dirty-handed: how I became a bag lady

(image courtesy Dan Anderson)

These are the questions that keep me up at night:  

What would we do if a big earthquake trapped us in the house?

Have we been poisoned with plastic? 

Should I put the lint from my bag-less vacuum into the compost or the garbage?  

I probably ought to boycott wine with plastic corks… but how do I know if the cork is plastic before I open the bottle?

Are there worms in my kitchen? 

It all started with the shopping bags.  Several years ago, I finally ran through my stockpile of doubled-up paper grocery bags I’d been reusing (and reusing until they fell apart) and it was time to buy cloth ones.  It seemed counterintuitive to buy them new so I went to a thrift store up the street where the old, familiar smell of used clothes greeted me at the door, a scent that triggered memories of the pink satin sheath dress I wore in high school and the super-fly brown leather jacket I found at a thrift store in Boston back in grad school.  I used to be quite proud of my secondhand treasures, but thrifting requires a serious commitment of time and I hadn’t been for years. 

So, for old time’s sake I decided to look around, poke around in the pile of hats (a hat to fit every facet of your personality) and slide wire hangars along a long metal pole (a revolution of color and texture—vintage, formal, trashy, handmade, designer, extra-small and triple-x, all hanging side-by-side) and recollect what I like about the experience.  You can’t get much more multicultural than an urban thrift store, plus the place itself offers a unique cultural experience.  And after an hour and a half and several chats with fellow shoppers, I left with a $1.99 cashmere cardigan. 

So I resuscitated my habit of shopping secondhand.  Since I bring my canvas bags with me, when I bring my purchases home, it seems commonsensical to follow through, environmentally, by putting the paper part of the tag into the recycling.  My behavior has something to do with concern for the environment and is probably equally indicative of a mild obsessive-compulsive disorder.  I tend to go full throttle or not at all: I drive fast and stop last-minute, I avoid bookstores because I can’t resist, and my rubberband ball is as big as a grapefruit.   With people, it takes me a while to warm up but if we become friends, I’ll love you forever, even if you disappear or die or something.  My self-awareness makes me reticent;  I just don’t have time for another fixation. 

But still, I thought, if I was going to bother with those little paper tags, then it seemed illogical not to extend my concern to the rest of the paper in the house.  That’s when I began sorting our trashcans to make sure we had diverted everything recyclable.  I mean, I’m not going to stick my hands in a mess but if I see a stray scrap of paper or plastic, I can’t resist.  I save receipts, napkins, theater tickets, and straw sleeves in my pocket until I can dispose of them properly.   When opening the mailbox became a shameful event, I went on a crusade to have our name removed from all mailing lists (and anyone who has tried to avoid catalogues and yellow pages knows how difficult this can be). Why not receive and pay all bills electronically?  Is there any good reason? 

And the obsession grew:  I began taking food containers to the restaurant.  For parties, I reuse the same biodegradable cutlery.  At the grocery, I buy (cheaper) bruised fruit and imperfect vegetables.  My house gets perfectly clean with vinegar and baking soda.  I ferret away paper and ribbon like a bird building a nest.  We make cards out the bits we’ve saved.  Around holidays I get especially maniacal:  If Santa is going to visit our house, he knows he has to ask one of his elves to wrap things in one of the remnants of fabric I keep by the fireplace on Christmas Eve. Even my four-year-old knows what to do; she brought her Valentines home and promptly separated them into three piles:  plastic, paper, and candy. 

When our city started offering green bins for compostables and garden debris, it opened up a whole new can of worms, if you’ll pardon the pun.  Now, every leaf, scrap of soiled paper, tea bag, leftover, even the hair from the hairbrush has to be carefully sorted.  If Google Earth had x-ray vision, I would be caught red handed (or hair-handed or chicken-handed; dirty-handed, for sure), headed toward the recycling bins. You could watch what I do with a chicken, it’s almost beautiful:  buy whole, debone (reserve for broth), roast, serve, reconfigure and serve again, put the bones in the compost and take the scraps out for the crows to pick at.  Rest assured, that bird did not die in vain. 

As a child I thought that the older I got, the more expansive my life would become.  I never dreamed that one day, little bits of garbage would occupy such a large part of my consciousness.  It is obsessive, I know, but it’s also based on the supposition that little things matter.  I’m not going to ditch my old Honda for a bicycle–I’m going to drive my car until it dies, and then we’ll look at something electric.  We’ll consider investing in solar panels after we pay off our house.  I don’t have much control over off-shore drilling or Monsanto or global warming but I always, always vote.  Instead of feeling hopeless and helpless about the state of the world, I’ll do what I can, I’ll follow through on the little things that are within my control; I’m willing to get my hands dirty.

And to those who are concerned with appearances, let me assure you:  Unless I told you, you’d never guess where my hands have been.  For a bag-lady, I am fabulously dressed.  My kids tuck their cashmere sweaters into their ϋber-cool pre-distressed jeans and go off to school, where they unpack delicious home-cooked meals from fancy little containers.  Just think of how much money we’re saving!


