A while back I watched Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times.’ It’s hilarious, touching, and an easy watch.
The film calls attention to so many of the problems exacerbated by capitalism. Almost one hundred years later, things are not any better.
A while back I watched Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times.’ It’s hilarious, touching, and an easy watch.
The film calls attention to so many of the problems exacerbated by capitalism. Almost one hundred years later, things are not any better.
This is a true story about security guards — one who planted items in my belongings in an apparent attempt to have me arrested, and another who shat on the floor of the bathroom in an attempt to…well, I’m not entirely certain what he was trying to accomplish. He sure did like dumping out onto the floor whenever he saw me coming, though.
This is the bathroom at the Sherbourne/Wellesley FreshCo. This location has saved my ass a number of times over the past 10 months or so. Not to say there haven’t been some real problems.
Tonight I had some trouble there, and not for the first time. Not as bad (depending on your point of view) as my experiences there in the early days of the pandemic (plop-plop-plop-plop!), but pretty shitty nonetheless.
I’ve been using the faucet in this bathroom to get fresh water all during the pandemic. Given I eat mainly soup and rice, water is integral to my daily routine. I typically use 4 or 5 litres per day for cooking, etc. Water is heavy, so I don’t like to travel far carrying all that. (Fun fact: 1L of water weighs 1 kg.)
Tonight, I went to access the faucet and was told by a security guard that I wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom, that it was out of order. This particular security guard has, while in plainclothes, tried unsuccessfully to provoke me while at this location over the past few weeks. There are some common tactics security guards use when targeting the homeless — banging on the door immediately after engaging the lock, approaching you after having left the bathroom, closely following, exaggerated peering, casually questioning as if a shopper, that sort of thing. Pretty standard stuff. (In case you’re wondering, the substantial cost to retailers as a result of theft is from employees and organized shoplifting rings, not the homeless.)
Tonight he was in uniform. I had done my shopping by the time I went to use the bathroom, so I already had my bread, my soup, and some fruit. When he stopped me at the bathroom door, I left my bags there and walked over to the head cashier to ask her to talk to this guy. I shop there every day, after all. She refused, and spent time explaining to me that there was some definitely valid reason for not allowing me to use the sink. Definitely a valid reason, definitely. After asking her to tell me more about her thinking on this, she got sniffy. Not all that strange, as this woman in particular has a dislike of me that she has never been shy about displaying, but that’s a story for another time. So I return to the bathroom area and pick up my bags, where the security guard is standing by them, and I line up again for a refund. I’ve got to buy some water and I’m not about to buy it here. I’ll go to the No Frills. I’m not about to carry the stuff I bought here all the way to another grocery store, so I’m getting a refund. I return all of the items I bought, except the loaf of bread, which I handled. When I get to the No Frills, I find that there are two cans soup in my bag… The only time I left my bags unattended was when I was chatting to the head cashier. The only time I’ve recently bought that type of soup was tonight, and I returned the two cans that I’d bought. So how did these two cans of soup get into my bag?
The security company this particular guy works for tried to provoke me to violence earlier this week. That’s not unusual for a certain kind of security guard, you know the type. I thought we’d made up, but when you read the following, perhaps you’ll be as puzzled as I am at how bizarre security guards can be.
Early in the pandemic FreshCo. at Sherbourne/Wellesley, like all other grocery stores, posted a security guard at the entrance to control the flow of traffic. This neighbourhood being near the most violent and crime-ridden in the city, they already had a security presence. The pandemic brought a number of new guys. One of them, a stocky, middle-aged man, was the regular guard in the daytime. We’d chat a few minutes, typically, just saying hello and that kind of thing. As a homeless person I try to defuse the tension security guards can experience, especially if they don’t have a lot of experience downtown. It just makes for an easier time for everyone.
So I get into the routine of going to this location and doing my daily shop around the same time every day. It’s usually the same guy, and there’s never a problem. Then, gradually, strange things start happening. I’m going into the toilet and it’s all clogged up. Not a big deal, it happens. Then it happens again. And again. And then there’s filthy water on the floor. Now, I’ve been homeless a long time, so I am very familiar with what an industrial grade toilet can handle. I’m also familiar with how corporate security people like to go about setting up a scenario to crate a pretext. I won’t go into that right now, instead I’ll stick to the tangibles…like the piles of shit on the floor.
