by Jeff Johnson

An opening to a way of life beckons at the southwest corner of the Riverwest Commons on the corner of Fratney and Locust. The “Free Box” announces its purpose with its handpainted name. This bin of homely, carnival-like construction invites those who pass to take what they find there that they might want, or to leave behind what they no longer need. On a recent afternoon the bin offered up an abundance of old blue jeans, shirts, dresses, some rather suspicious looking underwear, a carpet that had obviously been loved by a cat, and at the bottom, a few stray shoes. The shanty style roof of the Free Box offers little more than the hope of protection from the elements. All of its offerings that day were damp from the afternoon’s rain. What may be most significant about the Free Box is not the shabby collection of items there for the taking, but the witness it bears to the existence of a certain community here in Riverwest. The Free Box first made its appearance on the commons sometime last summer. A band of neighbors adopted it, painted flowers on it, and spent time tending it. These neighbors and their kindred are the real story. “The alleys are my WalMart,” giggles a Free Box devotee. “Since moving to Riverwest, I’ve furnished my entire house with things I’ve gathered from other people’s trash.” She explains that there came a point in her life when moving all the furniture she once had seemed like too much trouble, and so she left it behind, trusting that her new neighborhood would provide for all her needs. She continues, “When indigenous people move from place to place they take with them only a few significant artifacts, building their homes from what they find in their new surroundings.” As she moves she carries a few of her own artifacts, including precious books, but trusts the rest of her household furnishing to the bounty of what her neighbors have discarded. Whitefish Bay is a particularly ripe for harvest. “I look for FOR SALE signs,” she exclaims. “People just leave some of the most interesting things out on the front curb.” Many Free Boxers go beyond the practicality and simplicity of living off the urban landscape to assuming a lifestyle critical of consumerism. Ian, 19, has been living the “free” life for the last three years. “I try to live without spending money,” he says. “The more money you spend, the more money you need. Rather than buy things, I try to gather them in the way people did before the industrial revolution.” Under the slogan, “Living for Free,” Ian and a group of his friends even eat out of dumpsters, finding plenty that is wasted by large businesses and grocery stores. He says it’s really no different than walking down the aisle at the supermarket. Many items are still in their original packaging. “You have to use common sense as to what is edible and what isn’t,” Ian warns. “And of course, I wash everything when I get it home.” For the times when his dumpster diving yields more than he could possibly need or want, for example, forty 32-ounce cans of orange juice, Ian participates in a phone tree that allows him to share his bounty with friends. Ian acknowledges that the Free lifestyle would be unsustainable if everyone tried to live it. The cast-offs have to start somewhere as something that someone else has manufactured, marketed, and purchased. But Ian’s strong moral and social beliefs about how society should function give him hope that eventually those adopting the Free lifestyle reach a critical mass that makes the culture at large aware of just how much wastefulness there is. “If they see how many people can be supported by what is thrown away, then maybe things will change.” Of course for the homeless and the indigent in Riverwest, dumpster diving is neither lifestyle choice or political statement but necessity. Technically, both dumpster diving and taking neighbors’ rubbish from the alley or front yard are considered illegal. The law states that the trash is the property of the owner of the house until it is picked up by the sanitation department. But one Free Box advocate suggests that the amount of energy used to send out the truck, pick up the refuse, and haul it to the dump could be considerably reduced if more people would rummage their neighbors’ trash for useful discards. [Journal Sentinel reporter Crocker Stephenson followed up on this story for a 7/26/02 “Snapshot” called “Your trash is his treasure — and his dinner and his furniture, too.” Dan Knauss responded to Stephenson’s article in a September 2002 column for Current Media.] Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 5 – June 2002