Dampster Diving
by Peter Zelchenko December 4, 2009

I was riding my bike down the back streets by Belmont and Western this morning, past the rear of the monstrous Dominick's there. Consumer dread was filling my spirit. I'd seen folks camped out last night at Best Buys and other stores. When I'd ask them what they were there for, they'd say, "Black Friday."

On the one hand, I was impressed by their intrepidity, their willingness to tough it out for a few dollars in savings on consumer goods. But I wondered why at the same time it is so difficult to squeeze a few pennies' worth of food out of people for the needy of Chicago.

I hadn't even heard of Black Friday before this week. America has a historical pact between merchants and government commerce officials, where any opportunity to increase consumer spending occasions the creation of some new civic moment: certain Hallmark holidays, Christmas shopping, the Halloween costume-and-candy frenzy, etc. -- originally Christian spiritual festivals -- today have become major contributors to the health of our financial markets.

And so it was in this rather cynical, anti-holiday spirit that I was lost in thought on that side-street heading past the Dominicks, when I was alarmed by a loud rustling in one of their dumpsters. Either Dominick's was attracting some huge rats, or else someone was living in there. I stopped and listened, heart beating rapidly.


(Canadian French?!)


(It couldn't be Jacques Chirac, could it?)

I grabbed my bike cable and held it over my head. "Hey, you, president or whatever! Come out of there! Tiens-toi bien, or whatever!"

Of course it wasn't Chirac. Slowly, up over the high edge of the large dumpster rose a banana peel, and under it was the brown face of Boardwalk, that Potawatomi trapper who still lurks around these parts hundreds of years after he should have died. I'd never seen him so close to downtown. He was holding up his hands in surrender. When he saw me, he relaxed.

"Ohhh, is only you, White Man. I thought it was 'The Fuzz.'"


"Oui, les flics. They make camp right around corner. They no like dampster-divers."

"You mean dumpster-divers. No, it's illegal. Municipally speaking, you're stealing from whoever owns the trash receptacle. Find anything interesting?"

"Come see!"

I peeked into the dark dumpster. Boardwalk was knee-deep in packaged goods. Bags of bagels, apples, a pile of pumpkins. Potato chips. Most of it was still in its original packaging.

"Help me get this onto the travois." He hoisted up two huge turkeys, perfectly clean, in their plastic packaging, and I heaped them onto his drag-sled, already loaded high with baked goods, hams, and other items. There were several more turkeys in the dumpster.

"Why they not sell these things? This not conspicuous consumption, this more like simple foolishness."

"They can't sell things past the expiration date."

"They not expire. Meat not smell bad. Cakes still soft." He popped a Twinkie into his mouth.

"Uh, yes." How was I to explain this? "Thousands of Twinkies are made every hour. They travel long distances, in cold and hot weather. The maker doesn't have a precise way to predict exactly how long they will keep, so they estimate conservatively."

"Is foolishness. Go bad when they go bad. I bring this back to camp, praise the great provider for the bounty, eat like fat person. Easier than trapping, easier than catching wild turkey. Is Thanksgiving season, yes?"

"Uh, yesterday, actually. Now it's Black Friday."

"We celebrate tomorrow then, dampster bounty." He looked up into the sky and stretched his hands upward, presumably to Gitche Manitou. The banana peel slipped off of his head and dropped into the depths of the dumpster.

Have any leftovers from your celebrations? Have time to contribute?

The American Indian Center, open since the 1950s and housed at 1630 W. Wilson since 1966, is the country's oldest Indian community center. It was created when there was a huge influx of Native Americans to the Chicago area. After World War II, our government tried to limit the provisions for Indian reservations and close many of them down. There was a large diaspora from the Great Plains to the west and also from the north. Many tribes came to Chicago and AIC became an important center for the preservation of their culture.

Here's a list of places my sister and I compiled that may (or may not) accept food directly, without bureaucratic hassle. But be sure to call them first, since I haven't been able to confirm most of these:
Pat Crowley House1537 W. Rosemont773-465-368510:30-2 prep, 3:30-6:30 Sat-Sun
Inspiration Cafe4557 N. Broadway773-878-0981daily
New Moms2825 W. McLean773-252-3253daily
Rest Shelter941 W. Lawrence773-989-9882daily?
United Church of Rogers Park1545 W. Morse773-761-2500Sun evenings
Living Room Cafe806 E. 64th773-643-6018daily except Thu
Third Sunday Food Pantry5443 S. Washtenaw773-436-25583rd Sun
Breakthrough402 N. St. Louis, 3330 W. Carroll773-722-0179, 346-17857-9 pm daily
CEDA Northwest1300 Northwest Highway, Mt. Prospect847-392-2332daily am+pm

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