So when do I get to the part about why new stuff sucks? I’ve started a list—in next week’s post. But here, one more thing. Because, believe it or not, the definition of “new stuff” isn’t completely clear. For example, does food count as new stuff? What about art? (It’s new to you, but what went into it?) And does this mean no more shopping? Here’s how I define these things:
Food? If it’s harvested from gardens, purchased “naked” from farmer’s markets, or picked from wild areas and alleys, it doesn’t count as new. But packaging is new stuff, for sure. Sometimes the packaging is more substantial than the food inside. It will certainly hang around longer. It counts as new.
Art? Most new art isn’t new stuff, just because most artists (the starving ones I’ve bought from, anyway) can’t afford a lot of expensive new materials. They might gesso an old canvas to reuse it, squeeze a number of paintings out of a supply of new tubes, or use found materials. Best of all, art is unique, so it challenges the culture of mass-production. And that’s part of what we’re after here. Art, from start to finish, is on a totally different track from the industrial manufacturing of new things. Art doesn’t suck. (Unless, of course, it happens to be bad art!)
Shopping? Do these kinds more often: You can get fabulous, useful stuff at thrift stores and yard sales with the change you find in the couch, practically. You won’t see depressing multiples of the same exact shirt on a rack, either—instead of being stuck with this year’s colors and styles (chosen to make a profit?), you can create your own look or décor from a much broader palette.
With no cash at all, I enjoy alley shopping. Or I look for what I need at the Curbside Mall (the city’s bulky-trash pickup) when it’s in my neighborhood or nearby. This kind of shopping has a more recreational feel to it, since you’re less likely to be looking for something specific, and more likely to be discovering what’s out there—what you think you might use in the future. You’ll have it when you need it, without running to the store.
Things do fall apart but things get replaced, too
A couple months ago, two of my possessions broke. The old, tiny electric space heater I’d used for years to warm up my bedroom suddenly emitted that sharp, electrical-fire smell and just shut down. Despite a thorough shaking and dial-fiddling, it refused to come back to life. Then a couple days later, toward the back of the yard, I saw a dozen or so of my glittery Christmas tree balls scattered over the ground. I’d put them in a large, squat jar with a metal cover—a favorite storage jar because of its shape (origin forgotten). Someone or something—the wind, or more likely a night-wandering javelina—had pushed it off its table and smashed it.
These days, when something of mine breaks, I usually have one of two reactions: I say to myself either Good, that’s one less piece of stuff to deal with, and I feel lighter, or Too bad, I needed that, but I bet it will be easy and cheap to replace. No pain. I rarely cry over spilt milk anymore, and I appreciate the way life goes more smoothly and pleasantly whenever “milk” is “spilt.”
On Sunday, Terry and I decided to go for an alley walk. Alley walks tend to be slower than road walks because of objects, or piles of objects, that need closer inspection. I’m always curious. On this day we were in no hurry, so we chose an alley and started out. After three or four blocks, it dead-ended into a busy yard sale—a rare Sunday sale, impossible to miss as we couldn’t go any farther—it was like a star hung over it.
There on the table in front of me was my large, squat jar with the metal cover ($1.50). Behind it stood a small space heater—not quite as small or as old as the one I’d been using, but every bit as perfect for the space, and probably safer ($2.50). Prices so low, not worth bargaining.
The thing is, this kind of thing happens all the time in the lives of people well-connected to the Used Universe. I suppose this sort of luck is just due to the massive volume of unwanted miscellany pouring out of American homes in this consumer era. But to me it can seem magical at times. I like to imagine a Goddess of Reuse. It sure seems like she looks after me.
Were you raised to recoil at the word “used”? I’m sorry. It doesn’t mean you were ab-used. It does mean someone tried to curtail your lifestyle options. You’re limited to buying new. And paying for new. And not ever getting to stumble onto charming surprises, probably with exceptional durability and storied provenance, free of charge or shockingly cheap.
Yes, there are different kinds, and different levels, of “used.” Someone who would excitedly bid on a valuable antique at an auction might not be down with the idea of buying a used pillow at a stranger’s yard sale. A gift of a sweater from your best friend might be a more acceptable sort of used than a roadkill T-shirt you see on the ground while biking. This range of reactions to used commodities is broad, emotional, and personal. If, growing up, you had to wear family hand-me-downs, you’ll probably find the sparkle of newness and sealed packages more enticing than people who didn’t. At a common position on the spectrum is the person who says, “Sure, I shop at yard sales and thrift stores. I’ll buy anything but underwear.”
I try to accept people at all levels. My own views have changed as I push them. I used to avoid getting used shoes because I once caught a foot fungus from a public shower in Hawaii. That’s gone now (I think it was the tea tree oil) and I will wear used shoes—but not before dousing them with multiple cleaners (foot powder, hydrogen peroxide, etc.—maybe you know which is best). I feel safer doing that that than visiting another public shower! Contrary to the common opinion mentioned above, I don’t find underwear to be problematic. For one thing, it can be washed. For another, it’s almost never offered for sale unless it’s pristine or still has a tag.
My more fearless position on accepting castoffs has also been pushed as I’ve read the studies about where the human-loving bacteria hang out and don’t, along with all the research about the damage our immune systems suffer when, because of unnaturally antiseptic environments, they never get to practice the necessary germ warfare that strengthens them.
I have an excellent sense of smell, which I totally depend on when it comes to questionable food from my own kitchen. It also alerts me to garbage or trash piles from many yards away, and I usually avoid any discards that are intricately mixed in with the smelly stuff. It would have to be something I really wanted to go through that kind of stink. Couches, mattresses, blankets, and carpet—common alley castoffs—are sometimes just too “unknown” to consider. I rarely need these things, anyway. If I’m running out of rags when I come across that T-shirt, I might pick it up with two fingers, and throw it in a bag or bike basket for later washing. Sometimes those rags (hey, that’s actually a pretty nice Tee!) even make it into my closet.
Wherever you see yourself on the willingness-to-salvage spectrum, you’ll have your own unique parameters. They may move, like mine—or not. Maybe you’re bolder than I am. We’ve good germs, and bad germs, so…
You’re the shopper!
Of course a pandemic isn’t the time to forget sanitation standards. But new products, as a whole (their unnatural ingredients and chemicals), are more dangerous to human health and survival than germs from alleys. Many die when removed from humans and their controlled environments.
To wrap this up I’m posting a picture of my favorite alley find, a solid-wood art deco radio cabinet in mint condition (minus the electronic guts). Right now I’m using it as a linen closet. I guess I newly have to admit that my second-favorite alley find was in a Dumpster behind a newly shuttered bar. It was filled with a couple dozen cases of beer, bottles unopened.