I buy used things. I buy them as much as I can. Some things, a person must (and should) buy new. Food is one. Medicine is another. These things are consumable once, and then they exist only in your memory. But generally, in life, the objects you interact with on a daily basis can be reused again and again, and there’s no reason to dispose of them. This is the frugal approach to living in a consumer society.
If only that were my reason. I’m not, by my nature, a frugal person. I once bet $500 on a hand of blackjack while unemployed. And won. Don’t worry, my lifetime losses far outnumber my gains, at least at gambling.
But the objects I surround myself with have generally been owned by another person. I buy all my clothes at the Salvation Army, Goodwill, or similar stores. The only exception is my suits, which are hard to size in the used market, but I nevertheless own several used suits. I drive two used cars, one a 2007, and the other a 1992. Sometimes people question the wisdom of this, and I’m fond of saying, “Do you know what the most reliable kind of car is? A whole other car that’s sitting in the driveway and still working.” But once, in 2013, I owned three used cars that were all in need of work at the same time.
The walls of my apartment are lined with records, tapes, and books, almost none of which I bought new. The dishes in my kitchen are used. A lot of the furniture in the house is too. I used to buy only used furniture (aside from mattresses, because that’s gross) but since losing my right leg in 2017, it’s been harder to carry large things on my own. But I sill do it when I can, which is too often.
There are exceptions, which I cling to like a snob. I buy New Era fitted hats at a rate of roughly two a year. I beat my sneakers to death, but I buy them new at those discount stores. Technology is something I try to keep up with, so my computer, phone, and TV are all relatively new. But these things are purely utilitarian: my shoes take me to the interesting places I go, and I measure the years in the wearing out of my hats. Technology is the way I communicate with the broader world. All of these things facilitate my interactions with other people, which is the most interesting part of any life. Even in movies about the last person on earth, what’s interesting is the lack of interactions and what that makes the person do, who we then interact with as an audience. Of themselves, they’re nothing.
But I find a ton of things to be interested in simply because they are secondhand. Case in point: I own three cats. The oldest one is named Solo, and he was a few years old when I got him, after his former owner (a guy about my age) died of cancer, and Solo was then abandoned by that man’s girlfriend at a vet. The youngest one, who is called Fancy, was a stray picked up and put in the animal shelter last summer. She caught my eye there when I saw her rolling around in her own (clean) litter box, perhaps misunderstanding what it was for (she doesn’t do this now). The middle cat was just an 8-month old kitten (“new”) when I got her, but she already had a personality—her name was Bell, and I was told this is because she “will sing out at you first thing, just like a bell!” This has proven true, she greets me almost any time I come within a few feet of her.
Before I had cats, I had a beautiful German Shepherd named Daisy. After my accident in 2017, I was in bed for a year and in no position to take care of a dog. Today, she lives with my parents on the other side of the country, who have a yard big enough for her to feel like she’s living the American-dog-dream of homeownership (which is lived by digging holes), and I have no interest in taking her away from it. But she came to me with a story too, having been abandoned by persons unknown in Los Angeles a decade ago. Even though somebody didn’t want her, it didn’t affect her personality. She has a wonderful temperament, and a heart of gold, even though she’s tough as nails when she needs to be.
All of my pets had their names when I got them, and I didn’t change them, because they had a story before they met me and I didn’t want to forget it. I know these few details I’ve said about where they came from, but I can never really know because they can’t tell me—but it’s interesting to speculate.
This is what is true of all my used things. They have a story that began before they were ever mine. This is the thing that makes them interesting, because despite their other aesthetic or objective qualities, they have a third dimension exclusive to those things which have existed in the world for some time.
I have my own story which I invest my things with, and it is interesting, but it isn’t interesting to me. Life doesn’t work like that. This is kind of like how no matter how attractive you are, you could never be said to be dating yourself. If you’re thinking otherwise, I would advise you get your mind out of the gutter. Some people think narcissists (or sociopaths) might be able to find interest exclusively in themselves, but I don’t think even this is true. Human beings want to go to on a journey outside of themselves. This is innate. This is why you can look at a globe and point to places where people are living on every part of it, despite the fact that countless ones had to die to get there. If it were any different, we would never have ventured out of Africa.
And venture I do, in my own way, as a modern man. I can spend upwards of an hour in the Salvation Army looking at all these objects and wondering what they meant to someone once, even the ones that I would never buy. Just the T-shirts are fascinating: if you’ve never browsed a place like this, I think you’d be amazed by all the evidence that exists there of forgotten retirement parties, 5k runs for charity, past contenders in the playoffs or for political office, McJobs people once had, school graduations happily discarded, and much, much more. Sure, it’s a thrift store, but it’s also a library. It’s a place that catalogs information about the past which nobody needs, but I learn from it. I’ve walked into a store like this in the middle of Iowa or Indiana and walked out knowing a hell of a lot more about the kind of things that go on in that town.
