By Samantha Krause
Featured Art: Janoski (Deconstructed), by John Schriner
Welcome to the museum of secondhand savings. The journey starts like this: when something is donated to The Thrift Store, the attendants at the store decide whether to sell it there or send it to my department to sell online. In each of the 13 stores in our district, there is a list of items that are always to be sent to us. We get all the jewelry, every musical instrument, any expensive-looking art, all video games, computers, clothes with tags over $75. All brand-name purses, every vinyl record, typewriters from certain years and countries. American Girl Dolls, vintage Barbies, Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! and baseball cards. Stamp collections. Fur coats. LEGOs. Cameras, digital and film. It goes on.
My job is to study these artifacts from now. I photograph and research and sell them to people online who are grateful to enjoy these secondhand treasures before the Earth is eaten up by fire or ice or Jeff Bezos. I am paid $14 an hour to do this, $2 less an hour than I was paid when I was the receptionist, before the plague. People around the office think I was promoted and congratulate me, to which I thank them. Really, the CEO just didn’t want to pay a receptionist, and now there’s no one to answer the door.
I like this new job more, at least. I am one of five posters; we are each given 25 items a day. Most everything starts at $9.99 and is sold to the highest bidder. I use my expensive writing degree to craft beautiful titles such as Women’s New with Tags Hawaiian Tropic Khaki Suit Size 12 and Vintage Desert Storm Memorabilia Scrapbook.
My coworker Amy assembles outfits out of expensive dresses and purses and cheap jewelry. She named our mannequin Diamond and a few times a day I lift her gently from her pole to dress her up in fancy, unworn clothing. Her curves are hard and exaggerated, an inflexible size four. Amy tells me that a few years ago a woman who used to work here thought Diamond’s nipples were too noticeable and tried to melt them down with a hair dryer, but it only made them more severe. I use a photo editor to blend them into dresses by Michael Kors and Ann Taylor LOFT so as not to offend any potential customers.
Lily, June, Susan, and Anthony spend eight hours a day sorting through large red tubs of jewelry. They separate out the expensive pieces and group the cheaper kinds into themes like “North American Mammals” and “Shell Yeah!”. We sell some of the themed bags like Hello Kitty and Timex watches by the pound, like meat. There are vintage brands I know nothing about that some people spend their lives collecting; they send us questions demanding to see the back of every clip-on earring. I can’t tell the difference between a $3 ring and a $300 ring but Lily can pull a bangle out of a box of junk and know that it is jade and worth $5,000.
There are so many instruments. Whole bands, entire orchestras. They come broken into moldy pieces and they come barely used, pristine. I assemble trumpets, flutes, clarinets, a French horn. I take too much time with the saxophones because they remind me of high school; airless August days of marching band practice and cool fall nights spent yearning at football games. I stand flocks of smooth violins up next to their delicate bows. Guitars come in droves and Pauline, the shipper, rolls her eyes. There are instruments I’ve never heard of, like kotos and zithers and mountain dulcimers. A deerskin drum with a bear painted on it. Isaac, a guitarist in two mathcore bands, knows how to play all of them at least a little. He tests them in the warehouse and the shelves overflow with discarded ambition.
Sometimes in my line of work it becomes necessary to experience the items fully in order to understand their true value. As a rule, I always try a spritz of the expensive, brand-name perfumes that I would never shell out for in real life. I try on a $2000 pair of Dior sneakers and they fit me. I don’t wear a lot of jewelry, but for research purposes I simply must slide 35 men’s wedding bands onto my fingers all at once and visualize the divorces they have witnessed. I am also contractually obligated to take a selfie wearing the oversized Gucci sunglasses that transform me instantly into a Real Housewife, as well as carry around the $400 leather purse for a little while, just to get a feel for it. A customer sends in a message asking how it smells and I breathe in the vintage leather: not musty, but matured.
I test ride a longboard with NIRVANA scrawled on it in Sharpie through the warehouse with shaky legs, past the massive cardboard gaylords of clothing and shoes that the stores couldn’t sell. They are sold instead by the pound to buyers in other countries to allegedly be reused or recycled, though I’ve seen enough photographs of children playing in foreign landfills to be skeptical of this. Scarves and jeans and tiny underwear litter the concrete floor, and Joe and his crew spend all day putting the endless supply through the baler before loading the packed cubes onto trucks to be taken away.
I never stop wondering about the kind of people who give away all of this material wealth. I wonder how much of our inventory belongs to people who have recently died – ghosts watching me stage their life’s possessions and edit out their shadows along with mine. I feel most tenderly towards those who donate photo albums, birthday cards, postcards, self-published books of poetry. I can see them in my mind, knowing they can’t take these things with them and having no one to give them to, too proud to throw them away.
People will buy other people’s memories, as it turns out. I sell a bundle of love letters from the 1950s for $23 plus shipping. A bag of photographs comes in the next day, and I put faces to Linda and Jerry, and their parents and their children. The photos go back to 1903, when Linda’s mother stood on the steps of a school in first grade and smiled in black and white at the camera with her classmates. I watch her grow up, have Linda and two other children who pose often for photos together, the three of them always standing in the same order. I turn over a photo of her brother, a lanky boy with glasses in his late teens, and read the words “Michael, 19, one month before death.” It knocks the air out of me. There are no explanations; he simply stops being in the photos. There are two copies, only one with the note, and I can’t resist the urge to keep it. I wonder if there are any other people on Earth who remember Michael, who know he was alive and that he died. His smile in the photo is nervous, self-conscious. It’s the smallest bit blurry, as if he wasn’t standing all the way still, maybe fidgeting. I keep the photo in my work drawer, then in my lunch bag, then at home in a folder with my paystubs. Without really deciding to, I promise to remember.
