Notes from the Waste Stream #3: One-Armed Silver Torso

It’s time again for those bells to ring in support of donation to the Salvation Army. I don’t give. I never give, and have been known to explain why to the bell-ringers in detail. But the bells persist, and they are everywhere. So I thought I’d talk a little bit about thrift stores this month. Lost in Montgomery started with thrift stores. Having moved here from the godless West, I wasn’t prepared for them to be closed on Sunday and was surprised that there wasn’t an online catalog of thrifting options. I furnished a Seattle apartment entirely from thrift stores, and went to college in Atlanta with friends who are thrift store ninjas (Pro Tip: Dress in leggings and tank tops so you can try clothes on at the rack instead of in the nasty dressing rooms), so I had high hopes for our local options. Sadly, they are not that great.

The modern thrift store is an artifact made possible in large part by the advent of garbage collection services. It’s strange for us here in the rich countries to think about the world before municipal garbage collection. We take it for granted that someone will regularly drive by and take our trash. We also don’t think much about where that stuff goes, other than sometimes caring about recycling because of philosophies of environmentalism or economy. But there was a time, not too long ago, when there was no such thing as a city sanitation department and we were responsible for our own waste.

In practice, this produced and sustained an entire secondary economy of people who picked through trash to make a living. It doesn’t seem to have been much of a living, and continues to be a miserable way of life for people in the majority world who live without basic sanitation services like clean water, let alone the fancier business of trucks to whisk away our dinner scraps and Amazon boxes. But it was big business, especially among poor and immigrant families. It was also dirty business, often populated by needy children picking fiber scraps and other waste for bosses to aggregate and resale. But it was a kind of self-sufficiency for the poor.

In her wonderful book The Victorian House, Judith Flanders describes one of the innovative advertising strategies used by “rag-and-bone men”:

The youthful Sammy, dressed in light-blue trousers, gamboge [bright yellow] waistcoat, and pink coat, is throwing up his arms in rapture at the ‘stylish appearance’ of his sweetheart Matilda, who, like Sammy himself, is decked out in all the chromatic elegance of these three primary colours, while the astonished swain is exclaiming , by means of a huge bubble which he is in the act of blowing out of his mouth, ‘My gracious, Matilda! how did you ever get that beautiful new dress?’ To which rather impertinent query the damsel is made to bubble forth the following decided puff: ‘Why, Sammy by saving up all of my old rags, and taking them to Mr. -, who gives the best prices likewise for bones, pewter, brass, and kitchen-stuff.

Here are some of the things I love about this advertisement. First, it illustrates the link between dress and class so perfectly. Second, it mirrors today’s emphasis on thrifty clothing purchases. I continue to be surprised at how common it is that upon complimenting someone for their clothing, you get a report on how much it cost. My grandmother – heck, even my mother, who sewed most of my clothing while I was growing up – would have called such talk gauche. To say what you paid for that scarf or those boots? So rude. But now it’s a measure of your canniness to say that they were only $15 at TJMaxx or whatever. And you don’t have to save up at all. These days, we’re more Macklemore than Matilda.

Garbage collection destroyed the trash-picking industry. Partly on purpose. Progressives were appalled by the piles of waste littering the streets and, in particular, the homes of the poor. Susan Strasser’s book Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash shows how the municipal waste collection movement was energized by often plainly racist and xenophobic language about the unclean lifestyles of immigrants and annoyance with their domination in the secondary waste market. Immigrants were so associated with trash that they were even described as waste on the Statue of Liberty (“the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”).

Along with municipal waste collection, charitable donations meant that trash would not be left outside, or reused in the household, or dickered over. Some was donated for a better cause – to provide jobs for the poor, and a place for old goods to travel down the value ladder. Here’s Strasser’s take:

Donating to charity, the better-off could free themselves from the social discomforts that might arise from identification or intercourse with beggars, scavengers, and ragmen … The organizations also fostered new ways of thinking about the sorting process: people could now avoid the trouble of repair and remaking and get rid of unwanted things without having to define them as worthless.