I’ve always been this way. When I was 5, I loved Star Wars more than anything. It’s easy to forget now, when that brand is so ubiquitous and popular, but between the mid 80’s and the mid 90’s Star Wars disappeared from the culture almost completely. You couldn’t walk into a Toys “R” Us and buy Star Wars paraphernalia. Most people thought, with good reason, that George Lucas was never going to make another movie. Hollywood and Hasbro had their minds set on pushing new brands. But I really loved Star Wars, so on weekends my dad would take me to yard sales and the flea market (what they call a “swap meet” out west where I live now), and we would search for these things. It was like panning for gold. Oftentimes, we came up empty, but because that was the case it really felt like the discovery of a treasure when I did find something. When a yard sale yielded me a Han Solo action figure in Empire Strikes Back “Bespin” gear, I felt something like I one day would hitting that blackjack hand. When that Han Solo was accidentally decapitated, it was a tragedy. Don’t worry, my mom glued it back on—only Han no longer could rotate it to look to his sides.
Those places were great, for five year-old me. I had all kinds of weird hobbies. I had endless comic books from the 60’s and 70’s. I had Golden books. I collected 8-track tapes. I had a stamp collection. I had a coin collection. I knew the term “collector’s item,” and liked believing that’s what my things were, but they were generally cheap or worthless at the time. Ironically, I see many of them fetching a high price today. I saved a lot of them into adulthood but lost, discarded, or destroyed a lot more. But you know what? It wasn’t a bad way to get an education.
I was not a good student. I couldn’t sit still. I thought my teachers were often tyrants and more often not very smart. Some were kind, and really tried to “save” me in that earnest way unique to a certain kind of public educator, but I successfully defended myself from any saving. I mouthed off at will. I was fat, and when other kids bullied me, I fought back, and pretty soon you don’t know whether they’re starting the fights or you are. When you become a person who’s used to swinging your fists around, not surprisingly, you find yourself swinging your fists around at the drop of increasingly less important hats. They wanted to keep me back a grade, or kick me out, or start me on Ritalin, or start me in special ed, all depending on which hapless administrator was tasked with my problems whenever they boiled to a level beyond ignorable.
But like I said, I did manage to get an education. Here is one example:
Do you know the story of General Douglas MacArthur? He was a five-star general in the United States Army who served in both World Wars. A general must serve in a world war to attain that fifth star, which is why there are none living today. Only nine have ever attained this rank, and MacArthur was one. He was once the Field Marshal of the Philippine Army, and fought the Japanese there during World War 2, receiving the Medal of Honor for that service. While he was reputed to be heroic in his time, upon a closer examination of his ability as a tactician and especially because of subsequent service after that war, history has not judged MacArthur well. Today, he is often cited as a flamboyant egotist. This is mainly because during the Korean War, he effectively decided that he, and not President Truman, was the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, and led an unauthorized campaign that nearly began a third world war with China. Truman then famously fired him in perhaps the greatest confrontation between military and civilian leadership in American history.
Maybe you knew this story. Despite my poor aptitude for matters academic, the aforementioned are facts I (roughly) knew as a five year-old. Here is why, and also a part of the story you might not know: during the Second World War, MacArthur was such a force to be reckoned with in the Far East that money was printed in the Philippines with his picture on it. These notes, which were denominated as pesos, are now called “MacArthur Guerrilla Money.” I learned this fact at the same time I learned all of that other information about the General which I have already imparted.
This is because when I was five, I went into a coin shop with my dad in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was filled with interesting things I could not afford to buy. But specifically, I asked the owner about the wadded up money I had noticed in the corner of the display window that faced the street. Unaware, he went there and pulled it out—it was several five-peso bills with MacArthur’s face on them. He explained to me what they were, who MacArthur was, and that they were worthless. He said I could have them. I learned more about MacArthur and his Korean War firing from my dad on the car ride home. Today those notes are worth more than worthless, but not much more: they’ll run you about $15 each online.
This is just an odd curiosity about MacArthur, but I think it provides shading to the broader historical picture of him. Is it surprising that a person who, largely by historical accident, found himself so important as to have his face printed on currency (and there were coins minted too) would decide himself qualified to reject a president’s orders and unilaterally direct the military destiny of the United States? Perhaps not. There are others strange anecdotes that paint this picture of the man, many of them from his time between wars directing the occupation of Japan, but this is the one the I grew up knowing about.
The major movement in American education for the past two decades has been toward STEM being the only thing worth studying. Sure, this is important, but it really has come at the expense of the wisdom that only history can teach, in addition to disregarding other important subjects. I have a calculator on my phone that has been able to solve every math problem that I’ve ever encountered as an adult. How the millions of lives lost during the twentieth century to fascism and communism bears—and doesn’t bear—on the kind of policies being debated in present-day America is a much more elusive answer to track down. Also, I suck at math.
