Kurt came in to check his e-mail while I was taking a break from tutoring, and I joked, “Do you ever wear that sweater anymore? That one I recognized from the Salvation Army?” It was a tannish-brown hand-knit the cuffs of whose sleeves would have swung below my knees.
He said that he’d like to wear it more but “the cats have found it. Yeah, first one, then the whole bunch, nesting there.”
“Big enough for all of them and maybe they like the color,” I joked.
Then he asked me, “Where you and I are aficionados of the Salvation Army, do you have any tips or special methods?”
“Well, I’m glad you asked,” I said, “I do have several theories and use them regularly. For example, I thoroughly empty my mind at the front door. In my experience, the worst thing that you can carry into the Salvation Army is an expectation. So I try not to think about what I need.”
Usually it works, and I walk through the doors with a minimum of preconceptions, if any. I try
to take it as it comes. Let it come to me. “You know, mystic stuff like that.”
Actually, I said that I thought of shopping the Salvation Army as trolling. “You let the bait down in the water, you sit back, maybe somebody else is steering the boat, you can’t see the lure at all after a while, it’s just out there somewhere, and you wait.”
Kurt showed me the pair of boots he’d just bought for $3. “Wow!” I said, “they still look like new.” We briefly compared notes on what we would and wouldn’t buy secondhand. We agreed on underwear (definitely not) but differed on towels. Shoes have always been iffy with me, unless they look unworn like Kurt’s find. Doesn’t Galway Kinnell have an awful poem about Goodwill shoes?
I used to think that there was a right and a wrong way to do anything, including shopping the Salvation Army. More recently, I have become aware that there are numerous right ways to do things. I still secretly think, however, that I may have discovered the best way to shop the Salvation Army. That accounts for my willingness to share my theories and methods with Kurt. Maybe it’s all a little overwhelming for him.
“First, I walk the length of the store and always start from the back, in the appliances and furniture.” That seems odd even to me, because there’s very little or nothing in those categories that I need. He suggested that I might be attracted by the books, which are also at the far end of the store. I thought not, since my bookshelves at home already overflow, and there has been some complaint about my buying habits. “I just like starting from the back, probably like reading the newspaper from back to front.”
After scoping the bookshelves, appliances and furniture in the back room, I come back out to Housewares in the main room. Kurt said, “Yeah, every once in a while, there’s a dynamite highball glass in here- big heavy bottom.” What was the last thing was I bought in Housewares? Was it the framed, signed photograph of middleweight champion prize-fighter Carmen Basilio inscribed, “To my good buddy, Angie, best wishes”?
Is there a logic to what shows up at the Salvation Army? Are there tides of goods like oceans dragged around the globe by the moon? Currents of clothing, littoral drift of dishes, shoe seiches, toy tsunamis, and scarf surf on the storefront beaches? Goods wash up here for us to pick over. If we knew those tides, could we wait for what we want?
After Housewares, I cut across to Linens. Nothing catches my eye. The other day there was a khaki army blanket that looked at least fifty years old. The moth holes had been darned with brilliant embroidery floss. It caught my eye as a relic- butterflies are free- but I didn’t want to own it. It disappeared from the store within a day.
My final sweep of the store involves Men’s Clothes, and Men’s Clothes are displayed on two tiers of three major racks running almost the length of the store. Pants and sweaters; heavy shirts, suits and jackets; long-sleeved shirts below and short-sleeved shirts above. Kurt points out that prices seem to have risen recently, and that explains why I’ve been looking for the special color ½ price tickets more than usual.
I’ve been specializing in green shirts for the past few years, but it’s become clear that I have more green shirts than I can wear. Almost everyone knows that I’m usually dressed in some shade of green, but probably most of them don’t realize that the shirts all come from the same place. Now, when I buy a new one, one has to be returned.
The Men’s Clothes section is a museum of style and fiber. There’s an attraction to the occasional, grubby red plaid hunting woolens, the bright dashikis, and the pastel polyester leisure suits. Things which are good and valuable- by virtue of their unique style or definite utility- pass through the store quickly. Two days is a long time for something good- however outlandish- to linger, so it’s best to shop light and often. Of course, later, sometimes, I wonder. To what occasion would I wear a NYS Fruit Testing bowling shirt?
Anyway, once through Men’s Clothes in three long passes, I’m ready to exit back onto Main Street. Maybe I’ll give the Jewelry counter or Ladies Coats a glance, but seldom more than that.
I realize that I’ve gone on too long with Kurt. He glances toward his computer screen. I feel the need to justify my enthusiasm with more than claims of economy so I try a new tack. With his big bushy beard and funky clothes, Kurt might go for this, so I try, “Yeah, you know, it satisfies my hunter/gatherer instincts. The Bushman poking with his stick at a promising spot probably feels much the way I do scanning the racks for warmth, style, and value.”
Kurt smiles and turns to his e-mail.
The trade trail on
Main Street is well-marked
leading away from the lake
into the wind, toward
the Salvation Army store
The walk is cold and snowy
the hunter-gatherer’s head is
covered, pulled in, hood buttoned up
sunglasses covering his eyes
cloth gloved hands and feet
protected by wool socks and boots
The wind stings his face
snow freezes on his cheeks
he approaches the front door
and finds the store all dark
a hand-written message in the window
“Closed dew to weather”