The Scavengers' Manifesto
We review a new book by a husband-and-wife team of bargain hunters. They brake for yard sales. And dumpsters, too. They even have matching metal detectors.
Wed, Apr 15 2009 at 5:13 AM
TRASH DAY: The authors, obviously camera shy, doing what they do best. (Photo: Ina Lawson)
It’s possible to write a dry, detached book about the increasingly popular phenomenon of scavenging, freecycling and freegan-ism, but this isn’t it. Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson, a husband-and-wife team who go on the hunt together in San Francisco, practice what they preach. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors may have turned to domesticating animals and growing crops, but Rufus and Lawson are still gathering. “In a paved-over world, the modern scavenger reclaims discovery,” they write. “The modern scavenger reclaims the quest.”
Anyone who’s ever discovered the perfect bowling shirt in a Goodwill back rack or an ultra-rare Captain Beefheart in a used record shop knows the thrill of the chase -- so much more satisfying than buying the darned things on eBay or Craigslist. But the authors take if farther. They’ve got religion.
“One day we were at the home of a friend,” they recount, “when she realized that she needed to jot a quick note for the postal carrier. A trash bag at her feet was full of scrap paper on which she could have jotted it: torn envelopes, wrappers, receipts. Rather than grab one of these and scribble the note on it, she sighed, strode over to a desk, opened a drawer and pulled a sheet of thick, expensive stationery from a silver box. Upon this creamy monogrammed sheet she scribbled, ‘Leave packages on porch’.”
The authors “blanched at her brash, mindless, needless waste.” It’s amazing the hapless soul escaped with her life, because she was in the presence of true believers. They bring plastic bags everywhere they go, “because we never know what we may find.”
The book is indeed a manifesto, a set of theses nailed to the door of America’s consumer culture, which -- with 3 percent of the world’s population -- consumes 25 percent of its natural resources. They’re mad as hell when they learn that, according to the Clean Air Council, Americans discard an average of 56 tons of trash each year. “Consumer culture,” they snarl, “causes atrophy. Instant gratification renders the gratified lazy. Weak. Incurious.” You better believe this pair brakes for yard sales. And dumpsters, too. They have matching metal detectors.
Rufus and Lawson (pictured left) found a diamond ring once. Honest. It paid back decades of following every crack in the sidewalk. But their book is about more than just finding things; they devote sections to bargain hunting, too. According to The Scavengers’ Manifesto, the first yard sales were in the 1960s. What did people do before that? Oddly, they fail to mention that their much-loved “yard sales” have regional variations: In my neck of the woods, they’re called “tag sales,” though other parts of the country label them “garage sales.” “Estate sales” aren’t always what the name implies, but are usually worth visiting. In these pages, we’re bluntly informed, “Estate sales look like yard sales … But while yard-sale hosts are still alive, the former owners of estate-sale merchandise are usually dead….”
One is tempted to quote this book at length, because the authors are such entertaining writers. The section in which they find a wallet stuffed with more than $500 in cash is itself worth the cover price. They spend 45 minutes scouring the Internet for the owner’s phone number, and then imagine the fulsome thanks awaiting them during an emotional reunion. Instead, the woman -- who they note has a tattoo on her neck and dyed-blue hair, not resembling her license photo in the least -- just grabs the wallet, mutters “Okay” and stalks off.
“Well, excuuuuuse me,” they imagine themselves saying to their interlocutor’s retreating back. They “had imagined tears, ecstasy, relief, rewards, rapid-fire explanation of how it was lost and found, and a reaffirmed faith in humanity. But no.”
If you want a real guide to scavenging, this is probably not it. It’s a manifesto, damnit, where you can find the “Twelve Commandments of Scavenging” and a user’s guide to Freecycle.org. A nuts-and-bolts book you might seek out to complement this one is the 450-page Choose to Reuse by Nikki and David Goldbeck (Ceres Press). It was first published in 1995, so some of the phone numbers might not work, but it’s still worth buying. Used. Amazon.com has it for a dime.