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Nunc Dimittis

The Bins

On dumpster diving.


Three friends and I have a standing date once a month during toddler naptime where we go to the Goodwill outlet and sort through the overflow from the local stores. The outlet runs the event like a race: the merchandise is rolled out every hour in large blue containers—The Bins, as we call them—and we buy by the pound. We line up on a red line, and when the whistle blows, we are free to cross it and begin picking. After an hour, the whole thing resets. My first time, I walked in during a rest period. Everyone was standing behind the tape, and men with vests were bringing out new containers and sliding the bins back into place. Two were on crowd control, making sure everyone stayed off the floor. When the whistle blew, I waded in hesitantly, avoiding elbows. But by the end of the hour, I had to be beaten back to the tape with everyone else. We watched with a twinge of sadness as the oldest bins were wheeled away, their entire contents destined for the landfill. It occurred to me that there is very little difference between this and going through the dumpsters.

We are not the only ones hooked on The Bins. When I first saw the sign for the Goodwill Outlet World, I thought it was a bit excessive, but I now know it is accurate. There is a whole world at The Bins. There are the usual eccentrics who all seem to know each other. There are the homeless of Denver, who are there probably more out of necessity than amusement. There are also multi-generational immigrant families who are camped out along the perimeter, smiling and sorting their wares, happily chatting. Then there are the suburban moms like me. There are even some well-to-do ladies in gloves, literally too afraid to get their hands dirty. Still, they come to the trash heap. Together, we look like the dime store version of that old Coke commercial. It’s the love of trash that unites us.

I have wondered why I enjoy this experience so much. Dumpster diving is a world away from thrifting, which is more like regular shopping. In the stores the items feel new. They have been curated, sorted, and presented as useful. The Bins have none of this pretense. They bring me into uncommonly close contact with the finitude of created things. The objects there are about to be thrown away—and it is a small miracle that they have been given new life right at the end. At The Bins, by some twist of fate, it no longer matters whether you are a perfect one hundred percent wool Christian Dior blazer or half a pair of socks with the heels worn out. Both end up at The Bins. And only a person who takes a special interest in these things, which have no real value of their own and can do absolutely nothing to save themselves from imminent destruction, will lift them up just before they are whisked away and buried.

Maybe the eccentric people of The Bins find a community there because they have a sense that they share some affinity with the items in the blue caskets. Like the leftovers in the bins, they feel discarded, used, mixed up, of dubious origin, or questionable value. Maybe it’s good to recognize that from time to time some very valuable items end up in the garbage. I suppose this is the case with me, too. I love the trash because I share something with it. Someday I will also be rolled away in a container and laid in the ground. But I know that it doesn’t end there: I have faith in someone above Who also loves to sift through the mess down below and Who promises to lift me up on the last day.

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Mattie Vennerstrom is a Ph.D. candidate and teaching fellow at the Catholic University of America currently writing her dissertation and raising her family from Denver.

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