The truth is that most of the clothing we find at thrift stores is cheaply made. That’s because we’re turning over unbelievable vast amounts of clothing every day to charity to make room for more stuff – stuff which, in turn, is more cheaply made than anything our parents wore. Most of us donate clothing to thrift stores under the assumptions that someone else will wear and cherish it. This is pretty far from the truth. Elizabeth Cline’s book Overdressed shows that an astonishing 80 percent gets sorted out into the waste stream. Some things end up for resale in poor countries, undercutting their ability to develop indigenous textile industries.

We’re living in a world of surplus fabric – something that might amaze the American colonists, whose rag shortage was so acute that citizens did their patriotic duty by saving rags to make paper in support of the Revolutionary War effort. What would they make of the millions of tons of fabric now entering landfills across the world?

I can remember feeling amazed by thrift stores when I was younger – set free from my parents to be my own economic agent. It felt empowering to have things. I couldn’t walk into the mall and buy anything, but here I could leave with everything: plates, cups, lamps, a coffee table, a dresser, a coat, gifts for friends.

And then something happened. I’m not sure what, exactly, but I think it had to do with reaching peak stuff. I got married, and we merged our households, and suddenly we had boxes and boxes of things I could not identify. Then there’s the aging factor – as you get older, you have more things. Even if you’re diligent about patrolling the piles on your coffee table, you accumulate: letters, ticket stubs, gifts, furniture, shoes.

The tipping point was unraveling the maze of things that filled my mother’s house. Once they were sold off and distributed, I still had a truckload to drive across the country and deal with. She collected Lladros – you may not know the name, but you’d recognize their distinctive blue and white finish if you saw one. She bought them in Spain, one by one at the military commissary. Most of them had the original box and price sticker. Having grown up poor, she treasured each of them for their delicacy. They must have seemed unspeakably rich to her, the fineness of the hands rendered just so, the tiny flowers sometimes strewn across the base. They were seasonal, particularly the Christmas ones we brought out every year to arrange on the mantle. And it was my job to sell the lot of them. Partly because I promised my brothers I would, partly because they’ve never been to my taste, and mostly because I simply needed to be rid of them.

There were other boxes, too – so many files that needed reading, shredding, saving, weeping over; the records of our childhoods mixed in with postcards and lost gloves. All of it occupying space in my home like an unwelcome but surprisingly bulky ghost.

I used to enjoy thrift stores, but I really don’t any longer. I fear seeing things from my childhood home there amid the coffee cups. I worry that I will find my mother’s robe and slippers or a familiar lamp. I know that there are people there who are shopping because they must, not because they can, and somehow this fills me with shame. Because I want to be freed from the things I have, the keepsakes that seem to keep me instead, and when I remember that the plague of too many things is not something most people in the world will ever experience, I feel deeply sad.

After all this, I bought a life-sized one-armed silver torso for $6.99 at the Goodwill over by Maxwell Air Force Base. We were there to see if they had comic books (a subject for another post). Finding none, we poked around listlessly to explore the contours of our city’s waste stream. The faceless model spoke to me from across the room somehow. Seeing the price, I felt like it had to come home with us. Even the cashier was bemused.

TorsoAs I write, I can see him (I have come to think of it as male, for no particular reason) in the living room wearing a Santa hat. I have no good explanation for this purchase. I think it spoke to me because it had absolutely no utility – an improbable decoration, a bizarre addition to the household, an admission that it’s okay to have things that you love.

At some point we will probably tire of him and find him a new home. If we put him on the curb, as folks in our neighborhood sometimes do with their non-torso items, he’d be gone in a minute. If we sold him in Brooklyn or Austin, we might be able to make a hefty profit. For now, he reminds me that not all stuff has to have a purpose or memory as impossible freight, and that’s a good enough reason to keep him around.

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