The security guard, week after week, he’s been standing outside the store, having people line up, all that pandemic-time stuff. My walk to the grocery store includes a straight-away, where he can see me coming, and I can see him. I find it a little odd when, suddenly, when he sees me coming, he goes into the store. I don’t see hm again until I approach the bathroom and he’s exiting it. Hi! Hey there! I go into the toilet and there’s a pile of shit in front of the bowl — on the floor. Now, you might think that maybe he went in there, but he didn’t make that mess. Fair point, one time. Or twice. Or three times. Or four times. Or any time it happened while he wasn’t there. But no. There was a pile of shit on the floor, repeatedly, when he was working, shortly before I arrived to use the bathroom, and quite often when he was seen to be the last person to have used the bathroom. Never, not even once, was there anything like that when he wasn’t working. Why would someone do this? Apart from wanting to be a dick? I think I have an answer, but I won’t bother writing it down here. Suffice it to say that it didn’t stop me using the faucet. Says a lot about the difference between the security company and the security guards, though. I mean, they would’ve known he was doing that. And someone had to clean it up, didn’t they?
The standard approach to dealing with problems and errors in a system is mitigation. We mitigate the probable cost of crime by employing police, and by doing things like supplying the poor with welfare payments. We mitigate the trend of economic failure, repossession, foreclosure and exclusion by providing unemployment benefits, consumer credit and payday loans. We mitigate stagnant income and rising transport costs by gradually shrinking the portion size of food items. We mitigate the cost of producing those food items by substituting ingredients of lower quality. Toxic agricultural practices, unsustainable frameworks of corporate governance and policy, on and on — this web of generalized unconcern mitigates the responsibility and the accountability of power structures which have never taken their position or their responsibility seriously. Despite the reality that people everywhere are paying a human cost for systems-wide neglect and malaise, profit margins don’t shrink much and traditionally-defined inflation is virtually non-existent. By common metrics, that means we’re doing it right — which assumes we’re measuring the right things, of course. Returning to the point, thrift stores fit nicely into the category of mitigation. There are some uglier terms we could apply to the overall function of donation-based retail — ‘Noblesse Oblige’ is one — but let’s stick to some practical aspects here.
The poor need many of the same manufactured goods that everyone else use. Clothing, furniture, shoes, knick-knacks, items of utility, few or none of these are likely to be hand-made by a modern individual. With a need to economize, the poor and working people of our society naturally look for secondary options, legal and illegal. Thrift stores are a reasonable response to that demand. For the purpose of illustration I’m going to use the example of an item close to my heart, shoes. Some people buy new footwear based on fashion, season, or social requirements, as with a graduation or funeral. Others will only own one or two pair of shoes and wear them until they need replacing. Then you have that breed I’ve never really understood, who simply love having a lot of footwear options, buying and buying and buying shoes that they wear a little at a time. Seems a little weird, but that’s people. Whichever sort of consumer they are, the people in this example one day decide they’re going to donate a pair of shoes they’ve not got any further use for. You can imagine the difference in shoe each different type of consumer might be donating. The person who buys new shoes for style or occasions is likely to be donating moderately used items, well cared for and of brand name quality. The person who only owns a couple of pair will be donating shoes that probably have little in the way of life left in them. The shoe-obsessive is probably laughing at anyone who gives away good shoes or buys from a thrift store, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here and say it’s probably a donation of a pair of high quality shoes with maybe a scuff that won’t take polish. Now we have these three sets of donations, each of a quality that you’d hope represents the broadest range you’ll find at your thrift store, good quality, poor quality, and subjective.
The important parts of a shoe are the heel, the blade, the toe, and bridge support. The upper and the sole are important, to be sure, but when the interior of the shoe has collapsed, the rest doesn’t matter. My own shoes wear pretty heavily at the heel, collapsing the support in a poorly made shoe fairly quickly. Some people ride the outer blade of the foot, which breaks the edge of the internal part of the shoe down. Others are particularly hard on the ball or the toe of the shoe. Across brands, these problems will exists depending on design and material. Most of the shoes you’ll find on the shelf will have at least one of these issues. Depending on what condition the shoes were in when they were donated, the internal wear pattern can be tolerable for a little while, or at least until you can find a better pair. If they’re in bad shape from the start, though, you’ll end up walking around like you’re drunk, always a little off balance, always seeking to correct and offset inertia and momentum. Worse, it can badly affect your posture.
