The Bargain That Wasn’t, Oct04


Once I discovered Dumpster diving, it quickly became an addiction. I was living in San Francisco, where space is at a premium, and any Dumpster left unlocked mysteriously fills up overnight, much to the consternation of the people who originally rented it.

So I rationalized that my picking through Dumpsters was actually a civic duty, releasing some of the effluvia and lessening the impact of rogue dumping. I was recycling.

In this manner, I furnished my apartment. The best stuff came from the best neighborhoods. Pacific Heights gave me a very nice all-wool Persian carpet, a couple of solid chairs, and more lamps than I could use. I was always finding interesting things that I couldn’t imagine anyone just throwing away.

In one Dumpster, I found a what looked like a wet suit. Best of all, it was my size! Ever since I’d moved to California, I’d been disappointed by the fact that you couldn’t just take the streetcar down to the ocean and jump in. At least in Northern California, the chilly waters of the Pacific were too cold to swim in any time of the year. But now that I had my very own wet suit, I could suddenly pretend I lived in San Diego instead of San Francisco. Surf’s up!

I’m a pretty strong swimmer, and can easily swim a mile across a placid lake. Coming from the Midwest, I didn’t know much about ocean swimming, but armed with my new Dumpster diving wet suit, I could soon brave the frigid Pacific waters, and learn what I needed to know.

With my family safe on the shore, wrapped in blankets against the blowing fog, I waddled through the surf and began to swim out to where the big breakers roared. Surfers in full-body wet suits were out there, occasionally catching a ride. I thought it would be fun to swim among them, even though I didn’t have a board and wouldn’t know how to use one if I had.

Swimming with my new wet suit proved more difficult than I had anticipated. The rubber was very thick, and it hampered my arm movements. The icy water stung my face, hands, and feet, but that stopped after they went numb. After fifteen minutes of swimming I decided to head back to shore. That’s when I found out about rip tides.

There are no life guards on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. So calling for help was not a realistic option. Even if I could have garnered someone’s attention, by the time help arrived, I would have been long gone. No matter how hard I swam, every time I stopped to check my progress I seemed to be farther away from shore. I realized I was being swept out to sea. I waved and my family waved back. I shouted “help,” but my cry was lost in the roar of the surf.

For the next 15 minutes, I wrestled with the waves and with my ever-increasing panic. It’s hard to breathe deeply when you’re terrified. But I kept at it, and eventually, long after I’d fully accepted my tragic death by drowning, my feet miraculously touched sand. I stumbled up onto the shore and collapsed in a heap. I lay there like a dead seal, heaving and occasionally coughing up the sea water.

I learned two lessons. The first was the difference between a diving suit and a wet suit. I had unearthed a diving suit in that dumpster, and diving suits are much thicker than wet suits, because you don’t really swim a whole lot when you’re diving. Divers propel themselves with their flippers, using gentle motions of their arms to guide their progress. The diving suit is thick because its goal is to help you stay warm down under.

I also realized that sane people don’t swim among monster waves without a surf board. A surfboard isn’t just a colorful prop, it’s a lifesaving device. Even if you can’t ride a wave, you and the board can still float, with you simply sitting on the thing. Since you’re riding way up on the surface of the water, the natural action of the waves will push you towards shore. Swimmers, especially frightened ones who are looking to see how far they’ve drifted, stick way down into the water. There, the rip tide sucks them out to sea.

Obviously, this bargain hunter survived his nearly fatal lesson. So when is a bargain not a bargain? When it almost kills you. Before I tossed the diving suit into the nearest Dumpster, I carefully shredded it with a sharp knife. I knew the odds were that no one else would have been stupid enough to follow my lead, but I didn’t want to take any chances.