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Professor studies society's poor by picking through trash

BY DAVID CASSTEVENS, FT. WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM, May 21, 2004

FT. WORTH, Texas -- Dressed in the pungent rags he had worn for days, Jeff Ferrell pedaled through a Ft. Worth neighborhood on a bicycle he had rescued from a Dumpster.

He met an elderly couple rummaging through some trash along the curb.

Scroungers have their own rules of etiquette. Those who stake their claim to a garbage pile don't object if other prospectors want to join them, but they expect to be asked, and the pleasant fellow on the bike politely obliged: "Mind if I take a look?"

It was late, and the husband wanted to leave or risk missing free soup at a local shelter. His wife was searching for the mate to a red shoe and wasn't ready to stop shopping. Leaning down, she picked up a sweater and held it to Ferrell's chest.

"I think this would fit you," she said to him.

Ferrell still can see her upturned face and sweet smile. He said he never will forget the woman's selfless gesture and the perseverance of the community of homeless strangers and working poor people that he met during an eight-month tour of the streets in 2002.

"In the midst of all their needs, people were always asking what I could use," he said. "Or they were putting things aside for me. What I found were decent people eking out a living, surviving."

Ferrell, 49, isn't homeless. He lives in Arlington Heights near downtown Ft. Worth. But he has long been intrigued by people on the margins of society. In the early 1990s, while in Colorado, he spent nights among those who express themselves through graffiti.

Ferrell and his wife, Karen, returned to his native Ft. Worth in 2001. He had resigned his tenured professorship at Northern Arizona University after a disagreement about the terms of his sabbatical. He's now an associate professor of criminal justice at Texas Christian University.

During the first eight months of 2002, while unemployed, Ferrell explored America's consumer society from the perspective of those who have little or nothing. How do poor people or street people meet their basic needs in the world's wealthiest nation?

He spent afternoons in different areas of Ft. Worth, rich and poor, looking through refuse -- at times staying one block ahead of the rumbling garbage trucks.

Ferrell lined up canned goods on the rims of Dumpsters, an invitation to hungry people. He carried other scavenged food to shelters and food banks.

He wanted to discover how well he could live if he reduced his needs. He soon realized he didn't require much cash "because the things you use cash for, I was finding."

He rarely went into a store. His wife cut his hair. She paid bills and bought food with the $9.50 an hour she earned as a part-time grocery store checker.

He contributed, on average, about $40 a week from items he collected and sold at yard sales and to an antique mall, and by peddling scrap metal.

Riding his bike, Ferrell found coins on the streets. He tramped through the weedy fringes of municipal and country club golf courses and sold the balls he found for 17 cents apiece. He compared ball-harvesting to being paid for hunting Easter eggs.

He found men's suits -- good suits -- and developed the Theory of the Exiled Boyfriend: perhaps in a jealous rage or at the end of her rope, his significant other had theatrically ended the relationship by tossing his wardrobe.

Ferrell uncovered baby clothes still on hangers and unopened gifts. He found old portraits, photo albums, diplomas, awards and plaques -- remnants of forgotten lives.

He once carried home an unopened bottle of Vermont maple syrup. He and his wife poured it over pancakes.

"Scrounging has always been Jeff's passion," Karen Ferrell said. "He just stepped up the process. I was supportive. He needed a year off from school. There were times he came home with things and I'd roll my eyes."

The Ferrells gave discarded bedding and towels to an animal shelter. Jeff Ferrell came across every kind of electrical appliance. The words on an old refrigerator read, "Yo trabajo bien" -- "I work well."

A sign on a lawn mower read: "Take me." Ferrell gave the cord a tug. The engine coughed and roared to life.

He furnished much of his 1,100-square-foot home with discarded items, among them a couch, a chair, shutters, a TV tray, an old bowl -- and a turquoise lamp and starburst clock, both from the 1950s.

He befriended unforgettable people, characters he would not have met if he hadn't stepped outside the insulated life of academia.

He met a man who picked up recyclable cans from his wheelchair. The collector offered this advice: In the spring, watch out for honey bees. Bees, he said, like the corn syrup in sodas.

He crossed paths several times with a fellow on the north side of downtown who customized his bicycle, welding on baskets and trays so he could carry more finds.

"Most people were gracious and, in fact, seemed to feel a kind of moral obligation to help others get what they no longer needed," he said of homeowners and residents who found him digging through their trash. "Many times, people found me in their trash piles and said, 'Hold on, I've got more stuff.' Or 'Did you see those shoes under there?' "

"They almost understood that the curb was like a marketplace or distribution point between their lives and other people's lives."

A professor who earned a doctorate in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, Ferrell saw the interplay as encouraging.

"We think of the world as being increasingly mean-spirited and competitive, but here were homeowners and small-business owners and homeless folks and the poor cooperating in a way to redistribute useful materials."

Ferrell said he began to feel "a weird moral obligation" to travel somewhere in the city every day and rescue a reusable object before it was lost forever, bulldozed into a landfill graveyard. He learned that the wealth of goods and materials thrown away indicate that people are consuming at a phenomenal rate.

He also learned, to his surprise, that many of those he met on the streets already had put in a full day's work at minimum wage.

Ferrell grew to enjoy the freedom of unemployment and the discipline required to live off of whatever he could find or trade or sell. Reluctantly, he gave up the project after Southern Methodist University offered him a teaching job. One day, he was Dumpster-diving. The next, he was freshly scrubbed on the campus of the university near Dallas' tony Highland Park.

Last fall, Ferrell joined the department of sociology, criminal justice and anthropology at Texas Christian. He is writing a book about his experiences on the streets.

http://www.freep.com/features/living/trash21_20040521.htm

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