May 29, 2008

Death and the Thrift Store

Thrift stores are wonderful, marvelous, awful places. For the most part, they stay the same no matter what store you’re in, in what part of the country, whoever the owner is. They all bear the same smell. If we combined every basement into one giant super-awesome basement, that would be the smell you get in a thrift store. Incidentally, that exact scenario would also produce an ideal thrift store. They all have the same disheveled and disorganized batch of knick-knacks, the same semi-organized selection of clothes too old to be fashionable but too new to be retro-cool, the same unacceptably dingy furniture, the same graveyard of a library. Somehow, though, they all manage to have different prices, ranging from the ridiculous bargain to the questionable cheat. I marvel at how I can buy a t-shirt at one store for 99 cents and go across the street and find someone charging $3.99. Charging $3.99 for a used t-shirt makes only slightly more sense than charging, well, anything for used underpants.

I spent yesterday afternoon searching for a pair of broken-in cleats for softball. I found them, but only after visiting three or four thrift stores. They were tacky, off-white, a size too big, perfect. I also picked up a golf bag, a few decades older than me but younger than my current model. A clear upgrade at two dollars. It’s unfortunate that such charitable places should remind me of death.

First of all, their business model makes them essentially the scavengers of the retail world. People give them stuff for free, they sell it at pure profit after the cost of business. They’re vultures. But they’re charitable vultures. As best I can tell, thrift stores were birthed mostly by charities (In the UK, they call them Charity Shops) and churches looking to raise funds and help transfer goods from one basement to another. In this way (and many others) the thrift shop is vastly superior to the pawn shop. Don’t ever, ever buy anything at a pawn shop unless you have to. I shudder to think of a situation when you would have to buy something at a pawn shop. (You don’t need that copy of R.E.M.’s Monster.)

Secondly, it becomes painfully clear after visiting several thrift stores that things go there to die. Everything that is there is there to die. When people find things they don’t need anymore, can’t fit anymore, or can’t turn on anymore, the obvious solution is to give it to charity. And, generally, it’s stuff that they tell themselves could be someone else’s treasure. Surely, they tell themselves, someone else will find use for these faded, bleach-stained personalized, towels.

Thrift stores are the burial grounds for sports gone by. Nowhere else can you find as great a collection of badminton rackets, rollerblades, or holey water socks used for avoiding sea urchins or, in Lake Michigan, hypodermic needles washed up from Milwaukee or Chicago. I’ve noticed there are also lots of bowling ball bags, but few bowling balls.

Every fad diet book there ever was or will be ends up in a thrift store. Usually, there’s also a pretty good selection of inspirational literature that outlived its inspiration. And lots of books by Danielle Steele. But the book section, for whatever faults I might give it, is usually the best part of the entire store, unless you’re not into books. (Then, I suggest you check out all of the dated vinyl records and amuse yourself with their silly covers.) I cannot leave the book section without buying something. Someday, I really will read that Lee Iacocca biography.

T-shirts come here to die. The shirts they throw at minor league sporting events, the ones people toss small children out of the way to get at, always end up on the racks at Goodwill. For $3.99, of course. Yesterday, I saw a college student bolt into a store, rifle determinedly through each rack of t-shirts (mixed in with the scandalously small beach-guy tank-tops and old football practice jerseys) and immediately bolt out toward the next store. These are the people who get all the good ones. They leave the tasteless ones, like one I saw: It said, “What happened to my booger?” and there was a giant green blob next to the question mark. This shirt came in an adult size, that’s what concerns me. Nevermind the impossibility and utter ridiculousness of putting such a shirt together to find a booger in a timely fashion, or the size of the “booger.” I’m going to guess this was given as a gift to some embarrassed person who brought it immediately to the thrift store without ever saying thank you (or good bye) to the well-meaning wacky aunt who gave it. You can put whatever goofball t-shirt you want on a baby, and it will be silly or cute, but this shirt has no business being worn by anyone over the age of, say, three.

Say you find a t-shirt you might want. Say you’re lucky enough to find it in your size. And, the neck isn’t stretched out after years spent waiting on a hanger or suspending hyperactive children from some poor father’s collar. There’s still the likelihood that somewhere on it, most likely in a place you won’t notice until you’ve purchased it, there’s a stain of chocolate ice cream or something worse.

Of course, the other day when I went, I did find a t-shirt that seemed like a good idea at the time. I made my way to the line, waited forever, and promptly made my purchase. And this is where the thrift store shines best: The clerk asked me if I had a college ID. I am not a college student, but I do have an ID. I flashed my credentials, and was offered a college discount. A college discount? By Jove! I can save an additional 15% on my purchases. Thrift stores are wonderful, terrific, marvelous, awful places.

Also, there are lots of crutches. Lots and lots of crutches.

May 23, 2008

Lawn Care

Dad killed our lawn.

