Monday, November 17, 2008

The Ambiguous Virtue of Thrift

My friend Mrs. T at Fine Old Famly has indulged me by writing a post on one of my favorite topics, bargain-shopping at the grocery store. I've found since moving that, now that we're out of the orbit of the greater New York metropolitan area, we have also been freed from the grip of the Gotham Dairy Cartel. For reasons I could never fathom, dairy products are amazingly expensive in New York City. I never bought Land-O-Lakes butter in New York, for instance, although it's my favorite butter, because it cost $5.99 a pound in the local supermarket. Here, it's $2.99, so I buy two pounds at a time.

I've always found bargain-hunting, whether for groceries or anything else, to be a fun and exciting adventure. Most of my fabulous college teaching wardrobe was culled from thrift stores, as were many of my recital gowns, including the one I wore at my dissertation recital last spring, a vintage Pauline Trigère evening dress from the 1960s. I even bought my wedding dress at a thrift shop, a strange and remarkable experience which must be saved for another telling, for $200. (It happened to be the shop in the basement of Fallen Sparrow's favorite haunt for weekday Mass, a Church that I believe is redolent with graces.) That's me in the dress, above.

So I thought nothing of walking over to the local Catholic Charities thrift shop the other day, with my two-year-old in the stroller, to get a few shirts for his new two-mornings-a-week nursery school. When we got there, the place was packed, which seemed unusual, but I found some very nice things for him in good condition. I got onto a long line to pay, and when I got to the counter, the volunteer staff lady asked for my paperwork. I didn't understand, and she explained that Wednesday was "voucher day"; apparently certain social service programs here include a clothing allotment, which Catholic Charities offers to provide. She let me pay, since I had exact change, but I left feeling like I had done the wrong thing. Maybe getting the nicest possible thing for the least amount of money is no virtue if others need it more than you. I felt like I was taking something that belonged to someone else. It made me wonder if thrift really is a virtue, or just a perversion of Yankee individualism.


Dave said...

First time I get to disagree with you Pentimento. No, thrift is a virtue. As with any virture, it can be perverted of course, but it is a virtue.

And wow, what a church. Bride's lovely too :)

Pentimento said...

Nice to see you, Dave, and thanks! I just wonder if I should have gotten my little one his shirs at an evil big-box store instead, where there are plenty of cheap clothes for everyone who want them. I have to say I was extremely pleased with the quality of the things I found at CC, though.

Dave said...

Ah yes, we have double doses of guilt: Catholic and, oh how should I describe it, lefty sensibilities(? even if they are often overridden by conviction).

I've come to a truce with the evil big-box stores, as I have with food that Michael Pollan speaks admirably against. To eat 'right' and shop 'right' costs a lot more. We are very modest consumers.

I respect anyone who shops at thrifts. When I am at a thift store, I think of that "Jesus in the Bread Line" woodcut.

btw, I am checking in more often here. I don't often have much to add even when I benefit from and enjoy it.

Pentimento said...

I feel you on the guilt, Dave. My mother is an assiduous boycotter of Wal-Mart, but I shop there on occasion, and I think the reality of their impact is a little more complex, and includes more good, than "our side" generally concedes.

You're welcome here - I'm always glad to see you.

Mrs. T said...

Thanks for the link! And I agree, gorgeous church, gorgeous bride.

Hm, I wonder whether the question is so much whether thrift is a virtue (if it is, it's one of the more deliciously fun ones -- patience does NOT win my vote for "virtue I most enjoy cultivating"), as a more complex one about charity -- not as in caritas, but as in, "No, honey, these are for needy people." I think I would have felt just as abashed in the same situation, but, well . . . did they not have enough clothes to go around? If you're shopping in a thrift shop, and it is possible that you COULD go someplace and pay full price, are you taking something away from the people shopping there because they don't have a choice? I mean, here they had vouchers, but it seems to me that you could ask that question while you're rifling through racks at the Goodwill, too. Does having the money in your pocket to go someplace else mean that you shouldn't be there?

Actually these are questions that do often run through my mind while I'm in thrift stores. I feel so much more legit if I'm rifling through my pockets to scrape up change to pay for what I'm buying, for example, than if I use a debit card, as I did last week when I bought a soup pot and a mixing bowl and a few other things and didn't have enough cash in hand to pay for them. I felt like a total fraud taking out PLASTIC in a line with all these old ladies talking about okra pancakes. But who's to say there was any more money in my bank account at the time than Mrs. Okra Pancake had in her purse?

My brother boycotts Wal-Mart, too. Living in a small town makes me not like shopping there, because I can walk up the street from my house and see what's struggling to become a living town square again. I do shop there sometimes, because sometimes that's just where things are that I need, but I try not to, because I want my business to go to the people running the downtown shops. It's not just Wal-Mart, though. I don't go to Staples, because we have a little office-supply store on Main Street. And so on.

I have a friend who dislikes shopping at Wal-Mart because, she says, all the clothes look as though they'd been dropped on the floor. I didn't ask her whether thrift shopping was right out, or what.

Mrs. T said...

OK, the comments on my thrift-milk post turned into a discussion of Blogger word-verfication words and their meanings, so I think I should mention that I just now got "Udistes," the obscure Greek playwright whose tragedy "Zeus and Europa and Io and Hera" was trounced by Aeschylus with "The Persians" at the Dionysian Festival of 472 B.C.

This time it's "bermer," for all your low-protective-bank-forming needs.

Pentimento said...