The quality of the products on a thrift store shelf is entirely dependent on the quality of products people have donated. That in itself is dependent on the decisions being made by those donating. Some people donate items because they no longer have use for them. Some donate items because they have obtained something newer or better. Some items are donated as a matter of habit, people thinking of a donation as recycling. As salary and wages continue to stagnate and people of all income levels are motivated to look for savings, a long and insidious cycle begins. More shoppers accessing a limited pool of items, all sourced from the consumption cycle, means there are fewer items available overall. That difference, between goods manufactured and goods reclaimed, presents us with real problems. With no mechanism to increase the available supply, the existing material is depleted more quickly, and standards, already low, are lowered. The poor and working poor, people who have a real need to shop for necessities at thrift stores have increasing difficulty finding the items they need.
Over a slightly longer time-line, the impact of the complex of factors which produce the conditions in which thrift stores, dollar stores, and retail liquidators thrive creates a situation that reaches into the homes and families of the middle-class and of professionals. This has a dangerous, cascading effect.
As a result of the time I spent in thrift store book sections, I found some real treasures. Those, I remember happily, were mainly passed along as gifts to friends. I remember with particular fondness finding one of Stephen King’s books in first edition. It was published under his nom de plume, Richard Bachman, including a fictional author’s photo and bio, which made it a rarity. It gave me immense pleasure to gift that to a childhood friend of mine who was very much a King completist. My own treasures were mainly reference books. My interest in gardening… well, I’ll spare you some obvious puns and simply tell you I was always on the look-out for titles on specific areas of horticulture. Like many who get a little obsessed with the subject, I badly wanted to grow orchids and other rare cultivars. Unfortunately, I hadn’t the right set-up or budget at the time.
Serendipitously, gardening and horticulture is an area of interest aided by a natural correlation between source material and relevance. That’s to say you’re not likely to find a book on desert gardening where there is no desert. Of course, as is true anywhere if you’ve an eye for it, it’s possible in a thrift store to catch a glimpse of the wheel of time in motion as trends in fashion, design, and aesthetic rise, fall, and rise again. The gardening world has it’s own trends and fads, some of them very distinctive. Terrariums and aquaculture were quite the thing back around 1977, apparently. Those have both evolved radically but as elements of interior design their resurgence has been subsumed, repeatedly, by larger forces and excluded by more powerful design strictures.
Apart from books, I centered my shopping on coffee mugs and cardigans, records, (too many) useless experiments with 8-Track, some minor furniture restoration projects, that kind of thing. I was never one for buying second hand appliances, those (by the time they get to a thrift shop) typically being useful only to people with some interest in tinkering. It wasn’t until I became homeless that I would come to depend on thrift stores for footwear and clothing. As a result of that necessity, I’ve tracked another sort of pattern developing in thrift stores, a worrying change in standards. If you’ve done any bargain hunting in the past ten years you’ll have noticed this change as well. It makes sense when you contextualize the life-cycle of a thrift store, but is easy to dismiss as unimportant or coincidental. When you zoom out a little, though, you may agree with me when I tell you what I think this pattern indicates.
(Most adults have a detailed awareness of the concept of supply and demand, I know, so please forgive me as I describe a version of it here for the purpose of framing.)
Normally, a retailer stocks items that have been manufactured to meet the demand of consumers. Consumer demand is something that depends on a lot of factors, not least being the amount of discretionary income available and a consumer’s willingness to spend. Typically the number of items available, cans of soup as an example, won’t far exceed the amount expected to sell in a given amount of time. This is fairly safe as an arrangement for all parties. The products consumers want are made available, and as they run out, more are manufactured and delivered. The consumer does not usually have to wait, and those involved in the process of producing, ordering, and transporting those products can safely assume they will be sold, which allows for planning and all of the correlative processes around businesses linked to retail sales. Because of the responsiveness and efficiency of production and shipping systems, those involved can respond to consumer behaviours fairly quickly, adjusting processes in the supply chain based on needs and expectations.
