Counter Intuitive

The cop that wrote me up for trying to use a fake ID at an Ocean City bar was wearing yellow-striped shorts, an embarrassing reality that defused any grand aspirations of mine to spin the tale into one of proud delinquency. Where that cop is today, I do not know, and he does not know where I am, and it’s unlikely that, beyond the hour during which I sat on the curb reciting personal information for his report, our lives will ever cross again. Where those shorts are now is also a mystery—they could still be adorning his skinny, tan legs as he apprehends more underage drinkers; they could have been passed along to another officer; or they could have become undesired, as the yellow fabric faded and the threads loosened at the seams after many long, taxing hours under the Maryland sun. Once undesired, clothing can be interred in a messy closet, tossed out, or, in some cases, given a shot at new life via donation. If given to a thrift shop, those yellow-striped shorts would join the massive ocean of used clothing donations made by Americans every year—4.7 billion pounds, by some estimations.

During busy hours at the 96th Street Housing Works, one in a chain of thrift shops operating in New York City, it can feel like all 4.7 billion of those pounds have arrived in a single afternoon, unloaded unceremoniously at the donations counter for the attendant to sort through. I know this because I am the attendant, serving 40 hours of community service assigned by a Maryland judge as punishment for my use of that fake ID in Ocean City. My options for completing the hours were plentiful—volunteering at a soup kitchen, picking up trash in Central Park, cleaning animal cages for the ASPCA, and so on. I chose Housing Works at 96th Street at the recommendation of a college classmate, who called the labor boring but manageable.

[blockquote align=right]I look down at my own body and imagine myself stripped down, my possessions assessed and passed along.

During the chunks of hours I put in over the weeks following my sentence, the Housing Works manager assigned me a variety of duties. Sometimes I swept the floors and wiped down the furniture. Sometimes I re-racked the clothes to comply with our color ordering scheme—red, pink, orange, yellow, green, blue, gray, brown, beige, black, white. Once, after a rack of blazers was stolen, I was told to act as a security guard and walk around looking for possible thieves. (What they expected me to do with the type of guy that pilfered items from a thrift shop was never explained, nor was how to differentiate a potential criminal from our less-than-polished clientele. I puffed out my chest anyway and stalked around the place, keeping an eye out for suspiciously stuffed pockets or hurried hand movements and fantasizing about foiling getaways with Heisman-worthy tackles.) But most of the time I stood at the gloomy and gray linoleum donations counter, as I do now, waiting for people to come in and drop off their stuff. In five minutes, I will have completed 39 hours. Today will be my last day.

A woman walks up to the counter. She’s wearing a pantsuit and has very straight brown hair and the click-click of her heels turns our hard thrift shop floor into a metronome. She probably just got off work. Along with the lunching hours, the end of the workday is the busiest time for donors to drop off their used clothes at Housing Works. In between are lengthy stretches of inactivity during which I struggle to stay awake. A man, her husband I presume, trails behind her with two black garbage bags.

“Welcome to Housing Works,” I say with a hint of enthusiasm, although she’s definitely not listening—could I have said “Welcome to Hell” without her even flinching? Her husband plops the bags on the counter and I untie the knots. Out spill high-end dresses, designer jeans, and a pile of silk scarves. One of those donations. Along the wide spectrum of quality that encompasses our endless and varying donations, this woman represents the superior end, the end created by Manhattan socialites who need to un-stuff their closets for the new season so they dump their dated collections at Housing Works for us to paw through. These prized contributions aren’t frequent, though. More often donors will leave sartorial flotsam: torn sweaters and stained shorts, frayed hats and scuffed sneakers, undesired uniform shorts and even some underwear every now and then.

At the bottom of the second of the couple’s two bags is a cardboard box with a sewing machine in it. Can this woman have ever even considered repairing something once it ripped? I stack it next to a dusty Cuisinart on one of our appliance shelves. The fact that we take household items in addition to clothing leads to the expected—old plates, spare pillows, video cassettes—and also the unexpected. One woman dropped off a bag of about 300 female condoms, looked me in the eye, and demanded I put them somewhere where they’d be sure to sell. One man deposited a set of wall curtains, each several hundred square feet in size. My manager knew that the few people who shopped for wall curtains probably didn’t do so at a thrift shop, and ordered me to tear them into pieces and throw them out. They proved to be perforated by an army of needles that stuck into my palms as I angrily ripped at the cloth, a bandana across my face to block my inhalation of the colloidal fabric that levitated from the shredded curtains. Another woman donated an unmarked box of assorted clear plastic pieces. A half-hearted attempt at assembly revealed the contraption to be a used breast pump. This too was deemed worthy only of the bottom of a trash can.

