Dumpster Diving and Dining

Ivan Prokopchuk The Globe and Mail
Facts & Arguments
November 16, 1999

Artwork: Leon Zernitsky

It was fun being a yuppie till the job died.

After employment insurance and on the brink of welfare, I was forced to spend time with lower-level social workers who would say "between you and I" all the time, while polishing their community college diplomas.

"Whom are you?" asked one, showing she'd been to night class.

I guess she'd never met a drunk or a real Master of Fine Arts before, not necessarily in that order.

Suffice to say that I soon lost my second string job and then I lost the welfare too, thus becoming the world's last free enterpriser, out behind the Tim Horton's where the big dumpster and the garbage cans were. Some time later, I tried the IGA where my girlfriend has her own dumpster "business".

It wasn't bad.

I dove for food while Daisy-Mae dove for furniture. She had an apartment at least; I had moved out of my 1981 Dodge Omni "home" at the shopping plaza and I fancied myself as a star writer for Ladies' Home Companion.

We chose dumpster diving because the food bank was low again, and chips and diet cola just weren't going to do it for us. We left the food bank not bothering to pick up the instant-popcorn-making kit.

Still there was the stigma. I was old, poor and dreadfully out of shape. At 59, you're not as supple as you think you are. What a time to start a war!

Here is a typical day.

I'd made a scramble for the dumpster rim, but got hung up on top. Time for dumpster humour.

"You know you're white trash," I yelled to Daisy-Mae over at "the other shop," "when you skin your elbows going down into the dumpster."

"Never mind," I heard my girlfriend's hollow bleat from somewhere deep inside, "I think I've fallen all the way in."

How low the mighty have fallen.

My girlfriend used to be an heiress. I had been a writer and a municipal politician.

Hard to get that Trinity College stuff out of your head: "Take whatever you can get," said old Nick Machiavelli. "And when you lose an election, claim fraud."

On the way home (she still had a car), we passed a man who was trying to smoke whitefish in the trunk of his 1983 Datsun sedan.

"We got a long way down to go yet," I breezed while noticing that, in her tumble, she'd put her toes through the ankle part of her pantyhose. If she hadn't been barefoot before, she was now.

And then, that evening, she said she might be pregnant.

Who invented my life? Who invented her life?

We seemed suddenly very much like a dope ring of two and no one was doing any chemicals.

For this I worked so hard to get an MFA?

Come to think of it, master of what?

There is an upside, even though the girlfriend threw me out when she discovered she wasn't pregnant after all.

I retreated back to my Dodge and to show all the world that I was a damn fool. I tried being a busy fool by hauling furniture for refinishers just down the road. But that collapsed when I blew up the transmission on the owner's truck.

Maybe now, in a low-rent-humour way, I could get a real job. Just think of the headline: "Local driver blows gearbox in plaza."

I needed a miracle and one was soon forthcoming.

People with whom I chummed at a restaurant would come to me with trays of food. About half a dozen women from the area would bring me gas money and food on the cold nights. Someone from the Good Shepherd brought a quilt and a pillow. The manager of the Swiss Chalet would be there some nights with takeout chicken.

At Christmas, three generations of women - grandma, daughter and little granddaughter - came with turkey and Christmas cake. It was their second try that Christmas Eve, since the other time I wasn't "home".

And my girlfriend finally offered me a place on her Goodwill couch, "since you don't seem much good for anything else."

Hey, best country in the world, eh?

Ivan Prokopchuk is a writer who now has a part-time job and a place to live in Newmarket, Ont.