For as long as I can remember, we've had an awful front yard. Not by our own doing, mind you, I prefer to blame mother nature and the people who lived here before us. They conspired to impede any efforts on our part at having a front yard with any aesthetic appeal. Certainly, we are not to blame for its ugliness.

Usually, when I need to give someone directions to our house, I can tell them to find the house on the west side of the street with the patchwork quilt of a lawn. (And now, I just tell people to look for house that looks like it used to have a front yard.) Everyone else on our block seems to invest a lot of time, effort, personal pride, and fertilizer in their grass. Not so for us. When it needs mowing, we mow. When it needs sprinkling, we sprinkle. Nothing more, nothing less. For the most part, our efforts have sufficed at maintaining a pretty, dull sheen for the several different types of grass, moss, dandelion, fungus, and decomposing political signage that sit in front of our house. There might be a bicycle in there, too, somewhere. (Actually, probably no bicycles.)

Occasionally, and only at his personal convenience, dad has attacked the patchwork with herbicide or fungicide or weedicide or some such -cide that is supposed to kill bad things. Like zit-cream for grass. It has never worked.

For a long time, I silently appreciated my dad for not wasting his time with the vanity of lawn care. People put way too much into their lawns. In some places, like Arizona, they tap dry already-thirsty aquifers to keep lush, green lawns where they have no business keeping lush, green lawns. It's not because I'm an environmentalist. It's because it's stupid. You don't need grass. In the Great Lakes region, we can get away with this. We have lots of water. If you don't have water, you don't need to have grass. Keep a zen garden. Some nice rocks, a cactus, that sort of thing. But not a lawn. Besides, a zen garden is a lot less work. Rake the sand, keep the rocks happy, done.

People work too hard just to have nice grass. It's going to be there if you don't let it die. Mowing and sprinkling is good enough, and if you ask me, just mowing is enough (That's the bare minimum to keep your family in the "normal middle-class suburbanite" category and out of the "Probably sends their kids to school in burlap sacks and feeds/underfeeds a vast army of rescued pets until the city steps in" category.) What lies between our home and the street has always been a socially acceptable, pleasantly diverse ecosystem. Sure, we could have a lush, green lawn that blends smoothly with the rest of suburbia. But at what cost? Are we that shallow, that our dignity and self-worth is vested in how our grass looks? We're defying convention, we're sticking it to The Man with our bare-minimum effort front lawn.

Which is why killing it all makes perfect sense. As anyone who has ever tried to extend the life of a doomed-from-the-start ramshackle project (i.e., less-than-amateur efforts at baking a pie, drawing a picture, building a galactic castle with legos, cross-stitching the Detroit Lions logo) can tell you, it makes a whole lot more sense just to start over.

And that is why dad killed the lawn. He killed everything, attacked it with the everything-cide, laid waste to it, nuked it. And everything died - the weeds, the crabgrass, the grass, and almost, I suspect, the maple tree too. A few days later, when the poison had done its job and run off into the sewer or into the neighbors garden or dissipated or something, he threw grass seed all over it.

And that is where we stand today. We're all crossing our fingers, hoping the lawn comes in nice and pretty. If it doesn't, at least we didn't have to deal with the dandelions this year.

(Edit: I was wondering how big the collective lawn of the United States is. If I had to guess, I'd say it's probably bigger than Vermont or something like that. If, for some silly reason you know the answer to this or if you know how to get it, I'd like to know, for no other reason than that it's a very strange thing to know.)

May 1, 2008

Dude tries to cash $360,000,000,000 check

Here's a link for you to check out:

Thank you, internet, because despite all of your flaws, you help spread news of stupidity with great speed.

A little over a week ago, some guy in Dallas, Charles Ray Fuller, tried to cash a check for $360 billion. He said his girlfriend's mother gave him the check to help him start a record business. Now, I don't question the possibility that such an exchange might have occurred:

"What's that Charlie? You want money to start a record business? Why of course I'd love to help my daughter's good-for-nothing boyfriend start a record business! Okay, lemme just get out my checkbook. How much do you need? $50,000? Wha-? How does A Billion sound? How about $360 billion? Here ya go."

Maybe Charles missed the sarcasm.

Something, though, tells me Charles is a sensible man, and he would have done fairly well with his business had the bank actually handed over the $360 bill.

Just so you know, $360 billion would make him...
-Roughly six times richer than the world's richest man, presently Warren Buffet (worth $62 bill.) [Forbes]
-The country with the 31st largest GDP in the world, were he a country. [CIA world factbook]
-Richer than the combined GDP of the lowest 95 countries in the world. [Factbook]
-The owner of the fifth most valuable company in the world (Not bad for a startup record business.) [NY Times]

If Charles wasn't blindly trusting his girlfriend's mother and made that part up, and if he indeed wrote the check himself, why not try a much more reasonable $360 million?