FRIENDS TO CHECK OUT!  (Follow my friends’ seriously amazing links. If I’m at the kindergarten level of environmental activism, my friends are professors.)

Lisa (who drives an old biodiesel Mercedes) works to sway policy and generate awareness about the importance of harvesting rainwater here and here

Molly blogs, makes and sells supercool fabric grocery containers on Etsy.

Sara, who saved up old t shirts, cut them up, and made a nifty bath mat, recommends these sites for great ideas for creative reuse: here and here.

Kristen and Nate, who happened to raise their own chickens, were inspiring in their appearance on Frontier House.

Alice introduced me to the term “freegan.”  See this clip from the See The Gleaners and I (a fabulous documentary by Agnes Varga):

and Meet the Freegans (short video explaining the topic):

And to take it over the top, check out the psycho things you can do with that torn off Netflix flap.

 Hey!  Save paper by subscribing to my blog via email!  It’s free! 

Just click on the little “email subscription” link in the right column…


About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.


  1. I watched “Frontier House” (it was on PBS a few years ago, if I remember correctly) and I remember Kristen and Nate. Such adventurous friends you have! It was very interesting and exciting, and sometimes painful to see what they and many of our ancestors had to go through to survive.

    I don’t see you as obsessed. I wonder why it’s easy for so many of us to live guiltlessly in a ‘disposable’ world. (I’m incensed every time I see those commercials for those new prunes that come in a box with each prune separately wrapped in its own tiny plastic bag!) If caring about the world we live in and leave to our children makes us obsessed, then I’m fine with that. Unfortunately, here in Chicago, I ‘ve had to come to terms with the fact that although we have a citywide recycling system, The Blue Cart system, it ran out of money so that many neighborhoods weren’t incorporated into it. Instead of having a blue cart so I can recycle, I’m expected to take my recyclables to a place many blocks away, or just throw them away. I don’t drive, and would never be able to afford a car even if I could. No one I know who has a car wants to get together and take our recyclables to the closest neighborhood center. (I don’t have much in common with my neighbors unfortunately, and it’s because of ideas like this that they think I’m a little daft.) I’ve actually shed tears over this, and have slowly begun to stop collecting all those little scraps of paper.

    Twenty years ago, when my father was still alive, he indulged me without complaint by helping me heap bags of paper, metal and glass into the back seat of his car, so we could take them to a nearby scrap center that bought these materials. We did this on a regular basis when he came over to visit my daughter. It was kind of funny to see their faces every time they tried to get us to wait for them to weigh the stuff and pay us, and I would say, “Oh no! I’m just recycling.”

    Anyway, I love this post, and I think you may not think I’m a nut for feeling a bit low about my current recycling predicament. More power to you and everyone else who understands these issues!

    • Definitely, certainly not nutty. Or we’ll revel in being “crazy” together. Seems like a big city like Chicago would have it all together a bit more. Hmph! And a person who lives in a big, connected city shouldn’t need a car. (At least, don’t the homeless people come through your neighborhood looking for recyclables to turn in for cash?!!? Maybe you don’t have homeless people out there?) If we all lived on the frontier, we’d know what to do with all this stuff. We’d use it for insulating our houses or building chicken coops or something. When we’re pushing our strollers, Kristen and I unabashedly look into the boxes people leave on the sidewalk and find some great stuff, and we always put the things we no longer need out in front of the house; it’s usually gone within 24 hours. I love that about our neighborhood.

      • I have noticed a couple of private citizen’s trucks who come down the alley every once in a while to look for scrap metal and discarded appliances, but I haven’t seen any obviously homeless people around my neighborhood or environs. I’ve seen them more downtown where there’s a little more shelter (and the subway), and in areas that are closer to those where they may be able to find more useful cast offs. In my neighborhood, I think there may be more of a perception that garbage is really just garbage, and if you want something useful or that you can turn into real cash, you have to break in and steal it. I do donate clothes and things, when I have them to give, to the resale stores that pick them up curbside.

        There is a dialogue going on in regard to why eco awareness and the psychology of re-use is still frowned on in so many economically challenged communities, especially when they suffer a lot from the ill effects of not considering these issues. Of course, whenever I hear about an attempt at getting the word out where it can do some good and in a way that may be heard and understood, it involves a lot of money that can’t be found any easier than my own Blue Cart. I like the sound of your neighborhood.

  2. I’m the resident bag lady in my house, though I confess, not too fabulously dressed. In Karachi, you’ll find garbage everywhere, perhaps that’s the reason why crows are plentiful 😉
    The city government can’t keep up with the sheer volume of garbage generated by a population of over 16 million people….so we have our legions of Afghan rag-pickers, young boys who prowl the dumps with huge sacks slung over their shoulders, working all day sifting through garbage to find recyclable things. That’s how they earn for their families, if they have any. It’s a heartbreaking sight.

  3. wordsfallfrommyeyes

    I am so, so sorry for the homeless. When I’m warm in bed at night, I can’t help but think of them. Where are they, I wonder, hidden from view. Love all your video links – a really great post.

  4. Pingback: thrifty art « Optic Nervy

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