I simply explained that getting food from the trash bags wasn’t illegal, keeping a gentle smile on my face.
“No,” he insisted, “you can’t do this here. We can’t allow it. People leave it a mess out here.”
“Oh, I don’t do that. I open and close bags at the knot and leave the space looking better than when I arrive.”
He didn’t budge, but he let me take the bags that I’d filled up to that point. I went on my merry way, knowing that there was really nothing he could do to stop me. But I wasn’t there to make enemies of him or the store. I just wanted to rescue food. This happened at least three times over a couple months.
Last night I returned to the store for my weekly food rescue mission. I started, as I usually do, by finding a few plastic bags to carry my bounty home. After opening just two or three large bags filled with edible food, I decided that this would be a great night to make a display!
As I removed food items from the curbside trash pile, I laid them out tantalizingly for all the passers-by to see: eggplants, bananas, apples, grapes; shrink-wrapped bagels-with-cream-cheese; container after container of chicken and rice; yogurt of all flavors; shrimp sandwiches in their plastic packaging; bagels, baguettes, muffins. It was an amazing sight - so much good food that only moments ago was wrongfully confined to a trash bag, doomed to end up atop a landfill, a blight to some low-income community somewhere (anywhere but here). But now - now the food was FREE!
I saw the manager approaching, but kept busily to my task. I was on a mission! He came pretty close and called my attention. I looked up innocently and he looked back, not with puzzlement but with recognition – and obvious anger. I had not heeded his repeated warnings and banishments.
So with a pointed finger and aggressive stance, he said with force, “I told you you’re not allowed to do this here.”
“And I told you that I can do this here, what I’m doing isn’t illegal!”
I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went on from there, but I will do my best to approximate it.
“I said you can’t be here, you can’t do this.”
“But I said I can. You can’t stop me.”
“Yes I can, I’ll call the police.”
“Fine, call the police! Please do, they’ll tell you the same thing that I’m saying!”
“You can’t eat this, it’s garbage.”
“No it’s not, it’s food. Look at those bananas, they’re still green. Even if they were yellow or had brown spots, they would still be good food. This is food, not garbage, and I’m a hungry person.”
“This isn’t your food, you can’t take it.”
“It’s not yours either, you put it on the street as garbage. Anyone can take it now.”
By this point, tempers had really escalated. This was not at all what I wanted. I just wanted to rescue food in peace. But he was quite upset that I had undermined his authority (which didn’t exist out here) and as far as I was concerned, this was a matter of justice. I thought about how a homeless person or really any weaker-willed or perhaps less-knowledgeable person might have just resigned and walked away hungry. And all this food would return to the trash heap.
We were obviously engaged in a power struggle that could easily be chalked up to one man’s machismo against another’s fight for justice (and yes, a good bit of machismo mixed in as well). I insisted that I would take this food home and he insisted that I would not. I said that he could not stop me and that if he touched me, I would report him for assault. So he stood over the food, shoving it all into one of the large bags I had previously opened. I tried fishing a few food items from his command, but he boxed me out menacingly. He reached for a small plastic bag in my hand, which ripped in half. I grabbed a heavy bag full of bread and bagels and stepped back toward the street. He watched me angrily. I was making off with his food.
Once I stepped to the street, I shouted, “what are you going to do now? I’m not on your property anymore.” I knew that the sidewalk in front of his store wasn’t his property to begin with, but it was obvious enough to me that in his mind, it was. I quickly opened the bag across the street and liberated a few bagels, switching them to one of my smaller plastic bags. I tied up the bag and returned to the store to find that the man had been joined now by a young woman with that look of puzzlement I had previously seen in the eyes of the man.
“What’s going on out here?” She asked. I explained what was happening, but the man kept interjecting with false accusations – that I was tearing bags open (I always open and close them by the knot) and making a mess with the food (I always leave a location looking nicer than it did when I arrived). He pointed to the ripped plastic bags and food strewn about on the sidewalk as evidence.
“That’s because you didn’t let me finish!”
The young woman appeared to be conflicted, not knowing how to handle the situation. Egged on by the man I’d engaged, she called the police and reported that a man was taking food from their garbage. She described my appearance.
“Homeless?” she said over the phone, “no, I don’t think so.” I shook my head in agreement.
She hung up the phone. “They’ll be here soon.”
“Great,” I said, adding as I had already tweeted, “It’s not illegal. I’m not going anywhere.”
I stood calmly, hands folded in front of me, while the man and woman talked amongst themselves in Spanish. She then addressed questions to me, asking why I was taking food from the trash. She wasn’t antagonistic – she seemed more curious.
“I don’t have a problem with it. It’s just… policy.” She didn’t seem too sure about that.
As we continued talking calmly, it was revealed that the man was actually the security guard and the woman was the manager on shift. We made small talk as we waited for the police to arrive.
“And I was really hoping to be in bed by midnight tonight,” I said, exasperated.
When the police finally came, I explained what had happened. They addressed the manager and security guard rather bluntly, saying “he’s allowed to take food from the bags. As long as he doesn’t leave a mess, it’s not your problem. It’s our problem.”
They talked a bit longer and at the end of it all we all wished each other a good night. I continued rescuing food, three heavy bags just for myself. I shared more food with passing friends but ultimately left plenty behind, putting it back in bags and leaving the sidewalk looking even better than it did when I arrived.
Just as I always do.