Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Taking in the trash

Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson
Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson checking out local Dumpsters, and some of the items they have scavenged.
An adventure in the thrifty, nifty world of die-hard scavenging, where you won't believe what you can find if you just know where to look.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Kristan Lawson's legs are dangling out of the mouth of a Dumpster, as if he's being eaten alive. Inside, the scavenger is grabbing loaf after loaf of freshly baked bread. This isn't just any bread; it's rarefied artisanal bread, the kind of baguettes and ciabattas that are displayed as impulse purchases in their own tempting wooden stand near the checkout at posh grocery stores, because shoppers just can't resist them, despite the eye-popping prices.

The price is free at this Dumpster behind a bakery in an East Bay neighborhood. Lawson, 48, hands the spoils off to Anneli Rufus, 49, his wife of almost 20 years. He opens his backpack to reveal another empty bag, which he takes out and stuffs with about 15 loaves of bread, which they will freeze and eat for weeks to come.

The couple is leading me on an expedition in the East Bay cities of Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville to show me just how much stuff is free for the taking -- or at least extremely cheap -- if you're willing to spend the time and effort to look for it. Like this bread, not even a day old, discarded for a few bumps and dents.

"They know people go there, but I don't think they want to advertise it," says Rufus, making me promise not to reveal the bakery's name for fear the Dumpsters will be locked up tight. We make a hasty getaway in my car. (We're in my car, because, naturally, Rufus and Lawson don't have one.)

Rufus and Lawson are the authors of the new book "The Scavengers' Manifesto," a do-it-yourself handbook and love letter to the joys of salvaging, swapping, repurposing and reusing stuff. Getting something for nothing -- or close to it -- is their way of life, and it defines what they wear, eat, how they decorate their home, right down to the way Lawson dispenses with the whiskers on his chinny-chin-chin. (He has literally never paid for shaving cream, using free samples that companies give away to U.C. Berkeley students to get them hooked on their brands.) These two are no slumming trust-fund babies. Rather, they save so much money scavenging that Lawson hasn't worked a full-time job in over a decade, and Rufus never has, which just gives the two writers -- they've both written other books -- time for their perpetual hunt.

Rufus defines scavenging as "any way of legally acquiring stuff for cheap or for free -- any way that's not full price. That's anything from clipping coupons and getting discounts to picking something off the ground, to going to yard sales to the Dumpster." While the duo clearly revels in saving money on something other people pay top dollar for, like fancy bread, they also relish the constant sense of the unexpected that comes with scavenging. Instead of going out and getting what you want, like a regular shopper, you accept and even delight in whatever you happen to find.

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