The reality is that a sizable portion of donations find their way to the garbage. The donated items are transported from the counter and placed in the storage room several yards behind, separated from the store only by a plastic curtain. The curtain hides us as we choose what to keep and what to discard, an essential barrier since some donors would be appalled if they could see how quickly we decide to throw out their former possessions. Although I don’t think this woman in particular really cares whether we keep her stuff or throw it out or if I put on six of her dresses at once and tap dance on the counter.

The source of our endless garbage is twofold. Sometimes people assume we can make use of items that we actually can’t, such as wall curtains or a used breast pump. More often the owners of these doomed donations had always meant to throw them out and wanted to leave that task to someone else. The thrift store donation counter is a hassle-free alternative to garbage disposal. Donors let us sort through paper, plastic, and glass. They let us decide what to do with their unwanted belongings. They let us feel the guilt of throwing away former favorites. They don’t want to look a teddy bear in the eye before tying the plastic knot above his grave. And best of all, they can shirk this responsibility all in the name of charity.

I scrunch up the garbage bags and the woman swivels on her heels to leave the store.

“Would you like to fill out the tax write-off?” I half-yell at her as she distances herself from the counter, waving the form like I’m bidding her goodbye from the deck of an outgoing ship. But she casually throws up the back of her hand as if lazily batting away a fly: she is like most donors, simply wishing to flee the scene of this hot-potato game of garbage passing. Some leave before I can even identify whatever they’ve left, the retail version of ding-dong-ditch.

Others do accept the chance to claim the deduction. The form asks that donors be thorough and specific about the things that they’ve donated and to determine values of items based on 40% of their original retail price. Most donors, predictably, stretch the limits of this suggestion. They scribble down a loose definition of their donations—“clothing”—and pause for a moment before deciding that they are worth as much or more than they originally cost. Somehow a moth-bitten hat has accrued value in the decade since it was first bought. They snatch up the yellow carbon copy of the form and zip out of the store, having been paid to not deal with their trash.

This is Housing Works. This is how it works. And I have an hour left.

*    *    *

An old couple walks in. The woman is pushing a black cart full of junk, and the man with her holds a stuffed garbage bag in each hand, also, presumably, full of junk. They shuffle their way to my counter. I brace myself for the incoming storm of clutter.

“Welcome to Housing…” I say, trailing off. The man spills out one bag onto the surface while the woman plucks objects one-by-one from her cart and lines them up. The items that emerge are virtually unsellable. Packs of cards with a third of the deck missing. A board game without the top to the cardboard box. Cracked bowls and dirty cups. A stack of withered books interspersed with the couple’s personal papers—are they really donating their own mail? A lamp with a severed power cord. Ragged T-shirts and mismatched socks. A Reagan-era PC that stares apathetically back at me.

I expect them to bolt from this glorified garbage dump, but instead the woman begins recounting a story for almost every item that sits on the counter. The cards and board games were purchased to entertain their grandchildren when they were born, but they have since outgrown such trinkets. One of the sets of bowls came from a vacation to Venice several decades ago. The books have all been read and reread.

“It’s time for someone else to enjoy them,” the woman says. I stack them up.

“He claimed he could fix this,” she says, gesturing toward the lamp. She looks at him and he chuckles. “I guess not…” she says.

The woman puts her hands on the sides of the computer and tilts it up to look at it. “We haven’t turned this thing on in years,” she says, “And my daughter bought me a new one in the spring anyway.”

They don’t explain every T-shirt as I fold them, but they do offer anecdotes for a special few. A University of Wisconsin shirt with a faded badger, the school’s mascot, draws a story of their son’s college days. A Regent Seven Seas shirt is the product of a recent cruise trip, an Obama ’08 shirt an expression of their political affiliation.

Eventually the counter is clear. I mention the tax deduction form but they brush it off.

“The money doesn’t matter,” the woman says. The man compresses the empty garbage bags and tosses them into the cart. I offer the couple my standardized gratitude for their donations. They smile and then weave their way through customers to the store’s exit. The bell above the door jingles as they pass through.