Thrift stores are unusual in the retail landscape because of their supply chain. For supply, thrift stores rely on behaviours that are based entirely in the consumption cycle. The improvised nature of that supply chain is vulnerable in some unusual ways. Its development and process involves a couple of important decisions. The cycle begins when a consumer buys an item, new. At some point, they decide they’ll discard the item and, instead of putting into the trash, they donate it. It’s pretty straightforward. While it is the nature of a consumer society to generate a steady-flowing stream of waste products as the cycle of demand, acquisition, and obsolescence proceeds, the introduction of re-consumption as a significant portion of that system has some problematic outcomes.
Thrift stores are a sort of outsider, a foreign influence, or, to borrow a word from two loves of mine, movies and gardening, they are a ‘grex.’ A grex is an unnatural or artificial hybrid. This is something you may already be aware of, as it’s a concept from botany mentioned in the 1978 movie, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’ It’s proposed by one of the leads as a theory for the presence of the strange flowers that have started appearing in cities. While the film offers no explicit explanation of those unusual flowers, it’s safe to imagine they are the hybrid product of an alien life-form and an Earth-bound botanical native. You might also think of their function as akin to that of a virus, or perhaps the Xenomorph, living by diverting native resources towards producing undesirable outcomes not easily checked. As a description for what thrift stores represent, those flowers and their pods offer a pretty robust metaphorical hook.
As a group, people prefer to be lead. Our leaders are very effective at placation. As things exist right now, we live in a society that accepts the existence of poverty as a fact of life. Our society acknowledges the existence of chronic homelessness, hungry children, widespread deprivation, abuse of power, and innumerable ongoing problems. We dedicate resources to things like homeless shelters, holiday food drives, safe houses for abused people, and other stop-gap efforts. Yet collectively we do as little as possible to actually correct those problems. We settle for dedicating the minimum of resources and apply the lowest standard of effort. It achieves an easy-to-measure outcome and ticks some boxes on a form. We make ourselves complicit as we ignore the failures of our systems, trading away the lives of others for the comfort and safety of our personal worlds, keeping to our own small bubble. Sure, we sometimes wear pieces of ribbon, or go for a group run, a march, or retweet political ideas, often producing meaningful results. Some people volunteer, others work within the system, hoping to bring change in that way. The source of complex problems can take a long time to recognize, and even longer to know what to do about them. No matter the issue economics play an important role, both in the solution and the problem itself. Once we see the root of a problem, it is easier to imagine a way forward. Thrift stores, dollar stores, and other elements of the broader day-to-day of human life serve as indicators, as weather-vanes for an underlying reality. In a society that continues to only apply short-term fixes, spin, and tactics of division, problems will continue to propagate.
There’s a term I’ve come to really understand in the past few years, ‘living memory.’ It’s a term that includes us in a group as individuals and as group members.
You might define it as social identity.
Memory is an important part of what defines our personal identity and living memory shapes our sense of humanity. One of the ways we begin to appreciate that part of our humanity is when we face loss. I lost a childhood friend of mine, Matt, a few years ago.
We’d grown up from diapers-age together. Up until we entered our twenties, when geography and our own life choices divided us, we had been thick as thieves. We had each other’s back, there was never any doubt. Strangely, we never were natural friends. Even as young children we chose differently, we thought differently. We didn’t have overlapping interests or proclivities.
Instead, what brought us together was an intuited connection in the way our families treated us. We each were isolated and neglected in significant ways. Neither of us were beaten, or went hungry, or without gifts on birthdays and Christmas.
No, we both had families that would provide the material support for life, though we were deprived of much of the other kinds of support children need.
When Matt died, a number of years after I had last seen him, I felt the loss in ways I did not expect. We had so many memories together, so many experiences that also died, in memory, because there was no other person to remember them. What had been a friend-shaped absence became an infinite and silent void.
Living memory is something that makes us human, something that makes us greater and more intelligent in ways that cannot really be measured. It many ways, I think, it is the germ of culture, the origin of everything that is possible for us as a species.
As, from the isolation of my homelessness, I reach out for help from strangers and people I only knew for a short time many years ago, I think about the way our ideas create the world we live in.
