Tag Archives: recycling

The Ghosts of Thriftness Past

It is said that you can’t go there again. That once you change and the world around you changes, that you cannot return – even to your home away from home.

Thrift ShopAs I was growing up, my mother and I used to frequent thrift shops. I can’t remember how we got started, but once we discovered their treasure trove-ness, we were goners. First it was clothing. So what if it was pre-worn? The money we were saving! And, face it, those whose clothing we were reclaiming obviously only wore things once before discarding them. Objects came next, and, depending on which shop and who the donations came from, well, their discards were always higher quality than what we could purchase brand new. The same could be said for furniture, although that was more my own interest than mom’s, since I was the one setting up house.

It was too early to be called recycling, but whatever we were doing, we enjoyed being the beneficiaries of an economic class system. Our world opened up and was enhanced by others’ wherewithal and their convenient top-bracket tax write-offs. My various apartments and, finally, house were filled with other people’s castoffs. I think, along the way, I developed an aversion to new, always aware that I could get better value in old.

My artwork took on elements that were used, and, eventually, my art was built entirely from found objects. A big piece of what I did was to hunt for the raw materials. Every place I lived, I learned the thrift-shop lay of the land. And, on vacations, too, I was going to parts of cities unknown to most visitors – to explore what the second-hand stores had to offer. When I settled in a section of Philadelphia with my own studio, my weekly routine was to scour the thrift shops for items of interest. For about 15 years, I made the trek of approximately 50 miles round trip out to the Main Line thrift stores. Many of them were owned and operated by the big hospitals in the city proper. But what caused them to be located in the older, wealthy suburbs was Machiavellian: the monied denizens of these communities had good stuff to donate to these shops; also, many of the volunteers who ran the stores were often married to the doctors who worked at the hospitals they were working to raise money for, and these very same volunteers lived conveniently near the shops.


If you are at all familiar with Main Line Philadelphia from “The Philadelphia Story,” the residents were originally blue-blooded, off the Mayflower, Junior League/country-club types. Appropriate as the name might first seem, the derivation of Main Line really has to do with the Pennsylvania Railroad line that was built to serve the communities of large estates that were like the Newport, R.I., of the Mid-Atlantic. As you might imagine, wealth was still prevalent in the latter half of the 20th century – and I picked over its bones. I would go to the towns with the names that are still stops on the commuter trains: Paoli, Berwyn, Wayne, Bryn Mawr, Villanova, Haverford, Ardmore. Kind of like the Hamptons without the beach. The amazing thing is that nearly every town had a thrift shop, some more than one. A bank, movie theater, hardware store, thrift shop – some as close as just a couple of miles apart.

I look around my house and I can remember which items came from which shops. I hauled a lot of stuff out of those amazingly well-stocked stores. But there is a point when enough is enough. Or maybe, enough is too much. My regular route ended sometime in the late 1990s. The funny thing is, that at this point I probably have owned some of the furnishings longer than the original owners had them. I still value them, despite having paid very little for them.

So, this week, for whatever reason, I took the tour again. I guess I was looking for something, but mostly, I was just looking: at my past, at what would be out there if I was starting anew, at the old haunts. It would be a kind of reunion. These days, I search on Craigslist. I am reminded by this of how technology has altered many things, but in this sense, hunting. It brings to mind the difference between browsing and searching. I think I am a browser at heart, since it is the thrill of serendipity that gives the process so much placeness. Searching and then finding what you were seeking out is satisfying, but not thrilling.


So I made the circuit and found it disappointing. The shops are emptier of interesting, or even nice, stuff. Yes, that could be a difference of the generation that is unloading its stuff now as opposed to the previous one. Or it could be that the idea of thrift shops is a dated one when you can search online. Probably fewer donations are made these days. And the wealth level, even on the Main Line, could be lower now – diluted by other classes wanting to live in among. Also, now there are consignment furniture outlets that are drawing the goods away from these shops – allowing the nouveau riche to get something for their discards. The true blue bloods understood charity. Plus, the volunteers working now are possibly the originals, the same women who were there 20-30 years ago. In fact, one shop had a huge banner across its storefront that read, “Looking for Volunteers.” Again, the world has changed.

It is sad to see meaningful markers of your life reduced to ghosts. These hospital thrift shops are diminished now, but they once filled both my home and heart.