Oh, I thought Udistes was Oedipus's playboy step-brother!

One of the sad things about my new city is that the downtown is populated during the day by wandering drug addicts, other down-and-outers, and their predators, and at night, well, who knows. I love to walk - a holdover from my New York years - so I just put the two-year-old in the stoller and walk around for miles, but there are no other moms doing the same. This is how I've gotten a look at downtown, though, and, from what I've seen, the architecture is beautiful (late Victorian), but half the storefronts are empty. This was a booming manufacturing town from which all industry has now fled, and the destination of its transition to something else is still unknown. This has left very few independent businesses in the city itself; most shopping is out in the suburbs at malls. This also leaves a real lack of choices for people who don't have cars (as for me, I haven't learned to drive yet - I have a lesson next week - but my husband drives, so ultimately I have as much access to big box stores as anyone).

I just wonder what happens to towns like this. It appears that some council or other is trying to designate a certain area as a live-work-gallery district for artists, but I wonder how much civic good that will really do.

I really prefer shopping at thrift stores than perpetuating whatever Eloi v. Morlock system that Wal-Mart is a part of; the quality and the price are both better, and, well, you're supporting a charity, not China's second-largest trading partner. But I think it's complicated.

Oh, I have a real word here: "pomme"!

Anonymous said...

Mrs. T, Pentimento! You've just ruined a pet theory of mine, which is that the dearth of "real" words chosen by the randomizing software CONCLUSIVELY proves that the monkeys could never type "Hamlet" without the hand of God guiding them.

The closest I've ever got to a real word is "Baunbus", which I suppose is what you might ride to visit the Bauhaus.

This time it's "sorterse" - Italian? Portuguese?



Janet said...

You know, every time I go to a thrift store, my main problem is trying to get a pinky in between the thousands of hangars, so that I can see items of clothing. I've actually been in Good Will when they were taking garment after garment off to racks to dispose of so they could put new items out. So, I don't think you need to feel guilty.

The sheer weight of discarded clothing out there boggles the mind.


Janet said...

Oh, "burdn" I have to post something so I can verify with "burdn"

Dave said...

Janet! Oh hello there! I hope all is well with you.

Pentimento, "apple"?

Dave said...

pomme, OIC, this one is lable.

Janet said...

Hello Dave,

I am well. How about you?


Dave said...

Just fine thanks. It's finally gotten cold here. I am trying to keep my spirits up job hunting - I'm not out of work - just testing the waters, but it's still difficult to put yourself out there.

Pentimento said...

Hi Janet!

I remember hearing about a documentary that tracks a t-shirt from its manufacture to its life in the US to its discarding and second life in Liberia. I think lots of our discards - maybe the ones that don't move off the second-hand shop racks - end up in the Third World.

Good luck with the job search, Dave.

Mrs. T said...

The mention of cast-off clothing reminds me of these two girls who lived upstairs from us for a time in Cambridge. One of them was doing her Ph.d on the history of the ellipsis, which was . . . well, we imagined her dissertation as being largely full of things unsaid. Anyway, not long after we moved in, they moved back into their respective colleges, and in doing so unloaded a ton of their belongings into the back garden in garbage bags. Bags and bags and bags and bags of clothes. I still have a Gap linen blouse salvaged from those bags, plus a bunch of dress-up things that are still in my kids' trunk. My husband scored a telephone for his study. I remember looking at all these things moldering in the rain, and thinking about the hundreds of charity shops lining the streets in all directions, and I thought -- it's so hard to walk down the street with a bag of clothes? We salvaged a few things, but there were lots of things that other people could have used. Finally the builders who were renovating the flat below us came and hauled it all away with the renovation trash. I guess we could have loaded it up and taken it someplace ourselves, but we were just so boggled by it all that I guess we weren't thinking clearly.

Oh, and my word now is "impykr," which is maybe what you'd get from a monkey trying to type "innkeeper."

And Janet -- is it possible that somewhere in the world there exists a person who does not know you?

Pentimento said...

How strange that the clothes would be left to moulder like that. I remember the charity shops in Cambridge and elsewhere in England well from the several times I was there to give recitals. My first British gig was in Cambridge in 2001, and I remember the thrift shops there with fondness; I got a Monsoon blouse at an Oxfam shop there that I wore until after my figure got, um, rearranged after childbirth. At another English gig, in Durham, I decided I didn't like the gown I'd brought to wear, and I got another one the day before the concert at an Oxfam shop for something like £8.

Janet said...

Sally, how would I know?


Robot Boy said...

That's quite a tail you've got there. Je me souviens.

Lirioroja said...

I can't help but comment on the picture in this post. I recognized it from the top as I scrolled down because I see that church every week. It's my parish and that's my pastor officiating. The bride looks lovely and the happy couple couldn't have chosen a lovelier church to get married in (in my totally biased opinion). If anyone is in NYC and wants to visit it, it's on 38th St. and Park Ave.

I've just discovered thrift stores. For me, my problem with them is that I can't find anything that fits properly. I don't mean hemlines - those are easily pulled up. The clothes are either too tight or ghostly huge. I find a lot of lovely things, but they just don't fit. I do my best to avoid the big box stores but sometimes you just need something at a reasonable price.

My word verification is midemb. Definately typed by a monkey.

Pentimento said...

Yes, that is the place, Lirioroja! They had just finished painting the icon frescoes around the sanctuary the week of my wedding, which was the Saturday following Easter that year, Divine Mercy Saturday (you can see that the flowers are still everywhere from Easter).