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My trashy adventures Dumpster-diving in the '90s

There was always good stuff in the Dumpster behind the strip mall on DI and Sandhill. The shopping center had a Pizza Inn and a photo hut, so you would have to dig through a few archeological strata of slimy cheese and grease-soaked boxes to get to the treasure: the photos. The photos were discards and rejects, often sunspotted with bad flash or overexposure, but their entertainment value was undiminished. The majority of the glossy 8 x 10s were of people walking over hot coals, their faces taut in transports of ecstatic fear and exhilaration. (The ritual was, we surmised, the culmination of some personal empowerment seminar that took place in the mountains.) There was another category of photos, too, more mysterious and strange. The photos were of middle-aged women posing in ornate blackstrap bondage gear, sometimes in oddly innocent poses of tenderness or supplication with a taxidermied bear.

Behind the Albertsons on Charleston and Bruce, we would raid the Dumpster to dig up cardboard flats of bruised apples, oranges, and pears for matches of fruitball, a made-up sport of ours that basically entailed whacking fruit with planks wrenched from pallets. By the time we were done, the back loading-dock area smelled like the misty epilogue of some psychedelic Skittles typhoon. Further east on Charleston, we would find leather straps, buckles, and the occasional prosthetic limb in the garbage behind Carefree Footwear. They always had a vaguely haunting quality of loss and grim adaptation.

It was 1989. We were a crew of young, dumb skate rats, and we were apparently immune to hepatitis. Dumpster-diving was a spiritual supplement to the presumed subversion of skateboarding (which was a crime, man). These were the days when garbage was still just garbage — who would want that? — and not the raw material for tabloid scoops, identity theft, or doxxing. Dumpster-diving offered us a glimpse into a subterranean stream of Las Vegas secrets: our desires, our alter egos, our hidden aspirations, our wastefulness. That’s a fancy philosophical gloss applied retroactively; at the time, we’d guffaw and gleefully publish our finds in our oh-so-subversive Xeroxed punk ’zines.

I’m embarrassed to admit that this wasn’t just a phase, wasn’t just some florid but fleeting syndrome that grew out of suburban boredom. At first, we would routinely raid a few Dumpsters after hitting our favorite weekend skate spots. But over the years, it developed into a pastime on its own. We became practiced, methodical, then skilled. We began equipping ourselves with long-sleeve pullovers, flashlights, gardening gloves, and sticks for poking through gaseous, suppurating trash bags. (With some inexplicable penchant for professionalism, we insisted on calling the sticks “probes.”)

I should note that Dumpster-diving wasn’t fun or pleasant. After all, you’re in a Dumpster. I think the compulsive attraction of it, though, had to do with the tantalizing core proposition: For any shop that presented itself to the world with a bright sign and welcoming storefront, the Dumpster behind it told a different story — maybe not something so grandiose as “the truth,” but it always promised an Easter egg of additive meaning or resonance. At Bookstar on Maryland near Flamingo, we’d dig up their unsold paperbacks. Other than the fact that the covers were torn off and the books were mostly hacky fantasy and sci-fi, they were perfectly good. The literal waste of words struck me, a wannabe writer, as a cosmic misdemeanor. Would we find discarded Bibles and crucifixes behind the Christian Supplies Store? (No, just broken shelf fixtures and primly flattened cardboard boxes.) And it would be just too good to be true to find wigs in the wig store Dumpster, right? (But we did.)

One Friday night, we hit Industrial Road, that lurking shadow Strip where many of the complexes comprised gleaming clusters of adult clubs and video stores. Behind the shopping center anchored by the Can Can Room strip club, we fished a stack of VHS tapes from the trash bin. The tapes had the beckoning, gravid heft of the forbidden.

As luck would have it, one of us who by day passed as a polite, reliable, mature young man with a good GPA happened to be housesitting for an elderly neighbor that weekend. Her quaint and placid living room was promptly commandeered for a double-feature screening of She-Male Nurse Academy and Jeff Stryker: Just You and Me. How we rolled and howled in mocking disbelief at these corny spectacles of quivering, athletic schlock! Our mockery was, of course, a feint to mask the vivid discomfort of our adolescent curiosity. Which wasn’t very subversive of us, and which was, in fact, a very white, repressed, and suburban way to respond. It was as though the VHS tapes had snuck through to communicate with some hidden part of us that, momentarily persuaded by our theatrical derision, we chose not to acknowledge. But it says everything that the porn shop Dumpster became a regular stop on our raiding circuit that mapped out a second, secret Las Vegas.

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