The Queen of Glean, or high-life among the lowly

Where success isn’t measured by the fatness of your wallet, but by the length of your apple-picking rod...

by Anonymous

I live in the ugliest house on Dogdin Drive. And second-to-smallest. You’ve definitely seen me. I’m the one who hung a note in your apple tree asking permission to pick.

I look…different. The shaggy clothes, the sun-blasted skin, the fact that I’m not in a rush. There’s something not quite right. I might be in your way.

This is an account of how an unusually creative “cheap-lance” writer survives—nay, thrives—in a county better known for its extravagant displays of wealth.

So much is made of our millionaires—the 20 percent whose domiciles are tour destinations, whose cars turn heads and whose clothing speaks volumes. Even their slow food plays hard-to-get. Celebrated, denigrated and imitated, yes. But are millionaires typical?

Far from it.

Only a fraction of us could opt for this top-shelf way of living and yet, on the whole, we are practically dictated to follow suit.

In the interest of showing how the bottom 1 percent of the non-indigent Marin residents live, I propose a little tour of a parallel universe. That inhabited by the “thousandaires” who perhaps moved here a decade earlier, didn’t take out second mortgages, saw the kids fledge (or forgot to have them in the first place) and realized that life could be much simpler with a slight shift in priorities.

You see, my husband and I forage for much of our food, and we get around by bicycle. We—this lower crust, as it were—have added depth of flavor, diversity and renown to Marin since the days Thaddeus Welch lived in a shed at Steep Ravine. That we continue to adhere, where so many are flung off, recommends our lifestyle as no amount of cash can.

Adulthood has a few surprises

Because of the geography, climate and demographics, I can get most of my necessities for free—as long as I can wait. In order to wait, you need to have time. And everyone knows: Time equals money. (Well, not really. If that were true, you could opt for more time instead of a raise at work. And last time I checked, they aren’t handing out Fridays off as a job enticement.)

Americans throw out 99 percent of what they buy within 12 months of purchase. This area gleaner's recent 'find' shows the kinds of things going to waste.
Americans throw out 99 percent of what they buy within 12 months of purchase. This area gleaner’s recent ‘find’ shows the kinds of things going to waste.

My journey toward the gleaning lifestyle began decades ago, when one day in high school our health-ed teacher drew a big circle on the chalkboard under the words Financial Picture. He slashed a couple more lines in it, making a pie chart of three roughly equal parts. The fact that I carry this simple graph around 40 years later means he reached me.

“If you think school is a bore,” he said, “adulthood has a few surprises in store for you. Like how hard it is just to keep your head above water, financially.”

That was funny. Our classroom didn’t have any kids who worried about financial survival.

“Here’s how much time you’ll spend earning the money for a car,” he said as he shaded in one third of the pie.

“That’s including gas and maintenance…here’s how much time goes into buying a house.”

He colored another segment.

“This last bit? Recreation.”

It was a pretty scrawny triangle. I raised my hand.

“What about sleep? A third of our life?”

“Well…”

“When do you relax? What if I rode a bike, and rented…?”

So here we are now, half a lifetime later, with me pigged out on the biggest recreation slice I could possibly eat.

In perfect health. With time to spare. No money, either.

Maybe “time” is the explanation then for why I feel like Leona Helmsley’s sweet-tempered twin—the richest lady in Marin. Not that I want to compete. Half my friends are vying for the same title.

But I’ll settle for the Queen of Glean.

The Queen of Glean

My 25-year stint in the wide-open spaces of the country’s richest county can be viewed as a work in progress. I’ve had lots of practice learning the secret routes between the towns, the good places to get the fruit and precisely how hard I have to work to break even at the end of every fiscal year.

Sometimes I even get the cool jobs that others would pay to do: lookout on Mt. Tam; bicycle coach; artist’s model; restaurant critic.

My mom called me an “income poop” because I wouldn’t crawl above the poverty line, whatever that is. Who’s drawing the line?

The fact is, I measure everything differently; I treasure time instead of money. Madison Avenue’s materials economy is a vile joke, especially if you’re fundamentally happy. Basically, if they say it’s good, run for the hills. Really good things don’t need to advertise.

It’s nothing new to say that if you value what others cast off, you might find yourself busy indeed—busy collecting and rehabbing what you feel shouldn’t have been cast off. Maybe I’m just a step or two away from working at the Salvation Army, which has done so much good for so many people, but I’m not in the least bit disabled.

My friends and I keep an eye out for each other’s wants. Perhaps this hunter-gatherer mentality is innate, and maybe shopping satisfies it for other people. The sheer randomness of “the find” guarantees a tingle of surprise and delight (warning sign of possible serotonin flush, addiction alert!) as I jam “the find” into my waistband and push off, calculating where I’m going to put it when I arrive home to Squalid Manor.

Foraging can get out of hand. Look around your neighborhood. Every block has at least one pack rat, doesn’t it? Bringing property values down?

Like the gleaners of old, I feel no shame picking up what is lying on the ground. (Repeat to self: I am rescuing these towels…boxes…bottles…)

I maintain a pocket map of the apple, fig and lemon-laden trees, grapevines, feijoa gardens, walnut trees in my neighborhood—plus their seasons, and the disposition of the homeowner.

