BIN RAIDERS

Chapter 2.    Building Character

Back at the base that evening, a bald man in his fifties was nearing the end of a talk he had been giving to a small assembly. Greg and Dynamite were part of the audience.

The base was a dilapidated ground floor flat in Redfern, furnished with mismatched throwouts that the group had picked up from around the streets of Sydney. Half a dozen people sat on the two lounges (one in black leather, with a big tear on the side, and the other a soiled and saggy blue-green af fair). An equal number of people were lying or sitting cross-legged on the worn carpet. On the yellowed walls, someone had Blu-tacked pieces of coloured paper with slogans on them. "You are guilty of all the good that you did not do," said one. "Have you considered that you could be wrong?," asked another. Tiny hand-made drawings of flowers, love hearts and other simple patterns framed the words.

The room's one light, a hundred watt bulb that was uncompromised by a shade, looked mercilessly down on the throng. Dave Hartley spoke from his position on a reversed kitchen chair. His neatly pressed slacks, white shirt, and tie clashed with the well-worn joggers he was wearing. No one in his audience wore a white shirt, much less a tie. But his inappropriate dress did not seem to bother his listeners. Dave's legs straddled the seat, and he would rest his chin on the back of the chair when waiting for contributions from those present. As he talked, his hands never left the top of the chair back. He relied entirely on his voice and the truth of what he had to say to keep his audience's attention.

Greg's wife, Anna, was there, along with Diane's husband, Juan, and their five-year-old son, Sean. A few visitors were present as well, all happily munching on out-of-date frozen pizzas that Greg and Di had obtained that afternoon, in their raid on Buy-Rite. "Character! That's what the world lacks today… good old-fashioned character." Dave's head shot forward a fraction, and his voice went up slightly to emphasise the final word, but his hands stayed firmly on the chair.

"Real character is when you do the right thing in the face of any opposition. Do you stick by your mate when everyone else turns against him? Do you tell the truth even when it hurts? Do you do your job faithfully when others are not looking, and you know you can get away with slacking of f? Or do you pike out when the going gets tough?" His young audience listened intently.

"Most of you have been raised on selfishness. You've been told that winning is everything. You've come to believe that truth is whatever answer will help you pass the test. But there was a day when people had a conscience and nothing mattered more than following it." "How does that fit in with pinching stuf f from bins?" asked a long-haired youth reclining on one elbow on the floor. He was teasing more than arguing. "That's not very honest, is it?" The others laughed heartily at the irony of it.

"A perfect example of what I'm talking about," said Dave with a smile. "You've been taught that the way to tell right from wrong is to listen to what a man in a police uniform says. But I'm not talking about what the law says. I'm talking about what your conscience says. And I'm saying that most of the world snuf fed their conscience out a long time ago. They can't even hear that still small voice anymore. They're too busy listening to what the authorities tell them to do."

Dave crossed his arms on the chair back and rested his chin on his arms as he looked down at the boy on the floor. "You tell me, Rick: Which is fairer? Taking food from a supermarket rubbish bin and giving it to people like yourselves? or letting people go hungry so the food can be trashed?"

"I know what you're saying," said the visitor. "I think it's great what you do; but what if everyone went 'round robbing stuf f? That wouldn't be right now, would it?"

"Right and wrong aren't based entirely on what people do," replied Dave. "They're based more on why they do it. Real character comes from being able to see the bigger picture."

Greg spoke up. "We didn't hurt no one by pinching those pizzas, did we? We was just stopping them from going to waste."

"More important than that," said Dave, "getting those pizzas is part of our message. Greg could get a nice cushy job and make enough money to buy us all the pizzas we like. But he already has a job. His job is to get people questioning the way they live. Raiding bins just happens to be part of it."

"Yeah," said Greg. "Soon's I say I don't work for money, people start sayin' it's impossible. But it isn't, is it? And we're provin' it. The food's there for all of us to use, and we can use it without hurtin' no one. God provides it, as long as we do our bit to get people to believe in him."

Dave continued. "You see, Greg does his bit when he does free work for people or when he passes out tracts. That's the kind of goodness I was talking about before. He doesn't work for money and he doesn't take the dole. But most people think unless he's making money, he's useless. They think he doesn't deserve to eat if he doesn't charge for his labour. So God helps us get around that by letting us take stuf f from the bins. It doesn't hurt anyone, and it keeps us going."

There was a brief pause, in which no one responded to what Dave had said. Apparently they were satisfied with his explanation.

"Anyway, enough for now," said Dave. "We'd better pack up what's left of the pizza because we're going to have to finish early tonight. The full-timers have some business they need to attend to."

As the visitors were leaving, Dave took time to question one of the quietest ones on his way out. He was a young man in his late twenties, named Joshua King.

"You're very quiet," said Dave. "Did you understand what I was talking about tonight?"

"Yes sir, I did, thank you very much. It was good."

"What did you think about it?"

"I agreed with it. I've always thought the same things myself."

"What parts did you agree with?"

"All of it. It was all good."

When Joshua was gone, Dave turned to Juan, Diane, Greg, and Anna: "How did this bloke, Joshua, first come in contact with us anyway?"

"He wrote to us a couple months ago," said Anna. "Said he wanted to work with us. So I sent him an invitation to the meetings. He's been coming for a few weeks now."

