Clara Bensen’s boyfriend lives in a dumpster—take a moment to let that statement sink in. It may have the positive affect of making your beloved’s futon suddenly look about as comfy as a California King.
In a recent essay for Salon, Bensen shared what it’s like to be involved with a man who lives in an oversized trashcan. No, she’s not dating a vagrant. The Austin, Texas based writer is enamoured with a plucky/nutty professor who is part of a team trying to determine what constitutes sustainable, decent housing. Bensen talks to FLARE about what it’s like to dumpster-dive in the name of love, what she’s learned about relationships from the experiment and why she’s standing by her nutty professor should he decide to make a dumpster his permanent domicile.
Flannery Dean: You met Jeff, your boyfriend, via OKCupid. What was it about his profile that appealed to you?
Clara Bensen: Jeff looked like a complete fool in his profile picture. He was wearing a Mexican mariachi bow-tie and staring off into space with a goofy grin on his face. I liked that—a professor who clearly had a sense of humour. I’d just recovered from a major rough patch in my life and online dating seemed like a good way to break out of my cocoon and find a little adventure. To say I got what I asked for is an understatement. I’ve never dated anyone as unpredictable as Jeff.
FD: How long had you been dating before he told you about his dumpster plans?
CB: I was informed about the dumpster project on our first date. Jeff alluded to an “alternative living situation” in our OkCupid emails, but I didn’t get the full breakdown until we met in person. He probably didn’t want to come off as that creepy, middle-aged guy living in a dumpster.
FD: What was your initial response?
CB: I laughed when he told me the plan. If it had been anyone else I would have been skeptical, but Jeff was so earnest and excited—so confident that he could pull it off. He immediately turned me into a believer too. We’re lucky because we both believe in experimenting with what a life can be. We like to take a playful approach and try unusual things just to see what happens. So, in that sense, I didn’t have any problem with the dumpster aside from mild concerns about health and wellbeing, which (fingers crossed) has not been a significant problem. The biggest surprise has been how easy it was for us to adapt our relationship to the dumpster. I was expecting a bit more of an adjustment. There have been the occasional difficulties, but for the most part we’re making it work.
FD: Did you ever consider joining him? What did your friends and family say about this whole thing?
CB: Jeff is very much the guinea pig in this experiment. We have totally opposite personalities and while he loves the challenges that come with dumpster life, I’m far more sensitive and would have a difficult time coping with the Texas heat and lack of toilet/running water/privacy. In all of Jeff’s educational presentations, he’s very clear that the dumpster is an experiment in measuring the extreme limits of what humans need for a good life (as opposed to a practical housing solution).
Friends and family have been enthusiastic supporters right from the start. They think we’re nuts, of course, but in an endearing, shake-your-head-smiling sort of way. A few months after we started dating, Jeff wrote a funny card to my parents that said, “You were probably hoping your daughter would aim her sights a little higher than a guy living in a dumpster.” They love Jeff but I haven’t convinced them to stay a night in the dumpster (yet).
FD: How often have you stayed over?
CB: I’ve spent four or five nights in the dumpster at different points during its evolution—from cardboard flooring and camp candles to hand-woven carpets, A/C, and electric lighting. At this point it’s surprisingly comfortable, if not a wee bit compact for two bodies.
The dumpster has taught me a lot about resources. I’m so used to turning on the sink and having clean water come out of the tap, or flipping a light switch and expecting the light to come on. The dumpster is just a box—like a kid’s cardboard fort—everything from fuel to water to waste has to be carefully considered. For a while, Jeff was carting water from the lake in 10 gallon buckets (a one-mile walk). It was excruciating and took almost two hours round-trip. The project has caused me to rethink the invisible processes that are connected to almost every part of my life.
FD: You mentioned some fights in your Salon essay. Are these about the dumpster experiment? If not, do you mind sharing the subject matter?
CB: Jeff and I have experimented with several different aspects of our life—including our own relationship. When we first started dating we decided to test what would happen if we left our relationship completely free and open ended; no rules except that each of us would do what we truly wanted to do. It was a bold move; the lack of definition was precarious and led to a lot of intense discussions (and the occasional meltdown). At this point, after a year-and-a-half together, our relationship does have more structure, but the open-ended approach was (and continues to be) a tremendous learning experience.
This is the first open-ended relationship I’ve ever attempted. It’s a lot different than what I originally expected (flexible relationships probably require more communication, hard talks, and structure than strictly monogamous ones). At the moment, neither Jeff and I are interested in dating anyone else—we’ve got a super good thing going and life is crazy enough without adding the extra emotional stress of navigating complicated relationships. However, we also understand that relationships evolve over time—neither one of us assumes the way things are now is the way things will always be. When I say open-ended, I mean that we’re willing to adapt our relationship to our needs.
FD: What have you learned about yourself and relationships during this experiment? What’s your conclusion on the whole thing thus far?
CB: The whole dumpster-as-domicile situation has definitely been an experiment for both of us. I think what I’ve come away with so far is that life is expansive and full of weird possibilities. There’s no single way of being. If you’re on the university > career > marriage > white picket fence track, more power to you. But if you feel drawn to something different—something offbeat or unexpected—more power to you, too. It’s cliche, but life is brief—why not play with the possibilities?
FD: When does the dumpster experiment end and what will the future hold for the both of you?
CB: The final “über” dumpster is expected to be completed at some point in 2015. There are three design phases and right now Jeff is in the second one. It’s hard to predict what the future holds for us. I’m currently writing a travel memoir titled No Baggage about another one of our minimalist experiments (due fall 2015) and New Line Cinema is working on a feature film adaptation. Jeff will no doubt be cooking up another experiment as soon as this one wraps up—we’re already throwing some potential ideas around.
FD: If he told you that he’s fallen in love with dumpster life and wants to continue, how will you respond?
CB: Jeff has already told me his dream is to have one dumpster in Austin, one in San Francisco and one in Brooklyn. He genuinely loves the novelty of living in a tiny, square box and if he were to live anywhere else I have no doubt it would be just as odd. I can’t see him ever moving back into a standard apartment or house.
We both aspire to support each other instead of attempting to exert control or change. So, in that spirit, if Jeff decides he wants to live in a dumpster until the day he dies—I’m willing to try and make it work. Granted, it may not always be convenient, but it’s who he is—it comes with the package deal. He extends the same freedom to me too. It’s empowering to feel so unconditionally accepted by a partner.
FD: You’ve written ‘My boyfriend lives in a dumpster.’ What’s an essay title you hope to write in the future for both of you?
CB: Oh my god! I have no idea, but I hope it’s weird.