I’d often seen Kara rummaging through the dumpster outside the building where I work. I’d never spoken to her, though, until the day I mustered the courage to ask her if I could take her photo. She seemed curious about my intentions, but also pleased that I had taken an interest in her. As I photographed her, I asked Kara why she went through our garbage. She told me that she visited 18 locations every day and collected goods for Joseph’s Coat, a free store in downtown St. Paul that serves the homeless. She said that on an average day she collects 75-200 pounds of what she consistently refers to as “valuables.” At the end of every day she hauls home all of the items she has salvaged and cleans and sorts them before donating them to Joseph’s Coat. Kara believes that all the items she finds are valuable and can be used and reused.
Kara doesn’t drive, so she has to carry all of her finds around with her on the bus. Every Tuesday one of her friends picks up the items and brings them to Joseph’s Coat.
After taking Kara’s photo and talking with her that afternoon, I decided I would like to tag along with her someday. This was a woman who wakes up every day and selflessly goes around St. Paul collecting things for people who have nothing. I admired Kara’s dedication, and was eager to see how she worked.
One morning last week I met Kara at the dumpster where I had first seen her. It was a cold day, so I told her I would drive. She said that when she had been at one of the stops on her regular route the day before, one of the tenants had told her that he would leave her some clothes next to the dumpster.
We drove down University Avenue and talked about our route for the day. Because I am not a very good trip planner and generally like to feel my way around, I left the details up to Kara. She had her regular routine, and I was happy to be her driver.
When we got to the first location we found several brown paper bags filled with clothes. Someone had made good on their promise, and Kara was ecstatic. I had never in my life seen someone so happy to find items that a) had been discarded, and b) that would end up being given away to complete strangers. This pattern of happy surprise continued throughout the day. Every dumpster was like Christmas for Kara, but she had no intention of keeping any of her presents.
After packing up the clothes in the brown paper bags, Kara proceeded to open the dumpster. I was curious and also maybe a bit nervous. I had no idea how she was going to rummage through the dumpster. I was astonished to watch her work with a weird combination of instinct and efficiency. She first peered over the lip of the dumpster and scanned the contents; somehow she seemed to know exactly where the non-trash items (or the “treasures”) were located. She hopped and pulled herself up, resting her stomach on the edge of the dumpster, and reached for a bag, yanked it out, and tore it open to inspect the contents. Almost every time she would find something worth saving.
After poking around in a few dumpsters (and as Kara said, “finding gold”), we decided to take a break.
Another of the things Kara likes to do for others – a little side project of her salvage operation – is to make 3-by-5 index cards out of manila folders that she finds in the recycling. A few times a week Kara goes to Kinkos to use the paper cutter. She makes stacks of these cards and gives them away. As we planned the rest of our day she made a stack of the cards for me as a present.
The last dumpster we visited was close to my work, and also to Kara’s home. We spent a long time there digging. I can’t remember what we found, but as we dug we talked about our disposable society. Kara said it sickened her that so many people thoughtlessly threw away things that others desperately needed. As she executed one more hopping and lunging routine and extracted the last bag of the day from the dumpster she asked me if I knew the Pete Seeger song “Garbage.”I admitted that I didn’t. Kara then recited these lyrics: “Garbage! Garbage! Garbage! We’re filling up the sea with garbage, garbage, garbage. What will we do when there’s no place left to put all the garbage?”
Carrie Thompson’s work has explored her relationship with her family, roots, rootlessness, and restlessness. She is the recipient of the McKnight Artist Fellowships for Photographers and the Minnesota Artist Initiative Grant.
Andy Sturdevant will return to The Stroll on Oct. 24.