Dave asked to see the original letter, which Anna quickly retrieved from her files.

Anna was the group's unof ficial treasurer and secretary. She was quieter than the other members, but as firm as any of them in her beliefs. She loved answering the mail, and she did a fastidious job of keeping records. Although in her early thirties, she tended to dress like a woman much older than herself. She wore her long hair in a bun most of the time, and always had a pencil tucked behind her ear.

After studying the letter from Joshua for a moment, Dave shared his assessment of it.

"See here?" he said. "No home address... just a post of fice box. Not bad for a dolee. Notice that he's put the return address on the outside of the envelope, but he left his name of f, like he doesn't want anyone to accidentally discover that he's writing to us. For all we know, Joshua King may not even be his real name. And here's what he says in his letter, 'I would like to work with you to build a new world of faith and love.' Those are the exact words we used in the pamphlet he received. Doesn't he know how to speak for himself?" The younger members of the group were always amazed at Dave's ability to detect deception.

Dave continued: "I've been watching him for the past few weeks, and he hasn't told us anything about himself or his background... religious or otherwise. If he does ask anything, it's always the wrong questions: questions about our organisation and about our theology, but not about what we're really saying. He wants us to believe he's ready to throw his lot in with us, but he can't even say in his own words what it is that we have in common. My guess is that he's hiding something. Watch him."

"Should we say anything to him?" asked Anna.

"Nah. No need for that," said Dave. "Treat him like you would anyone else. Just be careful about what you say around him."

The meeting then turned to the Bondi Beach project - something they definitely would not have wanted Joshua King to learn about in advance. Juan Ventura, Diane's husband, was in charge of it. Juan could be as serious as Greg could be foolish… not that he had anything against others having fun; he just rarely smiled himself. He had slightly Asian features and a big head of woolly black hair, which somehow resulted from having a Filipino mother and an Italian father. His parents had divorced, and his mother had retained her Filipino surname. Projecting upward from Juan's waist at the moment was a clipboard. His left hand grasped the top of it, and his elbow lay along the length of it. The clipboard held all of his notes on the project. "The safest time is between the 2am and 4am security rounds," said Juan, when he had everyone's attention. Juan was a natural organiser. "Before 2am there are likely to be late night stragglers still hanging around, and after 4am, the early morning joggers start arriving. "Monday and Tuesday are the quietest nights. If we go in the run on Sunday, we can rest up on Monday. But we'll need to be ready to roll with the Bondi project on Tuesday night." In an ef fort to check his natural tendency to push his own ideas, Juan added, "If that's OK with the rest of you."

No one objected, so he continued. "We should be able to cover just over 200 metres with each ten litre drum. I've marked on this sketch where we need to put them. Sometime during the day on Tuesday, pairs of us need to take trips to the beach, carrying one drum each time. We can wear swimmers and take beach towels, just like we're going for a swim. We should be able to dig a hole in the sand up near the wall without anyone taking any notice. Then we just wait for a chance, slip the drum in, and cover it over. That way, the paint will be there waiting for us when we need it on Tuesday night."

Everyone gathered around the clipboard to study Juan's notes and his sketches, so that they would know where to bury their various consignments of paint on Tuesday.

"Anyone who hasn't already memorised the slogans needs to get serious about learning them this weekend," Juan continued. "If any of you forgets the words, it could ruin the whole project." Juan was worrying unnecessarily; each painter was to carry a copy of the text as a back-up.

"Dynamite, it'll be your job to buy binoculars and a two-way radio on Tuesday. You'll mind the base with Sean during the actual painting." Diane obediently accepted her husband's decision; but she was disappointed, because she had been keenly looking forward to being part of this exciting project.

In a test run at a nearby stormwater drain, the bin raiders had worked out that they could average one six-foot letter every 15 seconds, if four of them worked together. Each member would be armed with a paint roller and a tray, and they would leap frog over one another.

The wall at the beach was a good half mile from one end to the other, giving them room for more than 400 letters. If everything went smoothly, they could paint the whole wall in the two hours between security checks.

The idea for the Bondi project had sprung from a discussion about philosophical truisms that each member had encountered at some time in their youth. With a little prompting from Dave, they had been able to see how these thoughts had formed the foundation for much that had come later in their beliefs.

"Morality doesn't just happen," Dave had explained. "We get our ideals because someone made the ef fort to teach us. But modern society has accepted the lie that truth will just naturally evolve if parents don't take an active part in teaching their kids the dif ference between right and wrong. Even book publishers object to publishing books which teach kids moral values these days; they say the kids won't buy them if they are too preachy. Many kids grow up without ever thinking about important spiritual and moral issues."

That comment led to a conviction that they could do something about changing the situation. "Why don't we paint slogans all over Sydney?" Juan had suggested. "Not churchy stuf f or political slogans, but just simple truths that could change their lives. Who knows? Maybe a single sentence could be all it takes to make the dif ference."

Everyone had contributed a list of the thoughts they had gleaned from parents, teachers, friends, church leaders, and from general reading. From this, a single list had been made that everyone agreed would be appropriate for permanent display on the most famous beach in Australia. Some were short, like "Practise what you preach." Others were longer, like "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing."

Now the time had come to put their plan into action.

The meeting went on for an hour or more before they finally broke up and went to bed.


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