By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
The best thing about Dumpster-diving, everyone agrees, is the donuts. Dumpster donuts are a diver's manna, and the sugary serendipity is surprisingly easy to find. Donuts packed in boxes, often only a few hours old, can be salvaged from grocery stores, Dunkin' Donuts shops, and Krispy Kreme franchises. "Oh yeah," Melodie agrees, "Never buy donuts."
The wheelchair hits a crack in the pavement and shudders to a halt just steps outside the Villa de Vulva. Melodie leans over -- again -- and frees the stuck wheel. Plastic boxes the size of steamer trunks sit in the chair, loaded with surplus food. Under the weight of the load, the wheelchair-turned-roach coach picks up speed on the sloping street, wobbling with the comic unpredictability of a toddler's first steps.
It rained earlier, leaving the sky dim and bluish gray, bereft of a postcard sunset. The streets are empty save the omnipresent prowling of police cars. Battered pickup trucks that ferry migrant workers to their farm jobs out west have long since come to rest beside boxy, putty-colored one-story homes bordered by small, sparse front yards. Curtains made of sheets or tapestries are pulled back from open windows in hopes of catching an infrequent breeze.
"Quieres comidas gratis?" Melodie calls out. It is a rhetorical question, an open invitation yet to be accepted. An ice cream truck's tinkling theme plays in the distance, interrupted only by the bleating reveille of a low-rider horn.
Melodie takes a few steps and calls out again. Her simple Spanish query would seem an unlikely chant for an anarchist, but the ritual known as "distro" is the very sort of direct action that anarchists such as Melodie consider revolutionary.
Waffle began distributing food about a year ago in the Lake Worth neighborhood just west of downtown, inspired by his work with the Miami chapter of Food Not Bombs, which cooks free community meals. He's traveling now, so Melodie has taken over the route.
Her social-justice efforts weren't always this straightforward; while a student at Rollins College near Orlando, she spent time working for a film festival but was turned off by bureaucracy. In May 2000, just two classes shy of graduation, she moved back to South Florida and into the Villa. Now about once a week she instead takes to the lettered, grid-patterned streets, which are riddled with one-way signs and crisscrossed by low-slung chainlink fences that, like a length of butcher's string, seem to both dissect and restrain the neighborhood.
Melodie modestly says she's not nearly as good at distro as Waffle -- in part, she suspects, because her Spanish is lousy. She's also a bit shy. With tiny hair clips tucked into her short, brown, bed-head hair, she has a grrrlish look and a warm, irrepressible grin. Her short, wool tartan skirt and lavender T-shirt were culled, like most of her wardrobe, from thrift-store racks -- a practice she adopted in high school, where secondhand clothes were considered cool. Now 24 years old and usually un- or underemployed, Melodie wears thrift-store clothing and eats a steady diet of expired food.
Every week or two, Melodie or one of her housemates backs her turquoise, late-model pickup truck behind local health-food stores and produce stands to collect damaged and past-pull-date merchandise the stores cannot sell. There is usually more than can be distributed in the neighborhood; the Villa people eat the rest. No one, Melodie notes, has ever gotten sick from it.
At a house overgrown with foliage, a white-haired man in a tank top with "Key West" printed across the chest emerges, a ball of plastic bags in hand. He opens one and begins to fill it with food, and hands the rest to Melodie, so she can give them to her other "shoppers."
From a nearby alley, a man and a woman holding a little girl walk barefoot in the gravel. They take a few items and wordlessly express gratitude, their smiles revealing gold teeth.
Melodie speaks with persuasive authority when she advises an uncertain young mother about the food's safety. That bulging carton of milk is still good, she says. After all, she drinks it, too.
Tonight's haul features a dairy mother lode. There are dozens of cartons of Stonyfield Farm yogurt in flavors like maple cream and "banilla" as well as the children's version -- tiny tubs called Planet Protectors. Melodie also offers stacks of soy cheese, water-packed tofu, cappuccino-flavored kefir, vegan "chicken" patties, organic orange juice, and the occasional tough loaf of millet bread, which costs about $4 when fresh. Cartons of Zendon soy milk are emblazoned with a panda and a series of haiku poems.
To the neighborhood's population of mostly low-income Hispanics, the selections are often exotic. A man picks up a plastic bottle of cappuccino kefir and turns it over curiously.
Melodie tries to explain. In Spanish she calls it "coffee milk," but her description doesn't quite fit the thick, sour, drinkable yogurt. Later Melodie confides that she feels a little guilty calling the rectangular cartons of vanilla soy milk leche de soya or meatless patties pollo. She laughs at the subversiveness of it: "I wonder if people go inside and say, "This isn't chicken!'"