Diamonds and Rust

I often found myself amid things that people had used up and among used up people’s things. Regardless of which thrift store I approached, there was a noticeable dinge that marred nearly everything from the parking lot to the display racks to the merchandise. Other than the sporadic “new old stock” item still unopened from its heyday in some more quaint and benevolent version of the modern day big-box store, most items had been reduced to ragged castoffs. There was the bin of random cords: AC adapters with nothing to power, various non-standard lengths of coaxial cable bound with masking tape, and a dozen nearly obsolete 24-pin adapters of every conceivable configuration. There was the dusty catch-all shelf where every unpaired, mismatched, and friendless dumbbell, ankle weight, and sauna suit—top or bottom, never both—was exiled. Then there were the shelves of occasionally warped, sometimes moldy, but always dusty LPs—the flame to my moth.

I could easily overlook all of the somewhat-functional electronics, half-used personal care products, and chipped brick-a-brack, because there were records. And regardless of the condition of the outer jacket and inner sleeve, vinyl records were nearly indestructible. You could rescue a vinyl record just like you could rescue a stray dog: with a bath (a dip in the SpinClean MKII), a trim (removing any gluey price stickers), some medication (a Windex wiped down to remove any mold) and a bit of love (repairing split seams and new protective sleeves).

Despite the general air of dinginess and aroma of discarded fabric—half of any thrift store inventory, thus I assume half of all donations, was clothing—there was something utterly soothing about stuff that used to clutter the lives of others; stuff that was pre-loved. Unlike the blight of cheaply made $1 goods that greets shoppers at many major retailers, the thrift store contained mainly durable goods. No item that had outlived its previous caretaker could be considered anything less. As for the items that were orphaned prematurely, at least they had survived the “burn in” period.

Some abandoned stock was special, however. It came from a different era; a time when craftsmanship was the rule not the exception. As I mingled around late ’70s silver era HiFi components, dumbbells made of actual iron, and vintage tools that had put in a lifetime or three of hard labor, I was awash in reverence. People used to care about the stuff they made and made stuff people cared about. Today, everything is made to be discarded within the season. This presents a most arduous paradox as there is greater-than-ever penchant for weathered, worn, and rustic objects, yet nothing is engineered to last long enough to accumulate authentic wear and tear.  A bizarre outcome of this disposable culture is the manufacturing of items that appear aged but are in fact brand new. Faux patina, distressed finishes, and counterfeit rust are the new tricks of the trade. Graceful deterioration is as obsolete as durability itself. Only at the thrift store can you find sturdy old things.

There is a clipboard that hangs on a bent nail in my basement. The metal clip at the top is rusted and creaks when depressed. The board itself is quarter-inch-thick wood that had been stained and varnished. It had clearly served outdoors in a previous lifetime. In my mind, it hung on a nail on the inside of a barn door. It held the list of chores, which marshaled a brood of farm kids through their daily responsibilities. Early each morning, over a cup of steaming coffee, a farmer sat at a small wooden table scratching out the day’s toils on a sheet of paper torn from a notebook. Just before he suited up to face the frosty morning air, he grabbed the list. As he entered the barn, he grabbed the clipboard with one calloused meaty hand and depressed the clip with the opposite palm—up went the list. The farmer then disappeared into the barn.

Thirty minutes later, the first of his six children stumbled toward the barn to peer up at the list with bleary eyes. Each drowsy cherub scanned the list for his name. Once he found it and memorized his marching orders, he hung the clipboard back on the nail and stumbled into the barn. This ritual was repeated five additional times each day, hundreds of times each month, thousands of times a year, for years. The farm prospered, the children grew, and the clipboard endured. Depending on the season, the clipboard would inevitably be dropped onto the frozen, muddy, or parched earth. Depending on the prevailing mood, the clipboard would be hung carefully, clumsily, or sternly back on the nail. Depending on the weather, the clipboard would be subject to persistent dampness, blinding sun, and every temperature from below zero thru beyond oppressive. And yet it endured—reliable as the land itself.

The only remnant of the original finish remained on the middle of the board where a sheet of notebook paper barely shielded it from the elements. It was a shadowy reminder of a previous lifetime and the ghosts that once inhabited it. This was the best thing about my clipboard: it bore the scars of real life, and it was built of memories as much as wood and metal. As it hung in my basement next to my desk reminding me to gather paperwork for Tax Day, to pick up my dry cleaning, or what to purchase my kids for Christmas, it gathered only dust and new memories.

In thrift store after thrift store, day after day, I explored these neo-ancient artifacts. Often times, just the approach from the parking lot elevated my mood. The anticipation of discovery was a sublime agitation. Once inside these labyrinths lousy with the past, every new aisle was rife with possibility. All of the shelves were brimming wondrous congestion. Each garish fossil like an orphaned pet looking for a home…again. At any given moment, I could uncover an impossible treasure or something magnificent from the past. One day it was the fantastic clipboard that surely came from a farm. The next day it might be a wicked lava lamp with neon orange goo inside. On my best days, it was an armload of sweet vinyl records that I would save and then savor.

This confluence of mystery and possibility was unique to thrift stores with their ever-churning stock of discarded goods. Thanks to my father, I was a jaded veteran of second-hand venues. Flea markets and swap meets tended to be divided evenly between new shiny tchotchkes, dubious collectibles and gimmicks like custom-made wood signs, hand-made jewelry, and artisanal bread spreads. Antique stores were bloated with haughty goods that carried presumptuous price tags. Online auction sites were devoid of the charm and visceral experience of ogling and fondling inanimate objects—you were resigned to window shopping in the most virtual sense. I had experienced them all and found that only the lowly thrift store presented the diligent scavenger with endless opportunity.

Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, the forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley

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