By Adrian Shirk

The author dumpster diving

This piece is the first installment in our new series, "I Did It!", a collection of first-person essays celebrating outlandish means and wild achievements. Submit your own story to "I Did It!" by emailing the editor at

I was still $7,000 short of tuition the summer before I moved away to college. My stepfather was unemployed and my mother worked part time for Portland Public Schools, but I was determined to get a very specialized and very expensive BFA in Creative Writing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

For the past year, I’d been appraising goods at a neighborhood thrift store, where I spent my days sorting through boxes and truck beds full of other people’s cast-offs, judging each dish set or dining table for its potential vintage appeal. In the early 2000s, Portland, Oregon was only just becoming the cornucopia of carefully curated second-hand stores that now characterize its inner-city, bedecked with polished mid-century corning ware and clown paintings and faux-Deco side tables. A new aesthetic of hipness was ushered in, and I was uniquely primed to identify what it included.

I quit my job. My mother and I decided to spend the summer foraging for goods to sell. This, we decided, was how we’d make up the tuition difference.

We began by attending as many garage and estate sales as possible. I’d point out what I thought we could sell, and my mother would haggle with the proprietor. “This night stand, that rocking chair and these owl necklaces — $8? No? $10.” Goodwill Industries operated a giant warehouse at the edge of town, known locally as “The Bins,” wherein patrons could buy textiles and home goods by the pound, and used furniture for a flat fee. However, we quickly realized that we didn’t need to spend a dime to make this operation work. We scoured the Craigslist “free” page daily for updates about piles people put outside of their homes, then we scurried all over town to collect everything of potential value. We picked our way through dumpsters and alleyways; we sold to vintage shops all over Southeast Portland.

Prices ticked constantly through our minds as we walked down the street or even through our friends’ homes, impulsively repeating “Oh, we could sell that!” like a couple of carpetbaggers. If on a drive to the grocery store we saw a brimming cardboard box or a soggy rug or a dresser with a broken drawer, we’d screech to a halt, throw open the trunk of my mother’s Forrester and jam the item in. My stepfather mended all the furniture we brought home, painting or sanding or varnishing it. We watched otherwise crappy splintered barrels become a “Rustic Spring-Green Plant Stand” or busted 1950s desk become “Ideal Retro Writer’s Nest,” and sell for $50, $75 or even, for a formica-and-chrome table with matching vinyl chairs, $200.

Life was good. I had most afternoons to read and write. My mom, a classical musician, could practice her flute. If we found something lucrative early in the morning, like a pair of antique theater seats or a trunk of vintage ball gowns, we could take the day off. We’d fallen into the life of an old-fashioned family business, living like tinkers or gypsies.  

Eventually, I came up with the idea to advertise a free junk hauling service on Craigslist for people who were moving or who’d inherited a cumbersome estate or who had a roommate who’d left a pile of unclaimed belongings or who were too exhausted after their garage sale to haul everything off to a donation center. Our junk hauling clients were from all walks of life: people on their way out of the state, out of the country, out of an abusive relationship. We’d get repeat customers and references — adult children of elderly parents who’d just passed away, who would call us enthusiastically and then burst into tears as they showed us through their garage or their basement. Most people were wrought by this strange tension between wanting to be rid of something so desperately but devastated by the fact that it might be priced, manhandled, thrown away.

There was a morally dubious component to all of this: We’d nod and listen to the stories our clients told us about each item — then we’d smile and laugh and casually pass things off to each other to pack in the back of our car. We’d ride away sometimes giggling, almost delirious, at the prospect of our riches, but we were not faking our engagement. We liked the people and the stories of the things we took home: Barb, the Pentecostal preacher, gave us vintage trunks left by her “no-good” ex-husband; three middle-aged sisters passed on their mother’s hidden collection of sexy high heels and mysterious vacation photographs, and told us about the clandestine love affairs they discovered after her death; a man gave us all the furniture belonging to a son he hadn’t seen in 30 years. This was meaningful to us. We knew that these people were too busy or too tired to get rid of these things any other way. When we’d tell them we were hawking used goods so I could go to college, they’d either beam or look bewildered.

By August, we reached our goal and then some, and were able to cover the first year of tuition, loan free. I moved to Brooklyn, where I continued to collect regular consignment checks from Portland vintage stores, but an endeavor like ours was impossible to maintain in New York. The market was choked; the wholesale exchange of vintage and antique goods was locked in an industry dominated by specialists. Plus, I didn’t have a car and, moreover, almost no one has storage space to keep — let alone repair — much. And almost no one, except in the outer reaches of the outer boroughs, has garages 30-years-full of belongings, disintegrating from disuse, waiting for me to make an offer.

Adrian Shirk was raised in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Wilder Quarterly, Packet, Owl Eye Review, 7Stops Magazine and Wyoming Public Radio. Currently, she's at work on a book of epistolary essays with poet Amber Stewart and pursuing an MFA in Nonfiction at the University of Wyoming.

Have a first-person essay celebrating your own outlandish means and wild achievements? Submit it to our "I Did It!" series by emailing the editor at

KEEP READING: More on Business

The Airship
Chef de Brigade

The tale of a one-man restaurant, of a French Japanese chef in the classic hefe mold, of a love of food and food to love.

Black Balloon Publishing’s Favorite Independent Bookstores in New York City

From Brooklyn to Manhattan, 10 of our staff’s favorite places to buy books.

Yours Truly: Ruthless Blurbs from the Rejection Letters of 10 Celebrated Authors

Everyone gets rejected at some time or another, but you can always take solace in knowing that you’re in good company.