Sometimes things aren't what they seem, and sometimes they are. A police officer who worked downtown relayed to me that some years ago, there was a guy who would drive to downtown from points unknown. Like a lot of commuters, he'd stop along the way and pick up a sausage biscuit from a fast food restaurant. He'd find a place to park, pull an old rusty wheelchair from his trunk, and wheel himself and his biscuit to a prominent trash can where he'd wad up the bag, biscuit and all, place it in the top of the container and wait. When he spotted a passerby, he'd pull the bag out, dig into it, pull out the biscuit and hungrily take a bite. With the finesse of an expert fisherman, and without saying a word, he was often offered a handout by his mark. When the good Samaritan moved on, he'd roll the bag back up and place it back on top of the can, wait for the next, and repeat the charade. I gather he did pretty well with it. But not everybody digging in the trash is quite so duplicitous.
I generally only see them on the weekends, but I'm pretty sure they work seven days a week. Just the other morning, I could tell one of them had been there by the still life left on top of the dumpster consisting of an old pair of bike shorts, a locked combination lock, and three full bottles of acrylic paint—black, white and red. The scavengers that comb the alleys of downtown aren't quite as showy as the scam artist. People may call them dumpster divers, but I've never seen one actually dive. Most often, they'll lift the lid and do a quick survey to get the lay of things. If the container's just been emptied, chances are it's slim pickings and a pretty deep pit to get back out of without a foothold. If it's full to the brim, there's not much room to move things around. But at half-full or so, they'll step up on the brackets the trucks latch onto and climb carefully and quietly over the side.
Some are essentially urban miners. They're looking for one thing and with a quick shake of a trash bag can assess the prospects by the rattle. Surprisingly, most of the aluminum collectors that I encounter are pretty neat about their work. I've seen them carefully remove bags of trash from a dumpster, pick through them for the cans, and then place the bags back in. Sometimes they work independently, sometimes in pairs. In the latter case, one person does the digging, tossing the cans over the side to be crushed and bagged by the other. The man and woman team I'm most familiar with usually arrive early and, judging by the sparse leftovers gleaned by those who follow, are very efficient.
Not everyone is after aluminum. A few week ago I watched a man in dark trousers and a crisp, clean white shirt slip over the edge of a dumpster and begin arranging his finds along the rim of the container. Apparently a neighbor had just moved out and had left a trove of miscellaneous items. The man in the white shirt pulled out three or four woven baskets, several neatly folded towels, a UT Vols license plate still in its plastic packaging, and an assortment of knickknacks. When he climbed back out, there wasn't a speck or a stain on that white shirt. He selected a basket of appropriate size to transport his picks, and left the remainder neatly along the rim. I took one of the baskets, but left the license plate.
Then there was the old man about a month ago. I could hear him tearing open bags and tossing things around in the container for a while before he stood up, head and shoulders popping out over the top like a ragged jack-in-the-box. A friend and I were sipping coffee and watching nearby as he fished a rancid sausage from a dirty package and took a bite of it. I caught his eye and he smiled a shy, gap-toothed grin. He raised a greasy hand and waved.
I've pointed out in this column before that there's a difference between panhandlers and beggars: Beggars don't need to lie. Panhandlers are always quick with an elaborate story. Whether he said a word or not, the biscuit guy was pulling a scam. Some things aren't what they seem. But sometimes things are exactly what they seem. And sometimes that can break your heart.
"Be careful, you'll get sick," my friend called to the man in the dumpster.
"Oh, I don't get sick anymore," said the old man, crawling out over the edge before slinking down the alley.