i eat food that i find on the street. certainly not everyday, and definitely not when anyone besides a good friend or a complete stranger catches me. (if you never knew i did this you can now consider us good friends.)
i lift lids of discarded pizza boxes, and dramatically tear asunder trademarked bags of franchise food while placidly strolling the vacant streets alone, the drunken nights a cue for my improvised sonnets. styrofoam take out containers are the treasure chests of the street, and i know a dirty diaper when i see one. this is one of my sixth senses, and a prodigal skill that my mother tried her best to suppress.
the fleeting memories i have of my mother punishing my earliest attempts of shoplifting candy and eating found food are no more than foggy vibes, and yet an image of the red lollipop covered in wood chips still stands out. holding my hand as we crossed the street she pointed out that red lollipop and said, “look at that lollipop jonathan. when you were five i could not have stopped you from grabbing it.” although i was repulsed by that red lollipop covered in wood chips, my mother’s belief that her behavioral conditioning was a success had backfired; that red lollipop covered in wood chips sat in my mind as a looming symbol of rebellion.
even away from the street my miserly qualities surfaced, as i often waited patiently for my lunch friends to offer their refuse. one day, before first period, tom booth volunteered the bacon that fell from his bacon sandwich, (a roll containing nothing but dry bacon; the cafeteria probably just ran out of eggs on the days these were served) the rarest of the middle school breakfast sandwich lineup. that scrap of fallen bacon contained more flavor than all of the bacon on all of the bacon sandwiches because it caught me by surprise. i wanted daily bacon, but i understood that eating it everyday would dilute its significance. instead, if i waited long enough i would receive a tasty surprise which was always more flavorful than a daily routine. i watched tom booth become bored (and fat) by the breakfast sandwiches he consumed daily and lived in wait for that next bacon moment to strike.
home was where food was expected, and bound to the snacks and the meals that my mother fed me i became bored by the plentiful freshness that greeted me there. the need for a delicious surprise gripped me; i wanted the greedy and unrealistic prospect of unexpected treats all of the time. i would find this paradise, but first i needed to survive the tedious gauntlet of a four year degree.
college was endless free food, and not a morsel was flavored with wonder. to entice attendance in students there was free pizza at nearly every club meeting. twice daily visits to that dining hall actually made buffets feel like a tired chore. trash cans were far from the receptacles of inspiration they became in new york.
a year after graduating i landed a job selling subscriptions to the ny times at summer street fairs. i stalked the food booths when the fairs closed at the end of my first day in new york, and bartered my ny times brand tchotchkes for display food, which i narrowly rescued from the trash. i was homeless in training, and recalled the flavor of excitement as i crouched beside the fence guarding gramercy park from the public. new york was the place where i could eat without spending, and without anyone to stop me i was going to pig out the way my heavenly maker intended. i had rediscovered myself, just like when charlie babbitt rediscovered his rain man after years of separation.
in these early days i recall investigating an eerie box of snacks that were covered in flies and worms on a mid afternoon stroll to my new apartment’s nearest graveyard. hopeful and persistent, i dug through the box and overturned all of the suspiciously punctured bags before snapping out of this tunnel vision and observing my surroundings in a busy industrial park. not all found food in new york was going to be edible.
but opportunities for edible free food were hidden all around me.
before boarding the staten island ferry i was on the receiving end of a full trash bag of pre-packaged starbucks lunches. the employees were eager to give away the food that tasted like fiberglass the longer i let it sit in my fridge. after i got neil a job selling subscriptions to the ny times, we shamelessly dug through the garbage outside of pomme frites (rip), eating the discarded fries and sauces that tourists and affluent new yorkers took for granted. neil and i cherished our vagrant’s curiosity. investigating a strong garbage lead is chiefly about the surprise, good or bad. the kindly deep fryer of pomme frites noticed our shameless diving and took pity on us with some free fries and sauces. parading our desperation had its benefits.
over the past few years i have eaten more pizza from the street than from the pizzeria. i found a full carrot cake that i shared with my roommates which inspired a short story, a box of crab flavored kettle chips on my annual birthday trek to the graveyard, and three bags of carmine’s spaghetti; leftover catering of steak and salmon from the sweet sixteens that were so common during my david stark days; two chicken sandwiches and a quarter pounder with cheese that were hidden beneath the surface of a trash can that i shared with john and daniel at the greenpoint mcdonald’s; half a chicken parm and prosciutto sandwich that was still wrapped in foil and warmed by the sun on the way to a dinner date…i’ve found and eaten sushi in front of a 24-hour organic deli before, but sampling the hot sushi from that summer puddle last year was a misfire that i cannot regret because i spit it out and didn’t get diarrhea. walking hopelessly on an la highway at midnight, i pursued an enigmatic box on the sidewalk that contained half a sandwich, giving me the strength to continue my quest to an unknown destination.
the mermaid parade has been a yearly source of unpredictable treasure food as its crowds ensure mountains of garbage to shamelessly sift through. this event has brought me to the brink of obsession, as i always become full on trash, and obsessively monitor every trash can i pass. greg’s usually carefree gaze became marred by condemnation as he observed me moving along the trash cans lining the pier, staying one step ahead of the sanitation team who worked to empty them. i watched his doubt turn to respect when he asked me for a bite from the platter of fried seafood i procured from a can.
my mermaids offered no questions when i emerged from the crowds with half a sicilian pie after disappearing for only two minutes. they were delighted to see me, and i was more than delighted to share my bounty with them.
these days i slink in the background when set catering wraps, falsifying a coincidence to eschew any suggestion i was scheming for their edible refuse. i am always grateful when i am given too much food to carry home, so i can share my spoils with my coworkers (ex-doubters that have been silenced by my extraordinary trash prowess; show me someone that doesn’t like unexpected gifts and i will show you a fucking liar.) these are the perks of working at a production studio, and these are the circumstances that can turn an opportunist into an obsessive.
these habits have never impaired my physical health, but at times i question their affect on my mental health. i scrutinize every trash can that i pass, and physically investigate many more trash cans than the choice bounty i’ve listed above suggests. keep in mind that these are treasures, and they are found only by the most determined explorers. i never become upset when an investigation returns empty handed because i never expect to find anything. it’s free to look, so i keep looking, and the possibility is what really keeps me interested. new york city garbage is an open secret that everybody avoids because they are too prim to plunge and too worried about “germs.” i choose to see streets that are literally filled with opportunity.
eating “garbage” has given me the tools to succeed by teaching me the value of perseverance. there is nothing wrong with obsession if applied to a productive pursuit, and if i can apply the same unflinching attitude that accompanies trash exploration to all of my endeavors i believe i can find success. exposing my secret behavior has forced me to think about my actions, as attempts to change have historically faded; even when i was making good money i was scoping the trash cans for treasure. i think that i will always be excited by the prospect of finding and eating food, no matter how successful i become.