Look over your neighbor’s fence. Check out the surrounding trees. Every June through August the residential roadways are paved with plum jam, every winter with crushed olive residue. Walnuts look like exploded brains (with little brittle helmets) evenly squished over the asphalt. Fig trees are considered a big mess by a few and often taken out despite their beauty and age.

In general, a note hung on the fence of the yard with a ripened tree works magic. Permission has almost always been extended, a vast improvement over the stop-and-rob technique of my 20s. Maybe age does have its privileges.

I’ve been called St. Packrat. Also, the Global Village Idiot. I never pass a Dumpster without looking in. If things look good I come back with a trailer. My clothes are incredible (Marin women have lovely taste) and my shoes are the best. I am known for my sartorial style. My very favorite find is the Queen of Glean’s throne—a hand-built Adirondack chair from the 1950s made so well it didn’t bust apart when pitched into a massive industrial Dumpster near my place. It remains the single most amazing thing I’ve ever found in a big yellow box. It is painted a mucilaginous green, and almost disappears into the garden.

I have a finely tuned animal sense of when people are going to move away. Realtors’ signs help, too. The panic and the tumult and probably the great cost of moving things makes people have to jettison pure treasure. Just a couple of months ago an entire kitchen’s contents fell my way. Someone threw away a metal tin (unopened) of Scharffen Berger cocoa (cost: $10), plus several pounds of organic apples in their supermarket sack; ditto oranges, a sack of rice, many herbs and spices (which I compost). Little French pepper grinder. Sugar (and the bowl it was in). Numerous kitchen implements. Artichokes. We still enjoy that pepper grinder; everything else was gobbled up.

I wonder (not often) if I’m breaking laws when I raid the Hefty bags poised on the driveway when the house is sold. Then I turn the page.

The Salivation Army

Restaurant chefs build layers of flavor using slow-simmered stocks. Following each “find,” I began diverting some of the good stuff before it went to the compost bucket. (We pour a 3-gallon bucket per day of unused gleaned fruit peels and vegetable matter into my compost. Keeps the worms happy as hell, but those calories!)

Thanks to gleaning, I learned more about vegetarian cuisine—since the only meat we got was from the carcasses friends would save for me. I know that sounds atrocious, but remember, to me, hurling nutrients is a crime. Yet even after trying to eat all I gather, there is still just too much! And I wondered: What if we had a club where members alternated preparing a locally gleaned meal for four to six people who live within five miles of one another?

I know a few real chefs, as well as other foodies, who made perfect conscripts to the club. When I brought up the possibility of getting together these meals on a regular basis, it became clear that any structure would kill the club before it was born. So this “Salivation Army” of six chefs has remained in Urban Myth form: a loose-knit rumor of cooks who can whip up (so much for the slow-food idea) an entire meal—not potluck—for familiar (and understanding) people for under $10. Total. Ten clams cash outlay for six people, just over a buck apiece. OK, not including wine or beer. To screen out snobs, Dumpster diving is encouraged.

This presumes a pretty well-stocked pantry (which is expected to be raided, thus depleting it—a good thing to do). We’d considered making it potluck, but to have a meal prepared three, four or five times a year without having to lift a finger—for the price of doing it once a year yourself—seemed superior to schlepping to a potluck every other month. I enlisted my friend Carol, an accomplished home cook who, like me, pores over the French Laundry Cookbook for fun, looking for ideas more than recipes; I conscripted Ed Brown, the star of the recent documentary, How To Cook Your Life.

One particular evening it was my turn. Carol and her husband Bob brought a bottle of sauvignon blanc and I’d prepared these simple dishes (all ingredients from the “back-door catering company”):

Vegan Rainy Day risotto (“has a few leeks”)

Roasted carrot soup

Sautéed garden chard with garlic

Butter lettuce salad

Apple crisp with walnut cinnamon topping

I routinely draft a menu, no matter how few courses. Maybe it’s just me, but reading a menu does something chemical (think Pavlov). Plus, it’s impressive as hell…and besides, having it written down not only documents where my culinary curiosity took me that day, but also helps remind me to take the casserole out of the warm oven and serve the damn thing. There have been Salivation Army feeds where the choices were so many that a dish got overlooked, in spite of having it on the menu. (With no waiter to vent at, there is little likelihood one of the diners will complain about the missing tiramisu. On second thought—who forgets they’re due a dessert?)

Dress for success

Clothes come from boxes set out on the street periodically. Not the ones labeled “donation”…the ones labeled “free.” There is a difference! In some instances, sad, flat clothes are pulled off the roadside, washed, rehabbed and either donated to the Salvation Army or put to my own nefarious use. (How many saggy sweaters have I felted to add a few stiff wool flowers to a boring jacket?)

