep, but if you put it down it’s fair game. Taking something from someone or from their truck is tantamount to claim-jumping in the Yukon. More rules: “Untreated Wood Only! No Railroad Ties!” Fortunately, at least loitering is still allowed. Dump doctrineThere is even a transfer station philosophy: pragmatic anarchy. Pragmatic in the sense that everything you bring home might one day be useful (the hope factor again); anarchy in that you are no longer part of the consumptive cycle. In fact, dropping out of consumerism spawns a kind of transfer station theology: a new-age Zen. First, there is the liberating “born again” feeling of freedom that comes with getting rid of your old baggage. Of course, when you then find something you can’t live without, its newness fills the spiritual void that drives women to shop for shoes, or men for tools. Born again without the old baggage, and with the faith that all the new baggage will be useful. “Hi! My name is Cappy,” says a grizzled, gruff guy with a smile uninterrupted by teeth. “I’ve been looking for one of those.” He points to the end of a broken sickle bar in my pick-up, parked beside the mountain of gutted stoves, metal roofing scraps and rusted-out sinks. “Main rotator knuckle off a swather, Massey-Ferguson 946, as memory serves me,” he says. “Weren’t but a couple of weeks ago a guy was asking me if I had one. Now…what was his name?” “It’s yours.” I hand the broken part to him. “I’ll help you unload,” Cappy says generously, but I suspect he is more interested in seeing what other treasures might be hidden in my pickup. While we transfer from my truck to his, he tells me about the station. “The old dump, we used to call the ‘Telkwa Mall.’ It was pretty rank and rough, and you never could get the smell out of your clothes. Then, you never knew when Mister Bear would want something you were just sizing up for yourself. “You mean like a couch or gas range?” “More like a huge box of Tim Horton’s day-old doughnuts.” “So what do you do with the stuff you find?” “Sometimes sell it, mainly collect it. I’m a born-to-be collector. Sometimes I just take it because it would be a big waste not to save it.” He thinks for a minute. “Mainly collect. You never know when you’ll need it!” (The third telltale mantra of a serious Divo.) “Ever get lonely?” “Lonely?!” He laughs. “That’s my wife right over there.” He points to a lady coming out of the “re-use shed,” carrying two mint-condition lamps which make me sorry I didn’t stop there first. “She’s got a keen eye. She can see potential in the durndest things. Made a revolving flower planter out of a bicycle rim. The plants died though—she says it’s because I didn’t water them enough, but I think they got dizzy when the wind blew the planter around.” He reflects with a sigh, then looks down at the swather part he’s holding. “You sure you want to give this away, Mister?” “Value is in the eyes of the beholder,” I say, happy that he’s beholding it in his hands, no longer part of my earthly baggage. The big question“What is the best thing you’ve ever found?” I ask. It became a question I asked all the Divas and Divos.“Everything!” Cappy grins, “You never know.” I ask one of the professional garbologists whose job it is to keep the transfer station clean, tidy and civil, driving around in his Bobcat loader like one of the “dozers” from Fraggle Rock. “Gold nugget on a chain once, ’bout the size of my little finger. Oh yeah, a couple of very good hunting knives in a couch, too. “See that guy over there?” He points to a man in coveralls working off the back of his tailgate, stripping down an aluminum casing. “Go ask him.” Leo has paws like a lion’s: stubby digits, but strong of grip and will. Cappy says he’s “tourist,” meaning he’s not from here. Kelowna. Specializes in metals. Leo knows the daily metal future prices better than most stockbrokers. His wife has family here, so when they come to visit he takes a load of scrap metal to Prince George on the way back. “Make expenses plus a little.” His smile betrays that that’s an understatement. “Most people don’t know what they’re looking at. They see what something was, not what it could be. It’s like people. You have to see beneath the surface. And to do that, you got to get one of these if you’re going to be a scrape-crow.” He holds up a magnet. “Take that brass wall lamp over there. If I put my magnet on it and it sticks, it ain’t brass at all. Iron or steel, brass-plated. Not worth your trouble. No, if you want to make it in this game you got to concentrate on the concentrate, otherwise you’ll be hauling a lot of over-burden.” Spoken like a true miner.Landfill chroniclesThe best thing about hangin’ at the transfer station is the stories. Everyone has a story. “What’s the best thing you’ve found?” I query another of the garbologists. “See this watch?” He bares his wrist. “I found it and it was running, but it didn’t keep good time. One day I got so frustrated I threw it across the room…and it’s kept perfect time ever since.” Every dump story ends with a jab at whoever was so dumb as to part with the treasure. “Can you imagine throwing something away without first throwing it across the room to see if that might fix it?” My favorite dump story is actually a movie clip. Imagine a teenager, running from someone across a highway overpass. Just then a dump truck passes beneath him and he jumps, landing in soft trash. At the next overpass an old couple sees the truck. “Look, John!” exclaims the woman, “Someone’s throwing away a perfectly good kid!” The classic story that’s told at every dump, which everyone swears is true but no one seems to have witnessed, goes like this: A couple drives up to the compactor building, unloads their pick-up and drives away. But soon they rush back; it seems the woman’s purse has ended up in the trash, which has by now been pushed into a pile so high there’s no possibility of digging through it. The two are despondent. “Was your cellphone in it?” the garbologist on duty asks. They dial the number and follow the ringing tone into the pile, recovering the purse. “What’s your favorite dump story?” I ask a middle-aged guy from the city. “Will a poem do?” he replies, with the look of a true Divo, a passionando of the search more than the find. He takes a deep breath and delivers, with Shakespearean eloquence:

I must go down to the city dump,
To the wayward gypsy life;
To reeking piles of rancid peels
Far away from the city strife.

And all I ask is a merry yarn
From a laughing dump-truck prospector,
And the quiet sleep, and the sweet dreams
Of the happy trash collector.

(from Mad Magazine)

In the future, with climate change and soaring commodity prices, we will have far fewer choices in our consumptive habits, and likely far less garbage. But the more we look at what we throw out, the better we’ll become at mining it. Mine the dumps for the planet! —that’s got a nice ring to it.
And remember: the person who discovers a new incarnation for styrofoam will become the next gazzillionaire … and that’s not talk’n trash.
You never know…