I transport all of their donations into the storage room. They all seem a little bit less shoddy now that a lifetime of stories has been attached to them. My grandmother used to have board games for me. The lamp could be resuscitated by any passable electrician. Was my first computer somewhere in the basement at home?

One of my superiors joins me behind the counter.

“Look at all this shit,” she says, scanning the items that the elderly couple dropped off. She pulls shut the curtain that separates the stock room from the counter, hiding our ruthless sorting of donations from our unsuspecting customers.

“Keep the books, the housewares, and the computer. Everything else is trash,” she says, and leaves me behind the curtain to dispose of the unwanted items. I scoop up the stuff, hugging it against my chest, before unloading it into the dumpster we keep in the storage room. What little order the couple had preserved is undone as I toss away their erstwhile belongings. The board game pieces scatter within the can and nestle in the corners of the bag. The shirts unfold and cardboard royalty slip from the deck of cards and down through crevices in the pile of rubbish.

I tie up the bag and sling it over my shoulder. I walk through the store, a bizarro Santa carrying the world’s rejected possessions. At the curb outside I stack the bag on top of the others from the day, totaling perhaps a dozen. There are homeless people waiting for the drop-off, a daily sight outside of Housing Works. As soon as I turn, they undo my knot and start rifling through the bag. I glance back one more time when I get back into the store. One homeless man has found the jackpot: the stack of old T-shirts. He jams them under his armpit and scoots down the block with his prize. The faded badger peeks out nervously from under his brown jacket.

Back in the storage room, I turn over a milk crate and sit down to start pricing the couple’s books, as directed by my boss. We have instructions on how to assess the value of the many used books that we receive—criteria revolving around the size, condition, and renown of the book, and even the original price tag if it can be found—but the process is somewhat arbitrary. I absentmindedly stick freshly inked 6s and 7s from the pricing gun to books I’ve never heard of.

I begin to think about all of the items that the couple donated. Where they began—toy stores, housewares outlets, clothing shops, onboard cruise ships, and where they ended up—a garbage dump, adorning a homeless man, or sentenced to an idle eternity on a Housing Works shelf. I look down at my own body and imagine myself stripped down, my possessions assessed and passed along. My pants and shirt hung on racks at Housing Works, my shoes pecked at by crows at some lonely landfill, my cell phone disassembled and separated into computer chips, my keys melted down and re-constituted as nuts and bolts. I sit there on the milk crate, naked. Then my skin is ripped from my flesh and fashioned into hide. The meat is torn from my body and molded into burger patties for a fast food joint. My eyeballs are extracted with tooth picks and frozen in glass and modeled in a museum. My hair is shaved off and stuffed into the cushion of a desk chair. My ligaments are tied into rubber bands and used to bind the elderly couple’s piles of mail. My bones are stacked up and tossed into the Housing Works garbage can, where bugs nip at them until nothing remains but a few chalky specks.

At the bottom of the pile of books I find The Moviegoer, a novel by Walker Percy, my namesake. My thoughtless streak of pricing comes to an abrupt stop. I put the gun down and hold the book in my hands. What are the odds that one Walker would find another in the bottom of a stack of forgotten books? How had this title avoided being carried away by a vagrant, left under a bed in an apartment, tossed casually in the garbage, burnt or buried? Surely this passing of men in time and space, this interaction between person and object, this evanescent moment of possession should be recognized! I set the price gun to $61,092, those digits a standard numerical representation of my date of birth. I stick the white rectangle on the cover, flattening it with my thumb. The book will have to be repriced, assuming no one is willing to shell out sixty grand for a shabby paperback from a thrift store. But for the moment it holds my mark and indicates that it once passed through my hands. I take it and the rest to the bookshelves in the store and spread them out. There is room enough that only one line of books needs to be formed, but I nevertheless hide The Moviegoer behind two others, saving its bogus price tag from a quick death for at least another day.

It is 7 P.M. I take off my Housing Works lanyard and leave it on the desk in the back office. I fill out my final shift’s paperwork and make sure the previous ones all add up to forty hours. I thank my boss, put my jacket on, and exit the store, to buy and sell, to collect and dispose, to cherish and forget, to meet the man behind the counter and attempt to explain value.

Walker HarrisonWalker Harrison is a young writer living in New York City. He works for a start-up and writes both fiction and non-fiction in his spare time. He studied applied mathematics and creative writing at Columbia University. His most recent published work can be seen in the Cobalt Review‘s annual baseball issue.