I am convinced that scavenging has the potential to make an unchallenging modern existence worthwhile. Most of you reading this probably do not spend most of your moments trying only to survive (if so, I'm so sorry). But we're wired to be hunter-gatherers, and the classroom-and-cubicle life doesn't always cut it. Besides, a teeming city becomes magical when infused with the potential of a good old book sitting on the curb in front of a house, or a still cold iced coffee in a garbage can on a hot day. And the never stopping tides of humanity present in a big city guarantee good pickings, as all these consumers are constantly doing the buying for you, and then throwing their purchases away.
Basically, a scavenger walks around with eyes always open. For motivation, it helps to walk out the door in the morning with less money in your pocket than you really need. It also helps to be cheap, or poor. If you have money to spend, you will probably spend it. If you don't, you will find ways to survive and thrive that are infinitely more satisfying and amusing than a $7 vendi frappuchino at Starbucks. What follows is a short primer, with all of the examples firmly rooted in personal experience.
With ripped and dirty clothing being such a fashion mainstay, it makes perfect sense to acquire this look authentically and not be loser enough to buy it. The one and only time I was in Barney's, I saw for sale an utterly tattered dress for $2,000. Now, that's just dumb. Either take a pair of scissors to your own clothes (OK) or find clothing that someone has lived in and brutally ripped and make it your own. As with most things, the sides of large streets are the place to start. This is just where detritus clothing ends up: a pair of jeans, an "Arrow Security" guard shirt. Also: beaches. Beaches, beaches, beaches. People go with clothing, take it off, put it back on, and in the process lose some of it: a T-shirt, a pair of sandals. Less frequent windfalls include the goings-out-of business of businesses whose employees wear uniforms, like auto-body shops: that's an entire garbage can full of "John" and "Carl" and "Mike" labeled shirts (beat that, Abercrombie and Fitch faux-authentic "Bonnie's Pet Shop" or whatnot crap). And in train stations, where there are constantly people unceasingly coming and going, sometimes will offer you a piece of clothing thoughtfully draped over a garbage can.
Of course, you can then carry your found clothing home in a found shopping bag. There is nothing more ubiquitous than a shopping bag floating down the street. People don't stop shopping, so naturally these are everywhere, such a figure of the landscape that you probably don't even notice them. And if you need to put your hair up, just walk for a block or two with your head down, and I can practically guarantee you'll find a ponytail holder, or at least a rubber band, two other things that people use and lose, or discard. It's the triumvirate of constantly available modern disposable necessities- shopping bags, rubber bands, and, rounding it out, pens.
This, our most basic need, is generally the last thing we resort to scavenging. People are typically squeamish about what they put in their mouths. But go ahead, ask anybody who has worked in a caterering or restaurant kitchen (I have, I have) and he or she will tell you that there is nowhere else the five-second rule is so liberally applied. I say, if it looks and smells clean, eat it. A quick visual scan of a garbage can often reveals recently discarded food. While I won't eat anything I find on the floor or resting on a foreign surface, I can attest to the general safety- i.e. I haven't been sick yet- of things in containers or on paper plates.
Consumers tend to buy things and then decide that they don't like them, hence the large muffin only slightly bitten into, in a plastic tin in a garbage can. Or, they only like part of their purchase, hence, the pizza crust on a paper plate of the seat of a public bus. I can promise that if you really give your self up to the whims of urban detritus, you will eat a lot of pizza crusts. These are a mainstay- just scope out the garbage cans of local pizza resteraunts, you won't even have to dig under other trash, because there are always recently discarded crusts on top. I have also been advised that dumpsters behind restaurants and cafes are great for scavenging when these places close, though I've never gotten around to trying this myself. And while the above-mentioned iced coffee remains a mystery, it was still delicious, cold and sweet- and healthful, in that it saved me from dehydration. Fast food sized sodas are another constantly discarded item- folks buy a 50 oz. plastic cup of soda for $0.89, take a sip or two, and then toss it into a convenient trash receptacle, usually without pouring the remaining liquid away, or pissing into it.
Speaking of dehydration, there is an even more reliable source for liquid than garbage cans. Most discarded liquid in cities ends up spilled anyway, or is left on the sidewalk in a plastic bottle and proceeds to ferment (no good). I am speaking of Starbucks and its ilk, pseudo-bohemian chain cafes- the independently owned ones are generally not this reckless with their wares- tend to leave out a table stocked with "condiments" for your recently purchased coffee. This includes milk, soymilk, sugar, honey, and water. Sometimes there are cups there, sometimes they have to be swiped- which isn't really swiping, they're just cups anyway, and the employees never mind. See: Starbucks = free milk. Hotel and restaurant bathrooms are also useful sources of water. Of course, if it's a fancy hotel, try to get in and out before you start to stand out from the helpless tourist clientele, or better yet, don't. Make sure to find a discarded plastic waterbottle- with the current bottled-water craze these are everywhere, in garbage cans and on the street- to fill from a found sink, as city waterfountains are scarce and unreliable. If you're on the edges of a city instead of in the center, you can also fill water bottles up in gas stations (i.e. the bathrooms therein, from the soda fountain, or the air/water pump outside).
