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Lifting the lid 

Taxi Driver

Business travelers to Colorado Springs repeatedly note the presence and problem of homelessness at large in the community. Particularly downtown — where the wheels of commerce, prosperity and government turn most prominently — the disadvantaged roam in wretched contrast.

With direct flights to the Springs from Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Atlanta and Denver, visitors are accustomed to seeing deprivation and misery at home. But finding it here, in what must seem a protected scenic haven in the American West, is disturbing. And unacceptable, they often add.

Hunger accentuates the problem. And though I'm quick to extol the generosity of local food banks, I have to acknowledge that something is lacking, that sometimes I'll see people engaging in "Dumpster dipping."

This often leads to a question: What, precisely, are the Springs' homeless eating from Dumpsters to survive?

Cab drivers are regularly required, as unofficial city ambassadors, to come up with answers to such questions. So an inventory and report of Dumpster contents seems appropriate for effective job performance.

From what I've seen, donuts, pizza crusts and cold potatoes head the list, the latter a kind of Cajun-seasoned potato wedge tossed out from convenience stores. On one recent wintry night near Tejon Street, two friendly downtown men in their 60s displayed their Dumpster take carefully arranged on a folded issue of the Gazette to carry away. "No rats!" one remarked, with an impish gleam in his eye. I was politely offered a wedge from the cradled mass in his leathery hands, but declined.

Colorado's magpies do present some competition, however, particularly where stale sugar donuts are accessible. To their credit, though, they select a single donut from the pile, carry it in-beak to a desired spot, and peck away at it from there, leaving the source uncontaminated for others to enjoy. This happens all the time at a Dumpster near dawn — its insides blackened by coats of encrusted fire retardant — at the intersection of Rockrimmon Boulevard and Delmonico Drive. The plastic Dumpster lid is mysteriously left open each morning, the donuts plainly exposed.

Timing is critical — getting to the right Dumpster at the right moment. Scheduled garbage removal can wipe out a trusted food supply in seconds, with hydraulic truck lifts and sheer muscle both used to empty Dumpsters and 64-gallon "Toter" containers. Fortunately the truck engines are noisy enough to hear them coming a block or two away, letting dippers hurry through their choices.

Those Toters, their backs to the cement wall in a row, one after another, offer an element of surprise. Throw back the lid on the first, for instance, and you might find that a spectacular spray of finely chopped cranberry coleslaw dazzles inside, juicily reflected in the morning sun. No doubt a "chef's special," which now must be fingered out and eaten by hand off the stack of cardboard boxes and paper plates it's scattered over. It's been disposed of in a hasty, short-sighted manner, but may still be edible, depending on circumstances.

But what's this in the next one over? A small brown paper bag with loop handles holds four 12-ounce "to-go" containers, their lids secure! Open these and find fresh chowdery soups, one a creamy corn-and-potato mix, the others a red bean and tomato with chopped celery. These unclaimed or mistaken orders were set inside the Toter with care and obvious concern for the hungry.

As you might imagine, many of the targeted areas are nondescript. But not all. Back downtown, murals cover the brick walls along Tejon Street and Nevada Avenue. "Colorado Springs Celebrates Mozart!" reads one near the Dumpster I'm currently looking at, with a hand-painted illustration of the great composer. "Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're right," says another, the quotation from Henry Ford.

It's amid these surroundings that something shocking happens.

From a spanking new Jeep Grand Cherokee leap two ferocious post-adolescent morons, male and female, claiming "You're trespassing! Get out!" and threatening physical violence. No signs anywhere indicate their claim is true, only that unauthorized vehicles will be towed, but no acquiescent gesture will satisfy the rabid young pair.

Visitors to the Springs and the homeless — weak and famished, or not — are hereby advised to back away slowly, hands-up, palms open, as if assailed by ill-treated dogs that don't know any better.

End of report.

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