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Economic Crisis

The Paradox of Thrifting: Life Among the New Deal Ruins

Money may indeed be the root of all evil, but it is also the seed of all desirable lifestyles.

Close your eyes and daydream a little about your first home together. What will it be? A modern apartment with a sweep of picture windows and a plant-filled terrace? A handsome townhouse with a private patio for outdoor entertaining? Let your mind browse around a little. This kind of daydreaming is valuable because it begins to bring into focus the kind of surroundings you want to live with.

Thus begins Betty Crocker’s 1975 book Starting Out: How to Get the Most Out of Your Home, Furnishings, Food, Money. Like many of the books intended for young people fresh out of high school or college, it offers sound advice on everything from “taking care of your refrigerator” to the “vital do’s and don’ts of credit.” Starting Out doubtless proved an invaluable resource for young people whose heads bourgeois dreams stuffed like so much Bavarian cream, but whose means — or sense — to make the decisions necessary to jump-start their ascent into cozy, middle-class life were such as to require the thoughtful ministrations of a paragon of domestic economy like Mrs. Crocker.

I picked up Starting Out at a poky little thrift store eking out its catchpenny existence in some postindustrial armpit (which in New England are in no short supply). I like such books; I’ve a collection one-hundred strong of them, along with home economics textbooks, and other such catechisms of the post-Rooseveltian reformation of the middle-class confession. Yet over time my fondness for them has curdled into dour resentment.

Thirteen years ago, when I began collecting seventies-era cookbooks, how-to guides, and life manuals, the economy was bustling along, nourished by the manna of dotcom stock jobbing profits. This manna also fueled the dullest undergraduate’s daydreams, which danced through his head enrobed in all the finery a salary in the high five figures can command. Today, however, these books sitting around my apartment seem documents from a vanished world — Work and Leisure in Ultima Thule, perhaps, or Homemaking in Atlantis — one which was pried away by force of massive low-interest leverage, or was patiently ladled out of the ship of state during various bailouts. They represent a collective memento mori of a variety of prosperity and equality that is not likely to return in my lifetime.

I remain convinced that in the fullness of time history’s testimony will lead to a single judgment: Capital, far from being the most preferable of a delimited set of economic regimes, will like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal scatter “the base contagious clouds” of convenient ideology to “be more wonder’d at” for the poison it is in its own right. Because of its propensity to churn out heaps upon heaps of goods, Capital trails behind it detritus easily obtained. It’s one thing to have to travel to a museum, or a library to peruse books and exhibits of a better time; it’s another entirely to walk into one of the many thrift shops that inhabit decimated, sign-scarred strip malls nowadays and see piles of books, magazines, and goods (made in the United States, no less) from that brief interregnum between plutocracies.

Goodwill hunting: reflections of how life used to be.

I’m reminded of the scene in George Orwell’s 1984 in which Winston Smith comes across a paperweight in a rubbish shop, which the narrator, focalizing through Winston’s consciousness, describes as “a heavy lump of glass, curved on one side, flat on the other, making almost a hemisphere…. At the heart of it, magnified by the curved surface, there was a strange, pink, convoluted object that recalled a rose or a sea anemone.” It’s an object strange to Winston, a relic from a time when individuals invested in such seeming trifles to make their homes nicer, more conducive to the everyday affairs of being human. He reflects that what “appealed to him about it was not so much its beauty as the air it seemed to possess of belonging to an age quite different from the present one.”

I often find myself elbow to elbow with members of older generations capable of intoning the epos of bourgeois dominion.

Perhaps that’s why I haunt thrift shops, which luckily seem to proliferate these days, fecundated by decay like so many mushrooms or dung beetles. Unlike Winston, however, who admits people his age cannot remember a time before the revolution (which, ironically enough, flushed out the capitalists and the “few lawyers and priests and so forth who lived on them” who were “the lords of the earth”), I can recall when middle-class existence seemed a reasonable prospect for me and my cohort, and I often find myself elbow to elbow with members of older generations capable of intoning the epos of bourgeois dominion.

I try not to read through my collection of vintage how-to and advice manuals. They depress me and make me lie awake at night thinking of all the prospects and opportunities that have been, and will continue to be, stolen from me and millions like me. It’s a sad, spiteful way to exist, but that’s the price of an economy run for and by banksters and their sycophants.

Ylajali would love to hear from you. Drop her a line at hansengenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.

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