When I was a kid, each year my parents loaded my brother and me into a tiny car and hauled us to Florida's Disney World. I spent the days that followed singing the theme song to the ride "It's a Small World" while my family tried to plug their ears or drown me out by turning up the car radio. No trip was complete without a trinket — something to say we'd been there. One year I got a pink plastic figurine of Tinkerbell and a curious hat with ears on it. These items, though utterly commodified representations of a false world built on the bounty of a real one, contain a kind of magic. They remind. The unusual color and feel of the plastic Tinkerbell figurine remains unforgettable to me.
Today I make a new kind of pilgrimage when I travel. I visit thrift shops and yard sales that offer me interesting windows into cultures not my own. If urban and suburban landscapes had not been taken over by homogenous strip malls of national franchises, I might not be so drawn to these suburban curiosity windows. But with Santa Fe littered with fadobe homes (a nickname for fake adobe) and New York's 42nd Street impeccably polished clean for tourists of all ages,I find that clues about culture peek out from the waste stream. With a little luck, one can also find treasures to fill a home, stories to satisfy even a tourist's interest, and items to flip on eBay for a bit of extra cash.
Mikey and I have been in the Northwest for one week. We visited a Goodwill, a mom-and-pop thrift shop, and a bunch of garage sales. From these small samplings, we have an idea about the socioeconomic vitality, history, hobbies, and beliefs of the people who live here.
In Tacoma, Washington, we found a mile-long strip littered with pawn and thrift shops called Ponders Corner. The crowded, rundown stores contained enough cheap plastic goods to rival New York City's Chinatown. At a yard sale near the Canadian border, we discovered a culture on the hunt. There were guns and taxidermy heads mounted to rusty hooks for sale in a moldy garage. Inside, a retired mom proudly showed me her old china, wooden picture frames, and trinkets picked up on adventures and saved like frozen memories.
Most fascinating to me was a multi-block yard sale held in a new gated community near Tacoma. There were lots of new cars out front. The goods for sale revealed that quality was hardly of any import here. Stuff was plastic, the clothes made of synthetic fibers, the brands middle-of-the-road: The Gap and Banana Republic heaped in piles next to new plastic picture frames and flimsy kitchen gadgets. A lot of the stuff for sale still had the tags on. I wondered how these new items found their way to the trash so soon. Very different from the retired couple's yard sale with their dish sets from the 1950s and decorations older than I am.
I thought back to the trash linking the streets when I lived in New York City. Like the goods at the multifamily garage sale, this was stuff people had worked hard to make the money to buy. Yet this stuff had become trash while it was still new. I wondered, Why do we hold on to some goods forever and kick others to the curb? Do the cheap, manufactured, synthetic goods remind us of our participation in the destruction of life? Produced by sweat labor, shipped excessive distances at the cost of precious fuel, and manufactured with dirty, polluting systems, they remind us of our own demise.
The weekend yard sales have increased by a factor of 4x since the weather has warmed up.
The owner came out and explained that he didn't make any money the day before.
It rained heavily that night and he left everything outside on tables. Thus the sign.
More from Wendy Jehanara Tremayne at PowellsBooks.Blog:
- Dodging Sysco
- Handsome Little Box Makes a Hearty Cup of Joe on the Road
- Wildcrafting the Northwest
- Make Good
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Wendy Tremayne was a creative director in New York City before moving to New Mexico, where she built an off-the-grid oasis with her partner, Mikey Sklar. She is the founder of the textile repurposing event Swap-O-Rama-Rama, a conceptual artist, a yogi, a gardener, and a writer. The Good Life Lab is her first book.
Books mentioned in this post
Wendy Jehanara Tremayne is the author of The Good Life Lab: Radical Experiments in Hands-On Living