Update: Some of you have been skeptical about the notion of scavenging food. All I can say is, it works. This past summer I spent 2 months on the road, and in that time I only bought food three times. Two of those times were social (aka there were people who wanted me to go out to eat with them). My most reliable source of food was still sidewalk garbage cans in yuppified areas, though dumpsters behind gas stations and resteraunts were a close second, and city fairs such as San Francisco's pride festival made for occassional windfalls, a whole city of garbage cans literally overflowing with freshly discarded carnival food. It is no longer true that "I won't eat anything I find on the floor or resting on a foreign surface". I just use my judgement. I currently have the most gung-ho immune system in history, and I still haven't gotten sick yet.
While cold drink is crucial for summer in the city, warm shelter is crucial for the winter. To kill an hour or few, stores are fine. During the day, pretend to browse records, or read- read!- in a public library. At night, Kinko's is always open, and, like Starbucks, lethargic employees tend not to care less if you take advantage of their sprawling far-away employer. For sleeping, hit the subway lines- New York City's longest are the A and the F. If you're only fleeing rain, and it isn't cold, don't forget bus stops. While these are usually not furnished with benches, you can sit on a milk crate. I don't know why, but there are milk crates everywhere, though they are stridently illegal to misuse.
If you are bona fide homeless, I have no winter advice for you other than to hitchhike south. But summers I know how to handle. You have a sleeping bag, yes? If you waited long enough you could scavenge one, but blankets will come to you sooner. Try to sleep in inconspicuous places, like under bushes. I'd rather sleep at the edge of someone's backyard (this I have done, in Cody) than on a bench in a public park, as the latter is the first place that the cops will look. Remember, 1) If they're not looking for you, they won't find you. And 2) Underbrush if your friend.
Furnishings, et al:
Once again, milk crates. These are ground zero in acquiring all of your furniture from the city street. I cannot over-sing the praises of the humble milk crate. It serves all manner of storage and surface requirements, and it is readily available anywhere. I see milk crates piled, three at every street corner! No, I don't know why. Probably because people use them. Occasionally smart people use them and lock them to a lamppost, but usually not. The only drawback is that they're difficult to carry, if you're a klutz like me, you'll probably end up gashing people with them (oops). Also, "THEFT OF THIS CASE IS A CRIME". Who cares? Anyway, that's nothing compared to the postal crate- there is currently one next to me, holding my computer paraphernalia. Stealing this one can result in "a $13,000 fine or 3 years in prison". However, I did find one sitting under a mailbox and carried it on my head all through New York City for a day, and no one said a word. That's another thing about cities: everybody's busy, and nobody cares.
For actual furniture, of course, nothing beats moving households for piles and piles of treasure. Among my front sidewalk scavenging has been a corkboard, a huge box of fabric patches and trimming- I'm in the process of making it into a cape- an original "Woodstock" soundtrack record, and a book of James Thurber stories for my father. Sometimes such items, even large things like an uncracked, upright mirror, can be found at regular trash cans as well- if there's anything I want to convey it is that it is never, ever hopeless or silly to walk by garbage cans with your eyes peeled. Also, for some reason, one thing people seem to throw out more than any other is luggage. I don't know why, but otherwise unruffled households will often throw out large suitcases, often of tough, beautiful leather, as well as canvas suitcases and duffel bags, which, if not needed, can always be dismembered for fabric. Another good source for furnishings is schools, whose castaway furniture tends to bear beautiful and liberating graffiti. For example, the Summit School, at 188th St. and the Grand Central Parkway Service Road, in Queens, New York, is inexplicably always throwing away furniture- particularly desks and chairs and stools. One such stool- I'm sitting on it now- is black and beautifully splattered with blue and white paint (it must have sat in an art room), and scratched into it is "HI" and "I Soahrules".
What the hell does "I Soahrules" mean? you ask. I don't know, but that's the point. And I don't know who has worn this shirt and sweated in it before I. And I don't know what germs graced the lips of the last person who drank from this bottle. But living in a city means anonymously communing with other people all the time, and this is just a logical, beautiful extreme.