Waste, Glorious Waste 

Tales of urban grubbing in the land of conspicuous consumption.

Page 3 of 7

Thomas loads a few gallons of just-past-pull-date milk and orange juice onto a cart. He gets green peppercorn baguettes, Passover whitefish in jellied broth, Atkins cereal bars, and Jolly Ranchers. It's the residue of the American diet, dead fads, and stale seasonal specials.

Next stop is the Safeway store at the base of Montclair Village, the highest reaches of Oakland's affluent uplands, where there's no shortage of high-end swag. Thomas scores big: three full flats of strawberries, the fruit only slightly stained with age spots, and perfect-looking brown Turkey figs. There's a "plugged" watermelon, which had a small triangular piece cut from its rind so a customer could taste it.

In the parking lot, the scavenger examines half a dozen fragrant pineapples — they were cleared out to make way for new ones. "I think the pineapple sale started today," he says to the guy who chalks car tires. "These here are probably better than the new ones."

He makes a trip back to the takeout food counter, where the deli manager is ready for him. She's packed a shopping cart with the stuff she wants to get rid of. It's mounded with unsold rotisserie chickens in plastic containers, fancy cheeses past pull date, and buttered, uncooked panini sheathed in clear wrap. There are bouquets of roses, yellow and pale lavender, the petals just beginning to pucker along their edges.

Upon Thomas' return to 10th Street, the payload of the caramel-colored Ranger gets dismantled in a process of near-anarchy. Mrs. Loo, a longtime volunteer, seems to be in charge. Two women help her unload, dropping some cases on the curb, stacking others precariously on overturned milk crates on the bungalow steps, in an order that seems to make sense to Mrs. Loo. "If you help unload the truck, you get first choice of what's on it," Thomas explains. But a woman who's been waiting for Thomas to return — sitting with a man and an older lady in a parked car — gets out and starts unloading some of the best stuff directly into her car.

She grabs a couple of leftover rotisserie chickens, the ones labeled Tuscan-Herb. She snags the panini. "Ooh, these are good sandwiches," she says. Mrs. Loo doesn't stop her. She gets a gallon of milk. The man leaves the car and joins her; he picks up a bouquet of pink roses, but the woman snatches them away. "I want to give them to Mama," she says.

She carries them to the car. "Happy birthday, Mama," she says, handing them in to the older lady, suddenly sweet.

The Ranger is empty, and Mrs. Loo is busy assembling food bags for herself and her helpers. The cilantro and bok choy disappear into shopping bags. She takes handfuls of clementines and drops them into the bags like someone doling out candy to trick-or-treaters.

Cleveland Thomas sucks his cold meerschaum and watches. He seems unmoved. "We're a very privileged and rich society," he says. "We can pick and choose." He accepts this without cynicism, he says: "We're just sort of a throwaway society. That's just the way it is."

Looking at the stacks of battered food waste on 10th Street, it's easy to imagine there's a Tuscan-Herb chicken for anyone who wants it. "There's so much wasted, and so many hungry people," notes Sandra Scherer, executive director of Monument Crisis Center. "It's just distribution that's the problem."

For his part, Cleveland Thomas has figured out the distribution thing. Just so long as he and his truck can hold out.


PART II: THE 'GROCE OUT'

Tall and patrician, dressed in crisply pressed slacks and a dress shirt, Ken Stutz takes a sip from his glass. He works the wine over his palate. "It's got a little personality," he says, nodding slowly to register approval. It's earthy, so herbaceous it's almost weedy, with a resinous burr of oak. "There's something about it," he says.

Stutz is taking part in an impromptu wine tasting. "This one's more jewel-like than the last," says his host, Bennie Tiapon, who conducts casual tastings whenever someone like Ken stops by — once a week, maybe, on Friday afternoons. Stutz, a Piedmont businessman, drops in only occasionally, and he rarely buys more than a couple of bottles. But he has connections — his word of mouth means something to guys who are inclined to buy more seriously. It's all about finding a hidden gem where you least expect it. And this tasting room — a cluttered kitchenette above the Berkeley Grocery Outlet store — is where you'd least expect it.

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