Waste, Glorious Waste 

Tales of urban grubbing in the land of conspicuous consumption.

Page 5 of 7

Beardsley does the bulk of her personal shopping at Whole Foods, and Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco. She can shop anywhere. And she's not exactly sure what draws her to Grocery Outlet. "It's cosmopolitan," she says, looking around. "All kinds of people are here. I was just in the Marin Whole Foods and it was so — white." For her, shopping here in the aftermarket feels real. But only if she can walk out with a few organic goodies.

Today, Stutz has found his own goodie, but only after Tiapon reveals that the Little Valley Cabernet comes from a big-name California boutique winemaker. "Oh, really?" Stutz says, clearly impressed when the manager drops the name.

On the first market, the businessman probably wouldn't have touched a bottle. But here, amid the ambience of the downmarket, a wine made quickly from a glut of juice seasoned with oak chips becomes an amazing find.


Susanne Cockrell is steering a hulking steel-frame cart down a driveway cutout and up Oakland's 49th Street. The cart is triangular, with a blue metallic frame, big spoked wheels, and arched rails that anchor a series of empty woven baskets. "We'll see about this," says Ted Purves, Cockrell's husband.

It's late on a Friday morning, and Cockrell and Purves are on a mission. With any luck, by the time they steer their postmodern rickshaw back to the Temescal Amity Works storefront near Telegraph Avenue, its baskets will be brimming with fruit, backyard discards from neighbors in this North Oakland neighborhood. "We may be cheaper than calling a yard service," Purves says.

Today offers something new. For the first time in the two years since Cockrell and Purves launched Temescal Amity Works, they've gotten a call from a neighbor with excess walnuts. Black walnuts, to be precise, from an ancient sixty-foot tree. "Walnuts are also known as yard garbage," says Purves, who's wearing designer eyeglasses and a preppy-looking striped Oxford shirt.

Purves and Cockrell, who is dressed in jeans and a gray wool sweater, have the look of grown-up college TAs. Both are in their early forties and are professors at California College of the Arts, floating between the Oakland and San Francisco campuses. Purves also is a writer and occasional curator. Cockrell, with a background in performance, is an administrator for first-year art students. This is, after all, an art project.

The pair started their edible quest with grant money cobbled together from Creative Capital in New York, San Francisco's Creative Work Fund, and the Oakland Cultural Arts Fund. They landed storefront space half a block from the district's bustling commercial zone on Telegraph, commissioned Oakland artist and fabricator Andrew Bigler to help design and build their cart, and launched what they call the Big Backyard Project.

The couple's plan was to glean essentially unwanted fruit from backyard trees before it rotted, shriveled up, or became windfall. They'd give it away for free, to anyone who stopped by the storefront and was willing to bag it up and take it. But unlike Cleveland Thomas, Cockrell and Purves weren't interested in feeding the hungry, keeping waste out of landfills, or helping homeowners keep their yards tidy. The artists were interested in creating what they call social sculpture.

"We always think of material as being these things that you shape and mold," Cockrell says. As she and Purves describe it, the concept of social sculpture sees human interactions as the equivalent of modeling clay. "It's really the idea that people, or the things that we do together, the things that we say, or the place that we walk, the trees that we plant — all of that could actually be looked at as material," she says. The couple found inspiration in the work of 20th-century German performance artist Joseph Beuys (pronounced "boys"), who once lobbed a blood sausage over the Berlin Wall as a gesture intended to unify East and West Germans.

They started Big Backyard with the hope that it would reveal a truth about the shape of a community and say something about the way neighbors interact. Interactions sculpted, as it were, out of backyard excess. Whether the project succeeds as conceptual art is open to debate. Nevertheless, Cockrell and Purves are now finding it difficult to let go.

Cockrell steers the cart from Clarke onto 48th, cruising slowly down the middle of the street. Half a block away, two women pause, about to slip into a parked van. They shoot the rickshaw curious looks. "Shall we give them some information?" Purves asks. "They seem interested."

Cockrell takes a couple of the postcards clipped to the cart's frame to give to the women. The cards show photos of the fruit, or of events Amity Works has sponsored. "We don't have anything for you," one of the women shouts. They're already hip to the project. Another tenant from their co-housing complex once donated avocados from a couple of backyard trees. "Come by tomorrow," Cockrell yells back. "We'll have oranges and black walnuts."


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