But this, by asking questions and conducting my own analysis based on the objects I encountered, is how I, who didn’t take so well to school, grew up to be an educated person. Today, the internet would teach you these sorts of things, but in 1987 we didn’t have anything like that. We had the public library, which was much more tedious. The kind of rabbit hole that Wikipedia will streamline you down in 15 minutes these days would have taken hours of cross-references and rampant shooshings back in the library of the 1980’s.
Do you find the story of MacArthur Guerrilla Money interesting? I always did. I could tell you a thousand like this. You might think I’m wasting my time in the thrift store, and I might be, but I don’t live this way for nothing. I don’t come up empty-handed. Like Horatio at the end of Hamlet, the players might be mostly dead, but I walk away with the story to tell. Of Hamlet, there are multiple used copies in my home, just in case I ever find myself needing to perform the play with others on the spot.
The stories I learn are personal ones too. My daily driver is a 1992 Buick Roadmaster sedan. When I bought it in 2019, it came with extensive service records. I am the third owner. It was originally purchased in 1992 by a couple named George and Audrey. For it, they handed over $25,799.45, in cash, buying the car outright from Hatfield Buick-GMC in Redlands, California. While financing cars was already standard by 1992, George and Audrey were born in the 1920’s and it was hardly unusual during most of their adult lives to purchase a new car in full at the dealership. While 1992 was the first model year of this era of Roadmaster sedan, General Motors knew even then it was emblematic of a bygone era, with its body-on-frame construction, rear-wheel drive, and 5.7 liter V8 engine. They stopped producing the car in 1996, and have not made one like it since.
George and Audrey parted with a large sum to own this car, and they treated it with the proper care due a thing of its value. To this day, it is in remarkable shape. It has only 129,000 miles on the odometer, but this is partly misleading: in the summer of 2005, when the car was thirteen years-old and had driven a hundred-thousand miles—when most people would have simply replaced it—the couple paid nearly five-thousand dollars to install a brand new engine. So my 1992 car technically has a motor with less than thirty-thousand miles. In 2018, then in their nineties, the couple (through their daughter) sold the car to a man in Riverside who tuned it up, installed new brakes, and then sold it to me for three-thousand dollars.
I’ve never met George or Audrey. I know this story purely from the documentary evidence. But when I’m rushing around and busy, and soda cans and fast food bags start to collect on the floor of the front seat or a film of dirt develops on its enamel and chrome, I remember these facts and the care that these people put into the vehicle, and I feel inspired to get off my ass and clean it. This is a special car. Last year, I was rear ended on the freeway by a newer-model Chevy truck. The accident caused one of my reverse lights to crack, and my rear bumper to be slightly pushed in, but otherwise the car was intact and not in need of repair. That truck’s entire front end was crushed, its headlights and grille shattered into pieces, and its bumper detached and hanging. I don’t intend to part ways with the Roadmaster anytime soon.
Conservation is great too. Some people say my car uses too much gas, but I would point out that I drive 20 miles a day on average, and that as much of the carbon pollution that any car creates comes from its manufacturing and as its emissions, so unless one drives a used hybrid or electric, they’re vehicular carbon footprint is probably deeper than mine. This is a really convenient argument for me. You can probably tell I’ve thought about it.
When I was a teenager, and into my early twenties, I went through a phase of favoring things that were new. I was painfully insecure and afraid of people judging me. I started teenage life largely true to who I was, but also literally large, weighing about 320 pounds. After I lost half of that by the time I was sixteen and realized a woman one day having sex with me could be more than just a hypothesis, I started shopping at the mall a lot and worrying about keeping up with what I thought of as “fashion.” I bought flannel shirts for $50, which were mainly differentiated from the ones at the Goodwill by a brand tag on the front pocket so small as to be almost imperceptible. I never stopped trolling the thrift stores, but it felt like a part of my life that should be hidden from polite company. Painful experience proved me wrong about this. The kind of people who would judge me for this turned out to be a kind of person who I was wholly unable to satisfy, even if I was giving 110% at lying about who I actually was. Lying about yourself is a strategy that does work in life, but only temporarily. If you’re never going to see somebody again, you can tell them almost anything you want to. Any deviation from that, and things begin to be more complicated.
Overall, I do feel good about reusing goods where I can, because even absent an environmentally-minded or intellectual curiosity analysis, I think it’s sad when something is discarded forever. It’s very sad for me to imagine that every stuffed animal I ever had as a kid is probably now buried in a landfill, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, doing nothing but taking up space. I hope, for no particular reason, that some future archeologist finds reason to unearth them someday. Yeah, mine is a sentimental way of experiencing the world, but without sentiment we would just be living-machines, and even all of our scientific endeavors and technological progress would exist only to maintain and perpetuate ourselves as such. I don’t want to live like that.