It isn't true that if you live in Beverly Hills you have to gift-wrap the garbage.
But it is true in that humble village, just as it is anyplace, that you are what you throw away.
Which will help explain why, in a few neighborhoods of that community the other day, students wearing disposable gloves could be seen poking through trash cans.
They had taken an Occidental College course taught by Luanne Hudson, assistant professor of anthropology, and were following it up with a project. The course is Modern Material Culture. The students like to call it garbology.
A Shift to the Elite
"An anthropology professor at the University of Arizona, William Rathje, started this new science 10 years ago," Hudson said. "In 1978, when I was teaching at USC, I decided to get involved." Her rubbish reconnaissance, however, always involved middle-class or poorer neighborhoods.
" 'What about the rich?,' I got to wondering. The rich are the elite, and aren't really studied that much. Among other things, you don't have access to them. You might, however, have access to their garbage. If so, is their garbage that much different?"
It happened that last New Year's Eve, she and her husband, Greg, went to a sneak preview of the movie "Down and Out in Beverly Hills." In a couple of the scenes, Nick Nolte goes through garbage bins. In fact, he elatedly scoops a fingerful of pate remaining in a discarded can.
"While we were driving home, a new project for my students began taking shape in my mind," said Hudson, who has a doctorate in anthropology from UCLA.
Just a Sampling
They would study the garbage of Beverly Hills. Not a scientific random sampling, not a vast sampling, but a sampling nonetheless.
"What I did was analogous to an archeologist digging a trench through part of an ancient site, to see if anything is there that would warrant going in later and excavating, so to speak."
Hudson, having no contacts in Beverly Hills, called the publicity department of the Walt Disney Co., which produced the film. She explained her proposed project and asked if Disney could supply her with some addresses in Beverly Hills--addresses where the occupants would give permission to have their garbage examined. Seeing the obvious promotional value of meeting her request, the studio readily complied.
"I explained that I wanted no identities or backgrounds, and that at no point would my students talk with any of the occupants, which they didn't," the educator said.
"Since the trash collection is once a week, I wanted our project to take place just before the scheduled pickup, so that what we found would be a week's worth, representative and probably not controlled or prepared. Also, I wanted a normal time period--not after the Super Bowl, for instance."
Five addresses on three different streets were duly provided, and on a Friday morning, four Occidental anthropology students went a-trashing in Beverly Hills.
It should be pointed out that in the interest of education, certain liberties are taken. What they did was technically against the law. As explained by Fred Cunningham, director of community services in Beverly Hills:
"We do have an ordinance stating that no unauthorized person shall go through any of the sanitation or garbage containers located in the alleys or public rights-of-way (parks)."
But the students did have permission of the owners, and throughout the stipulated day they went about their appointed rounds, prowling the alleys, filling a dozen plastic trash bags.
They drove their accumulated treasures back to the campus, where everything was laid out on tables in a seminar room. Before they left for the night, they hung a sign on the door: "Please don't enter this room or throw away anything in it."
"Once before," their teacher recalled, "we had just left everything, from all those hours of gathering, and a janitor came in later. Thinking he was doing his job, he threw everything out."
This time, though, all was left intact for the inventory that followed on Saturday and Sunday. After scribbling on many legal sheets, the students and Hudson did what had been intended with the accumulation--threw it away and aired out the room.
They were detectives who had their clues. In our materialistic, throwaway society, just what do they toss out in Beverly Hills, and what does it all mean?
"You make certain assumptions," the anthropologist said. "Considering the probable affluence of these residents, I hypothesized that I would find relatively wasteful people, because we are a wasteful society."
One household had thrown out shoes and towels, and one common difference between the Beverly Hills refuse and that from middle-class communities was that Hudson's harvesters discovered name-brand items almost exclusively, not the generics found elsewhere.