GLANER MEANS 'TO GLEAN'
by Kristi Espinasse
In the dramatic opening scene of her memoir The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls is riding in the back of a New York taxi, wondering whether she has overdressed for the party to which she is headed, when she sees something that knocks the wind right out of her Park Avenue sails.
Out there on the curbside, an older woman wearing rags is rooting through a dumpster. On closer look, the garbage picker is Jeannette's own mother!
As I read the page-turner memoir, I could only imagine how a daughter's heart seized up on seeing her intelligent, artistic, and once athletic mother rooting through the trash. What had brought her to this? And, more curiously, why was the waste picker smiling?
It wasn't until I saw the fascinating documentary, The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse), by French filmmaker Agnès Varda, that I began to see this touching scene quite differently, and even to recall a few gleaning episodes of my own. Before writing about those, I will share some of the eloquent descriptions I gathered from viewers' reactions to The Gleaners:
... a wonderful documentary that reminds us of how much we produce and waste in the world and how the disenfranchised (and artistic) make use of that waste to survive... The characters Varda encounters are equally compelling and interestingly are not portrayed as whiny or blameful of others for their situations: they simply state how they live and we are left impressed with their ingenuity. (anonymous)
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when we are introduced to a wizened Chinese man in Paris living at home among a heap of dumpster gleanings. He has taken in a boarder—a happy-go-lucky black man who hunts the day long for discarded food and items that he himself will repair and give away to those less fortunate than himself. "Somebody might need this," the ragpicker says. Evenings, the Chinese man will cook up the dumpster chicken in one of the ovens that his resourceful roommate has brought home. As the men prepare to dine together, seated on crooked chairs and ever amazed by their "fortune", I have to reach over and hit the pause button. Have you ever seen such sweet faces, such sparkling eyes, than on these two lovely men who care for one another and for others?
In another scene, we observe a clean-cut wiry man stooping here and there as he scours the market stalls in Paris at the end of market day. Here and there he pops a broken piece of celery or apple or lettuce into his mouth... "Beta carotene! Vitamin K! I'm a biology major," he explains, adding that though he earns a salary, he still needs to eat and by the way, he's vegetarian! He admits that cheese is a little more difficult to find, but there's plenty of tossed out bread. We later learn that though he holds a scientific diploma, this biologist chooses to sell papers outside the train station. In a touching "who'd have thunk it?" scene, we see the same garbage picker volunteering his time, each evening, to teach refugees English. His carefully illustrated blackboards featuring, among other objects, a hand-drawn bike and its phonetic word equivalent, attest as much to his selfless and caring soul as to his professionalism and skill.
There are several other heart-awakening moments in which Agnès Varda steadies her lens on the outcasts who in turn teach us more about the art of living than we will ever glean from the pages of any New York Times bestseller on the subject. The rag-wearing, sometimes toothless characters could write volumes on the subject. Meantime, they have more meaningful pursuits: getting by, while managing to smile at life.
As for my own dumpster days as a child—I'd root unselfconsciously through the trash bin (one we shared with the neighbor in the trailer next door), ever amazed at the ongoing source of riches (in this case--cans of Hamm's beer which could be recycled for cash after stomping the cans flat!). Our neighbor, a single, middle-aged woman, regularly replenished the trash bin with this blatantly underestimated source of income! I began to feel sorry about her loss, which to me related to her pocket book and not her liver health (I had no idea that all those cans equalled addiction).
I regret losing the desire to salvage things (publicly, at least), though the occasional foray through a stranger's trash still happens, but I am grateful to live here in France--where gleaning is alive and well and rooted deeply in the culture! How many times during family outings has an uncle or a cousin or a grandma stooped to pick up a tumbled down apricot or a chestnut, or paused to uproot a lonely asparagus or a bunch of herbs from the edge of a neighbor's yard. "Have you seen what they charge for this at the markets?" my in-laws shake their heads. Soon they'll make up a fresh batch of herbs de Provence--more fragrant and delicious than can be found on any supermarket aisle.
When my husband returned from the States after his multi-city wine tour, he brought me an unexpected surprise: two charming rush-bottom chairs!
"I found them in the airport parking lot," Jean-Marc explained, "beside the dumpster." I admit, if he had brought those home 15 years ago--as a consolation gift for his two week absence, I might have been hugely disappointed! Nowadays, I don't want the ill-fitting T-shirt (quickly rung up at a pricy airport gift shop). I'd rather have a couple of bars of chocolate, or, in this case, some adorable chairs!)
Each time I look at the chairs, I feel the same kind of affection one feels when looking at some of the characters in Agnès Varda's documentary. They are quirky. They are imperfect. They are charming. They are lovely. And, as one of the men in the film said, "they are needed."
Adieu, Agnès Varda. Thank you for the stories, for your precious gleanings on humanity.
See it tonight. This film is available for rental, on Amazon, click here.