When Trash Is a Journalist’s Treasure

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Talk about your plenty and talk about your ills,

One man gathers what another man spills

— “St. Stephen,” The Grateful Dead

Around two years ago, a reporter who had just joined The Times, Sheera Frenkel, told me she had heard that trash pickers in San Francisco were congregating at the dumpsters of tech companies because the food they threw away was high quality. I was intrigued by this and over the next year, whenever I had a free evening, I hung out near the dumpsters of Twitter and smaller tech companies, talking to trash pickers and the homeless.

Recyclers came for the plentiful cardboard and cans, but I never found evidence that tech companies were throwing out particularly good food on a mass scale. In fact it was the contrary: I discovered nonprofit organizations — like Replate, founded by a Syrian migrant who had studied at the University of California, Berkeley — that collect uneaten food from tech companies and deliver it to homeless shelters and soup kitchens across the San Francisco Bay Area.

But my informal investigations got me interested in the world of trash picking and eventually led to my recent article about Jake Orta, an Air Force veteran turned full-time trash picker who lives three blocks from the well-fenced house of Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder.

Trash picking is nothing new in San Francisco. Generations have collected everything from furniture and appliances to lumber from the city’s sidewalks and dumpsters.

But these days garbage picking is juxtaposed with the extreme wealth that has pushed up housing costs in San Francisco to the point where a family of four earning less than $117,400 is eligible for low-income housing.

I met many trash pickers over the past two years. Some were reluctant to give their names. Others moved away. I was introduced to Mr. Orta by Nick Marzano, an Australian photographer who documents trash picking in his nonprofit magazine, Mission Gold.

Taciturn and mission-driven, Mr. Orta is a Texas native who in addition to serving in the military spent time as a cook, but fell into homelessness and substance abuse.

During a particularly rainy San Francisco winter, Jim Wilson, our bureau photographer, and I wandered the slick streets of the Mission and the hills around Dolores Park with Mr. Orta as he scoured garbage bins for things he could sell.

There are parts of San Francisco, like Nob Hill and Pacific Heights, that have long been known for mansions and luxury hotels. Mr. Orta’s neighborhood is in full-blown transition, an uneasy blend of crumbling tenements and freshly painted restored Victorian homes; grocery shops catering to the Latino working class and boutiques selling “small-batch chocolates,” designer sunglasses and fine leather shoes.

In the early evening, when Mr. Orta begins his rounds, Wi-Fi-equipped buses swing around tight corners, ready to disgorge tech workers from Silicon Valley.

In a city where nearly everything can be done with an app, Mr. Orta does not have a phone. So coordinating with him was difficult. We set a time to meet at his apartment and hoped he would be there. Often he was not.

When his beloved Dallas Cowboys lost to the Los Angeles Rams in the playoffs in January, Mr. Orta could not be roused from his small studio apartment.

He is not a class warrior, nor is he particularly opinionated about politics or income inequality. He was not aware he was searching the bins of Mr. Zuckerberg’s house until we told him who owned the place.

And I found him to be ambivalent about trash picking, which he has been doing full time for six years. On some days he described it as an addiction. He was excited about what he might find on his treks through the city.

On other days he said his dream was to go back into the food business.

“I want to get a food truck and make Texas-style brisket,” he told me one night as he pulled a suitcase with a missing wheel that he had just retrieved from a garbage bin.

“This,” he said looking back at the suitcase, “is not my ultimate goal.”

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