If you want to experience the human hunger for free stuff in its purest, sharpest form, swing by Harvard University’s Allston campus any Thursday morning.

At 11 a.m., a staffer opens the doors to Harvard's Recycling and Surplus Center. A few of those who have been patiently waiting outside gain admittance first, followed in increments by the rest of the assembled crowd. Once they're in, people attack the contents of the warehouse like they're hunting for buried treasure. They dig through bins of old clothes, scrutinize scruffy pieces of furniture, upbraid fellow hunters who've encroached on items they've already claimed. 

Presiding over this controlled chaos: Rob Gogan, the recycling and waste manager for Harvard University Campus Services. In the mid-eighties, he dropped out of a doctoral program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to make an unexpected career switch.

"Harvard’s recycling program had a lot of room for improvement, so I became a gadfly," Gogan said. "They said, 'Well, if you care so much about this, why don’t you help our facilities department figure out how to do it?'"

"My mom is probably the first Harvard parent to see her son go on to become a garbage collector," he added. 

But the feverish activity here shows what an imprecise term "garbage" actually is. Everything packed into the Recycling and Surplus Center came from somewhere else on Harvard’s campus, jettisoned by students or staff who didn’t think it was particularly valuable.

Clearly, the people who pack this space every Thursday have a different take.

"My husband and I, we help the Dominican Republic," said Evelyn Soto. "There’s a lot of poor families over there that we help out, so I actually came to see if we could find phones."

And she does: a recycling bin full of red touch-tone units formerly used by Harvard's administration to make emergency contact with students.

Soto isn't alone in her approach. Many of the people here are searching for items that might seem like junk but can fill an acute need for charities or family members overseas. Other visitors just want freebies they can use themselves or sell on eBay or elsewhere. 

For still others, the Recycling and Surplus Center scene is an end in itself.

"You get close to something, and before long you’re surrounded by a horde of people," one older man told me with relish. "All of a sudden, you’re surrounded by other people who are saying, 'Oh no, that’s mine!'"

Now for a couple caveats. Gogan and his staff do set some items aside for local nonprofits. Also, not everything here is free. Laptops can cost a few hundred bucks.

Still, if you’re looking for, say, a functioning organ for the low price of zero dollars, the Recycling and Surplus Center is the place to be.

"This really caught the fancy of one of our surplus visitors," Gogan said, gesturing toward a functioning electric organ. "He carried it to his condominium, was about to go in the door, and the condo association president said, 'Not so fast.'"

As of noon on Thursday, that organ was still there for the taking.