Dumpster diving is a lucrative occupation. For those of you who don’t keep a deerstalker hanging in your closet, I’ll explain that dumpster diving is P.I. lingo for trash recovery. Which is regular person lingo for stealing except that a few years ago the Supreme Court in its wisdom decided that anything you put out on the curb is fair game for scroungers and investigators alike. Which means finding out when the municipal sanitation engineers make their rounds and getting there at least an hour or two before them. And being paid $150 or more for each of your early morning acquisitions.
From an investigator’s perspective, a lot can be learned from someone’s trash: eating habits, reading habits, drinking habits. I worked one custody case where the sole proof we had of a custodial father’s out-of-control alcoholism was the liters -- and yes, the LITERS-- of supermarket rum we found on our twice weekly ‘dives’. It took two large shopping bags to bring all the empties to the judge’s chambers, and at that point even the argument of compulsive rum-cake baking didn’t hold water. Or even cola. Those bottles were much less in evidence. Our friend liked his poison neat.
He also liked a number of other interesting things, like canned yams and paper towels decorated with fruit and spearmint chewing gum. Only the gum made sense in relation to the alcohol consumption, but all of it, everything we found over a three month investigation created a picture of an individual more thorough than anything his ex had been able to tell us.
We are not only what we eat and drink, but what we collect, consume, acquire and dispose of.
From a writer’s perspective, a lot can be learned from some fictional dumpster diving into your characters. What would we be likely to find in Scarlett O’Hara’s trash -- used draperies? And how about Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s recyclables on board the starship “Enterprise”: old Earl Grey tea bags is my guess. Detective Columbo of t.v. fame would throw out his cigar stubs. And the used cat litter generated by Koko and Yum-Yum in “The Cat Who...” mystery series would be considerable.
A peek at what has yet to be tossed is also instructive. As a licensed private investigator, I am governed by the same laws as average citizens when it comes to accessing private property. That is, I can’t, unless invitited. But over the years I’ve discovered -- out of necessity -- a myriad number of ways to get myself legally ‘invited’ into a subject’s home or office. I routinely carry a photograph of one of my cats, Friday, who it seems is forever getting lost in just that neighborhood where the subject lives. Knocking on doors with mascara stains under my eyes, clutching a photograph of dear old Friday kitty almost always gets me invited into the living room in order to access the back yard, where my cat may be hiding (along with the stolen motorboat, as in one case), or into the garage, where my cat may be hiding (along with the dented automobile as in a hit and run case).
Garage Sale signs and For Sale signs are other legitimate means I’ve used to gain lawful entry. Especially in investigations of financial misconduct, it’s not uncommon to find the subject selling his house and/or possessions as a means to raise quick cash. And I, as a P.I., was fortunate to locate a real estate broker who was a former Pinkerton security agent. We got along famously.
Once inside, souvenirs and memorabilia on display will tell not only where a person has visited but where they are often likely to flee to, if pressure is applied. Family photos can also confirm the existence of Mom in Duluth or a best friend in Dallas or even time in the armed services complete with the requisite ‘Fort Patriotic’ sign in the background.
‘Rosebud’ was a childhood sled one famous fictional character never let go of. Possession of other items -- like a statue of the Maltese Falcon -- trigger a whole other series of events. And a pair of ruby slippers were more important to Dorothy then any frequent flyer miles she could have accumulated.
So what do your characters have on their shelves, on their pianos? What do they cling to for comfort in the darkness of night? Keying on an object or a talisman as part of your character is not only a way to give your character personality or depth, but can be used to signal their presence or absence without specifically saying so. Romance novel verbiage notwithstanding, I’m less likely to perceive the recent departure of a person (or a character) from the “lingering scent of her perfume” than I am from a favorite CD left playing on the stereo. Or a pair of ruby slippers tucked neatly under the bed.
We all have our treasured possessions. We all have our habits reflected in our routine discards. Since our real essence, who we are in our hearts and souls, can never truly be seen, we are all often judged by the things with which we surround ourselves. Our trash and our treasures tell the story of whom we believe ourselves to be.
And again, from an investigator’s perspective, it’s from a subject’s trash and treasures that we begin to understand such things as motives and uncover a subject’s habits and secrets. And from a writer’s point of view, it’s from these props that the reader can delve more deeply, more intimately into our story and our characters.
Leave Pandora’s Box to the mythical gods of old. You can learn everything you really want to know inside a sturdy Dempsey Dumpster.
Just another tidbit from the Center for the Slightly Skewed.....
It's an impossible mission on a derelict ship called HOPE'S FOLLY. A man who feels he can't love. A woman who believes she's unlovable. And an enemy who will stop at nothing to crush them both.