Sunday, June 16, 2013


When I was a kid growing up in a trailer park in rural Western Washington State, some of the best days were when my step-dad made a dump run.  Cedar View Trailer Park didn’t provide garbage pick-up, so we took our trash to the dump every week or so.  This dump was old-school: no limits, no guidelines, just back your pick-up truck to the edge - or in my step-dad Tom's case, his light yellow Eldorado pick-up - and heave-ho. (Yes, I know it seems odd that we'd have a Cadillac Eldorado yet live in a trailer; my step-father had a series of interesting cars acquired through poker games, barter, debts collected; like the amphibious car we took to Westport so he could drive it into the water and watch onlookers gasp as he flipped switches and turned it into a functional boat.  The effect was ruined, however, when the amphibious car stalled out and the Coast Guard had to tow my step-dad and his pals back into port.  We also had a huge brown boat that we dubbed "the Ark" sitting in our yard for a few years that we joked would come in handy if the rain failed to stop come July.)

The way my step-dad *imagined* his Westport debut with the "Amphicar."

What I liked about dump runs with my step-dad was that Tommy was a born scrounger, one of those guys who could make something out of anything, or sell it to someone who could.  When I got older, I wondered if Tom, from Minnesota, was Anishinabe or Lakota.  But my sister Annette DeLeonard told me once that she’d heard Tom was a Traveler, a gypsy.  He was very dark, as dark as my real dad, with similar dimples and wavy black hair, dark brown eyes - handsome in a slick way, and charming.  He never seemed to have an actual profession; he drove semi-trucks, towed and repaired trailers, traded, bought and sold just about anything, and always seemed to have a dozen "jobs" on the line at once.  He was the kind of guy who drove vehicles he’d bartered for down our little county roads with grace and style, a cigarette in one hand and a Coke can full of beer in the other.  
Me and Tom: fishing trip.  He'd gotten this little tear-drop trailer in trade somewhere.

Once he had a job towing trailers across the border from Washington State into Canada; he took my brother Kacey and me with him a few times (I had my first taste of deep-fried prawns at a little café along the way and decided this was absolute gourmet food) until our mom figured out that Tom wasn’t so much transporting trailers as smuggling something IN those trailers, and Kacey and I were along as innocent distractions for the border patrol.  I guess nowadays, you'd call my step-dad a con artist. 

Rare photo of Tom, circa 1970?

Anyways, I loved Tommy.  He was invariably sweet and kind to me, telling me I was “smarter than the average bear” and bringing home candy or pocket change for me.  He wasn’t exactly attentive, but he didn’t have a mean bone in his body, and he was generous to a fault.  On dump runs, while he checked out potential scrounge-worthy trash, he'd let me rummage through the toys that had been thrown away to see if anything appealed to me.  I know, right? Letting your 6 or 7 year old paw through a garbage dump?!  A kid's dream.  I always found something - a naked doll, a teddy bear, a chalkboard, a book or encyclopedia, some used watercolor paints in a cool box. 

One day I found a doll about a foot tall, completely made of purple velvet fabric, with a real horsetail for hair.  I learned how to braid hair on that doll, but that's another story with an ending I don’t want to tell.

I'm thinking fondly of those dump runs with Tom because today is Father's Day, and as I gave a friend a ride back to her apartment, we passed a dumpster outside a large apartment complex.  There, abandoned on the asphalt, was a beautiful wooden dresser, and we could see all the drawers for it just flung into the trash.  Well, I had to look, didn't I?  Luckily my friend was just as curious and gorgeously uninhibited.  So we parked, got out, and looked into the dumpster.  UNBELIEVABLE! we said to each other: there's an entire apartment in there! 

We started with the brand new soccerball, for my friend's grandson.  Then we began seeing the really good stuff:  a whole bag of kitchen cooking utensils, top-quality, even some fancy knives still in their sheathes.  Baking dishes and pots and pans, glasses miraculously unbroken.  Unopened household cleaners.  A brand-new umbrella.  An ironing board.  A hand-pieced quilt, for heaven’s sake!  “I’ll bet he broke his grandma’s heart when he threw THAT out,” my friend said.  We figured it was a student, tossing out his apartment before leaving town; or, a property manager stuck with emptying a student’s apartment.  Either way, this stuff was primo scrounge.  We couldn’t believe no one had taken this to Habitat for Humanity, or called the Good Will, or even – as good manners around these parts dictate – just set it all outside the dumpster for easy pickings.  I mean, computer speakers?  Come ON!

“You know what the best part is?”  my friend asked me rhetorically as I balanced one of the dresser drawers on end so she could step up and lean over into the bottom of the dumpster.  “The best part is, you think this is fun too.  Thank you so much!  My daughter can use ALL of this stuff!”

It crossed my mind then that perhaps a newly-minted Full Professor shouldn’t be dumpster diving, at least not in her own university town.  It crossed my mind that you can take the girl out of the trailer park, but you can’t take the trailer park out of the girl.  And it crossed my mind that for five years, while my real father was in San Quentin far away, I had a daddy who taught me a thing or two about surviving at the bottom of the economic graph.  And not just surviving, but rising to levels of resourcefulness, creativity, and artistry that allowed me to become the woman I am now.  Yes, I am a professor of English.  And yes, I still love a good dumpster dive now and then: something there is about perfectly good household materials tossed out as trash that drives me absolutely fucking nuts. 

No, I am no longer that needy kid whose family lived by the “skin of our teeth,” as my mom used to say, but I know so many people who do – my friend, her daughter, her grandchildren, all trying to live on incomes that qualify them for food stamps, TANF, WIC and the food pantry.  No, I have no shame about dipping into that dumpster for that family, for the children who will be so delighted with that ball, for the mother who will wash those blankets and treasure that hand-made quilt and be grateful for a lamp in the bedroom.

And yes, though he was only in my life for five years, and things didn’t end well between Tom and my mother, and even though he died of a terrible cancer soon afterwards, that travelin’ man left his mark on me.  Thanks, Tommy.  Thanks for the practical application of survival skills you taught me.  I'll never know if you were Indian or Gypsy or any other ethnic combination.  But I do know that you were a kind man who saw opportunity everywhere.  I like to think some of that determination rubbed off on me, just a little bit.  One man's trash, you used to say, with a grin.  One man's trash.