Nearly New

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The Grim Repurposer

A while back, I wrote about my mother’s 20-year-old TV – a Sony Color Rear Video Projector, model KP-41EXR96 – and how it outlived her and how I felt compelled to keep it going, in her memory. It has been eleven years, almost exactly, since she left this mortal coil and, now, the television has decided to join her. It finally flatlined; the three color lines of red, blue and green overlapping into a kind of bow tie formation: crossing in the center and separating fanlike at the outer edges; a butterfly with no membrane left between filaments in its wings, only the skeletal remains. In its last gasps, the image would try to expand and go to a black screen with the word “VIDEO” in green appearing in the upper right-hand corner. You could see its jittery struggle and then, when it could sustain it no longer, the picture would collapse back down into the three lines: the green one, although a mere eighth of an inch thick, still visibly sporting the now distorted “video” in its condensed, narrow space.

Looking like some sort of other-worldly typography, I thought it was attempting to communicate something. Or was it, like “Hal” in 2001, A Space Odyssey, just deconstructing and returning to its most rudimentary programming? VIDEO, hmm. It was all about video, it was created for video, its mere existence was for the purpose of video, its lifeblood was video. Was it crying, “Mama?” Was I crying, “Mama?”

Then, click, it powered itself off. So, there it was: big blank screen, hulking carcass, weighing probably 200 pounds. I was reminded of that time, years ago, when our cat Matthew died in our house. Matthew was a cat whom we had inherited from someone else, so I called that former roommate of Matthew to let him know. He was sorry, but he had just recently lost his dog, and we talked about our losses. My recollection of that conversation is that, although we both were truly sad, there was the reality of life changing to death, instantly, and then leaving this physical thing – sometimes a largish thing, this body – to deal with. A practical matter of disposal (for want of a better term) that needed to be addressed. This set was the 200 pound dead elephant in the room.

Understandably, the TV set was not a living thing, so the absence of a personality was not being felt here. Nevertheless, there was a long history and a sense of duty and stewardship to get beyond. But, suddenly there was this corpse, and the room could use some breathing space (if you know what I mean), so, go it must. But how? I mean, it was big enough for the two of us to be buried in it, maybe with a little adjusting and bending, but it was large, larger than a Coupe de Ville trunk (if you know what I mean). And compounding this issue was that we wanted to do the right thing in disposing of it. I wasn’t thinking about a military send-off, but, instead, a responsible and ecological solution to our predicament; in other words, not a landfill. Heck, this thing could poison and pollute the Earth for generations to come. (This concept is something which I struggle with daily on a very small scale, like with a screw-top on a bottle.) Did I mention that this set was a behemoth?

So, the place of waste is a conundrum. I have always been of two minds: waste not, want not; and leave the smallest footprint possible. And there you have it – I am drowning in stuff, a) because I like it or can use it (sometime, somewhere) and b) because I want to get rid of it carefully and meaningfully – mindfully. I assume that someone made this item carefully and meaningfully and, having taken it in, I have the responsibility to move it along in the same manner. What to do?

Well, like a bolt from the blue, an email arrived from an area co-op that occasionally offers an organized effort for mindful disposal of electronics. We have been there before with numerous generations of now-defunct new technology. During that visit the items were weighed and we paid a reasonable per-pound price. Gulp! – the weight issue was scary this time. But this email said nothing about weighing, only that a donation to the recycler was expected. So, the new problem was, how does a two-person operation (us who live with this monster TV set) get it down from the second floor and out to our vehicle? Well, with some strategizing and a largish piece of cardboard, we managed to toboggan it down the long, thankfully straight stairway. It was unexpectedly and surprisingly easy!

We arrived at the recycling lot, fearful that we would be rejected; but, no, some eager young men met us with quizzical looks on their faces. What kind of television is that? they asked. How old is it? they marveled. Yes, it was made before they were born, but in surveying the assorted boneyard of old sets standing around, forsaken, in the parking lot, we spied some in wood furniture-style cabinets that were much older than ours. It must have been the size and bulk of the thing that startled the boys. I am sure they thought that they were surrounded by some old sci-fi movie props. Painful to admit, it all looked very familiar to me. As I pointed out to the young’ns, heck, the car we brought it in is way older than the television set. Anyway, they took it, bemusedly, to be recycled. A happier ending could not have been asked for.

I know I am a little on the wacko end of the spectrum about some of this stuff, although I do have a clear conscience. My sense is, though, that many people have no conscience at all, so they are probably happier and healthier than I am. Lucky, soulless beings that they are. But the issue of this dead device had me reeling and had put forth a new challenge for me (as if there weren’t enough already): of finding a place for its final resting place and finding placeness in the disposition of property. My mission was to balance the right combination of “out it goes” and it having absolutely no impact on anyone else, born or unborn. New term: the placeness of misplacelessness, matter into anti-matter. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. “VIDEO.”

Epilogue: We have replaced the old warhorse with a successor, really a predecessor – a still functioning 1980 17-inch tube TV set – the first purchase we made together in our newfound relationship. No remote control on this one but a still-perfect picture after 30 years. So much for age.

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