We are building an immortal wellspring of living memory, an archive of our thoughts and ideas (even the derivative ones such as this), which will be the foundation, for years to come, from which social movements, belief systems, and the contextual framework of our shared reality will develop.
Where in our lives does the line exist between the people we are and the memories that create us? Who or what do we fight to hold that line?
Can we fight? Or do we only struggle through a set of tasks and trials in an existential sandbox? Wait…there’s a movie about that, isn’t there? Came out twenty years ago, something like that?
As someone who moved away from home early I often had to find ways to stretch my funds. It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar situation. At that time, which was before Wal-Mart, before Amazon, and just as Dollar stores were opening across Toronto, anyone seeking discount retail value only really found it at second-hand and thrift shops. Early in my teen years I’d found second-hand bookshops a great place to discover new stories and authors. Not always the broad selection available at the retail chains, but a reliable source for some of the greats, and at a discount. Downtown had an abundance of used book shops, while my own suburban neighbourhood had only two. The calculus involved turned any search for a new book into something of an adventure. Really hunting around for the right book at the right place and the right price was a fun day out for my teenage self.
There’s more to life than reading, and more to books than shopping. Putting my acquisitive experience on a more practical footing, I did a lot of comparison and measuring, usually around cost but also which edition and what cover art any given book might have, the condition it was in, and whether it would fit in my back pocket. Thrift stores were, naturally, a resource. They could be found, much like franchise fast-food joints, paired up and competing wherever they stood. My apartment wasn’t large, which set a high bar for what came through the door. Small pieces of furniture, records, books, and miscellaneous tools and implements all had to meet criteria beyond simple need or desire.
Goodwill, Salvation Army, Value Village, there were perhaps one or two others… They each had that same distinct odour. (I mean, it’s not a bad smell, really, but if you give it any thought it’s definitely enough to make your skin crawl.) This being before the internet, I sought new information and guidance browsing book sections. There were usually a lot of books on spiritual and religious matters, pop psychology, and a hodge-podge of card game and car mechanics guides. My own hobbies were primarily gardening and house plants at that time. Having taken a deep interest in those subjects, the abundance of magazines and reference material was like a feast to me. The fiction was all pretty mainstream, and there were the inevitable large-format discount hardback books full of glossy pages recommending poorly designed culinary fusions, shoddy homeopathic advice, and unproven crafting projects. Adherence to genre and category were lax on the shelf, and the amount of attention paid to monitoring was limited to clumps of new arrivals all being fit into the appropriate section, resulting in a process of natural selection disturbed only by curious and indecisive shoppers.
Across franchises and locations the selection was at times uncannily similar, even consistent. Noticing this, I would often speculate on how much effort I ought to put into scrutinizing the shelves. A usual trip thrift store shopping was with my girlfriend at the time, which meant we were browsing with purpose. My approach would be to break away and give the book shelves a quick scan, just because. That would sometimes pay off, though not as often as a more thorough search. In some stores, though, a thorough look could take as long as an hour. To save time, I developed a kind of consumer profiling system in which I would try to predict behaviour. I’d guess at which would be the least-often-browsed sections, usually the uppermost and lowest shelves. It was easy spotting where no books had been added or removed. Using this approach, I could, when I made the rounds of our shops, focus my search in areas that I knew few others would have looked. Additionally, I relied on the probability that an employee adding books to the shelves would go about their work applying the least effort, and made plans to influence where they would apply their efforts. To this day I remember observing those upper shelves developing movement at a much slower rate than mid-level shelves. By creating gaps on the top shelves, I found I could encourage placement of new additions there so that I would get first crack. Another tactic I tried out involved basing my level of time-commitment on how quickly I came across a copy of the novel, ‘Coma,’ which virtually every thrift store had a copy of. It was a little unusual to find that book absent. Hard as I tried I couldn’t make a correlation between the selection available and the volume of copies of that book. No doubt there’s some explanation related to demographics and timing, sales, distribution, and the appetite for (re-reading) thrillers, but that was all beyond my expertise and interest. Ultimately I found that while I could influence the probability of success (as I defined it), I had no reliable way to predict my chances, so I just read every title on every shelf and sorted the wheat from the chaff.