Twice every year, the women in the Bay Area old-time music community gather to swap their clothes. These women represent the pinnacle of DIY spirit, and for an entire Saturday someone’s house is turned into a giant Salon des Refuses (rejected finery—looks better on you, dear). It is an unusual spectacle (sorry, no gents) to see a dozen women ripping off layers and piling them back on, impatient for mirror time, and enthusiastically swapping opinions about that particularly wonderful old skirt that used to be Lynne’s. (Everyone has something that used to be Lynne’s; her taste is impeccable and she seems to find more great stuff and churn her rejects back to the rest of us—where they are snapped up the way luxury branded stuff is at a duty-free shop.)

Housing. Whenever possible, barter.

Until I met my mate I traded work for my rent; my first job in the county was as a nanny, with outside housecleaning gigs (being young and flexible and disposed to simple domestic labor). In 1980, such work required no résumé.

I lived with a single mother who had a 7-year-old boy; I took charge of his morning routine and after-school care. Midday I reported for housecleaning duty at an impeccable Sausalito home.

“It’s a wreck!” my boss would say. “I haven’t had time to clean up for you…” Wow, I guess it’s true that people clean up for the housecleaner! This was the kind of home where you take off your shoes (a reasonable inconvenience in the service of the goddess Hygieia). Everything looked spotless. My job was simple: murder the microbes. And so I’d grab the basket of cleaning supplies and scrub the impeccable rooms.

(In the “only in Marin” column: Every wastebasket was packed with snipped-off price tags, plastic wrap, shopping sacks and boxes and at the bottom, all those little T-shaped thingies.) I finally had to give up the charade of cleaning Mrs. De Point’s tidy home. My handiwork was no match for her X-ray vision.

Within half a year, I’d met my future husband, relocated and nailed a job teaching at a women’s gym. I was ensconced, and my third decade beckoned…

And so here we are now in Squalid Manor (or is the Taj Mahovel?) Buying early isn’t a tactic, it’s an accident of fate—because it probably means you were born earlier. Marin County has a markedly mature population. Many early birds never saw a reason to leave the county. As the decades went by, and the mortgage got paid off, it became evident that selling and leaving with a wad of cash would mean no possibility of return. The hole closes quickly after you—assuming you’re in the Wealth of Experience Club. You can’t return to buy another home because the prices will have escalated. So sticking around is a brilliant tactic, and you get to “own” all public land as far as the eye can see. Our particular patch of heaven resembles a shoebox, with asbestos siding and all the windows insulated with bubble wrap—guaranteed to get a stare or two. Fortunately, there is no restriction on the number of clotheslines we can string up in the yard, or what color the house is. (I’m leaning toward polka dot, about a foot across, in tribute to Zippy.) We have four rooms arranged in a square, and a tiny bathroom. Most of our living takes place in a couple of “zones” sprinkled around, since the house is so unremarkable (read: cold) and small. All around—in the garden mostly—are the bits of metal and wood as befits a pack-rat engineer.

More than a lifestyle choice

Marin’s original inhabitants, the Coastal Miwoks, enjoyed such natural bounty and easygoing climate that they were unprepared to defend their millennia-old and highly sustainable way of life from marauding missionaries, soldiers and settlers. This has set the motif for waves of newcomers who succumb to the next wave and the next. I am constantly seeking out the stories of the earlier residents…they leave so quietly, and take a quieter county with them when they go. Someone has to hang onto the recipe for Marin’s inherent mellowness.

Many neighborhoods still have traces of the plantings left by descendants of European settlers who re-created West Coast versions of their gardens back in Italy, Switzerland and Portugal—where every plant pulled its own weight by feeding the family. Whenever I see a row of olive trees (like on Manuel T. Freitas Parkway or in Ross), a plethora of persimmons in fabulous winter glory or a gnarled fig tree at every house in pockets of Fairfax and San Anselmo, I am thankful. Then I chase my gratitude down with a sincere unspoken apology—200 years late—to the Miwok who practiced sustainability in a way we can only dream of. Then I pull out my apple-grabbing pole and go to work. Before the term freegan was ever coined, Marin’s cornucopia was sustaining my husband and me at Squalid Manor.

Americans throw out 99 percent of what they buy within 12 months of purchase. Check out “The Story of Stuff” at www.storyofstuff.com for a clue about why those $5 radios cost so little—not enough to pay for the rent on the shelf they sit on. Remember the bumper sticker that read “If you’re not mad, you’re not paying attention”? The news that most of us are pitching our goods away at that rate is enough to inspire some action.

On top of the manufactured stuff we heave, half our food supply gets trucked to the landfill. For a girl who was raised in the Clean Your Plate Club, this really hurts. Seeing the yellow trucks en route to the dump, knowing they’re full of food while the assorted food charities hope to get donations of cash and cans. Neither of which nourishes a body.

For over three years, I’ve barely spent a cent on food—except for Dr. Bob’s medicinal quality chocolate ice cream (you can only get it in the finest markets, 8 bucks a pint). There is that 50-pound sack of jasmine rice that lasts us three months, so don’t be surprised if you see St. Packrat carefully balancing her quarterly load of grain between San Rafael and heaven to the west.


 

Excerpt from

“I Could Give All to Time”

by Robert Frost

I could give all to Time except—

except

What I myself have held.

But why declare

The things forbidden that while the Customs slept

I have crossed to Safety with?

For I am There,

And what I would not part with I have kept.

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