When I first started, the training coordinator took me to one of the stores to see behind the scenes. I met a manager who used to be an opera singer. I asked her about the strangest things she’d seen donated, and she told me that the year before someone turned in an urn full of ashes. The attendant thought it was a vase or he never would have taken it. She told me she felt too guilty to throw it away, this literal person in a jar, so she kept it. It’s in her house and she’s waiting for the right time to sprinkle them somewhere. It may have been an accident, but no one ever called the main office looking for remains.
I learn the job quickly and soon I’m posting the fastest out of anyone. The objects vary but the process is repetitive; it’s a whimsical job until it isn’t, and the same laptops and leather jackets and gold chains start to blend together into a sea of boredom, of meaninglessness, of merchandise.
I finish my cart in four hours instead of eight. I spend the rest of the day switching between doomscrolling Twitter and helping with other people’s work, like photographing the insides of dirty purses so that a different company can determine if they’re real.
I start to get restless. I can’t shake the silly little question that creeps in at 2 PM while I’m matching up horse-themed earrings or sorting LEGOs from MegaBlocks: what’s the point?
Suddenly, I am looking for meaning in the pounds of broken watches and the pounds of clothing and the pounds of comic books. I am coming up empty. I know I should just let the junk be junk but it has to mean something, anything, or else what am I doing with my life? The ice caps are almost gone and I’m selling American Girl dolls with the eyelashes torn out. I take long breaks in my car and watch chickadees flit in and out of the hedges that line the parking lot. I wish I was reckless enough to take up smoking. I hide in the executive suite bathroom until someone knocks. It’s just a job it’s just a job it’s just a job.
“How do you work so fast?” my boss asks me in my first-year review. I knew this was coming but I still don’t have a good answer.
“I think I’m anxious about finishing everything in time,” I say, truthfully. “And it’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it.”
“Classic gifted kid,” he says, shaking his head. I smile and think to myself: if I’m so gifted how’d I end up here?
When the new girl is having trouble getting through her cart by the end of the day, I try to give her tips. I watch her stage her photos carefully, adjusting every item until the shot is perfect.
“This is going to sound terrible,” I tell her after watching for a while, “But you have to care less.” She laughs nervously. She is younger than I am and impossibly pretty with wavy brown hair and eyes lined with perfect swoops.
“I think it’s hard for me,” she pauses, “because I feel like I want to take pride in my work.”
“I get that!” I tell her, because I do. “I want to too. It’s just that for this job, it doesn’t really matter. It’s quantity over quality. You know?” She looks away. “Just something to think about that might help!” I add before walking back to my desk, understanding that this is not what she wanted to hear.
Is this what selling out means? Would it be better to invest more feeling into it all? Once in a while, sure, I’ll get a special item that’s worth taking time to research thoroughly and make beautiful in pictures; I’ll find a Michael. My designated cork board is full with photos of long-dead dogs and torn postcards and a large professional portrait of a smiling man that fell out of an old army manual. Mostly, though, I post video games and jewelry and dirty sneakers. A conveyor belt of material goods that narrowly avoided the landfill and will probably still end up there. Day after day, they lose their meaning to me, and I begin to suffocate under the miles of synthetic nothingness.
The Thrift Store is a nonprofit. If I forget my headphones, I can hear occasional screams from participants down the hall – that’s what they call the mentally disabled adults in the Supported Employment program. Some of the screams are violent, some are joyful, and some are neutral, just sound into the void. They meet their job coaches here before being taken to their job sites, where they find independence through the power of work. Thanks, capitalism! They also have holiday parties and watch movies and play Dance Dance Revolution. One participant fast walks laps around the building to stay calm. Another will still sneak from around corners just to scare whoever is there. Someone else will drink any coffee in his line of sight, no matter whose it is, and everyone in the office knows to hide their mugs when they see them.
Because I spend eight hours a day selling these silly, expensive things, a handful of people have it a little easier. So, I must take care with the junk.
My boyfriend and I shop at thrift stores at least once a week. He looks for things to resell online for extra money, we both look for clothes for ourselves and things for our apartment, and we laugh at the infinite amount of absurd shit that exists in the world. We did this before I worked for the company and I’m sure we’ll do it after I leave. Even with the best things picked out and sent to my office, it is still astounding to be surrounded by so much that has been freely given away. The shelves overflow with the excesses of us, and we have so much more than we need. There is plenty for everyone, but this does not translate to equity, of course. I imagine a different world in which instead of depending on this large company with a wealthy CEO, we cut out the middleman and give each other our extra. A world where trucks of waste aren’t sent away for other countries to deal with. A world that isn’t ending. A world we aren’t burning to the ground.
My friend, a nurse, asks me if I hate my job.
“I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it,” I say.
“You don’t, like, dread going to work?” she asks me.
“Not usually,” I answer, and she frowns. She works in a surgical unit assisting doctors as they cut people open. She hands them tools, puts organs into containers for safe keeping, and picks the music that plays during the procedures. She tells me about a surgery where the doctor has to pull out someone’s entire intestines, yards and yards of it, until they find the problem. It’s the same surgery she herself had years ago.
“I just wish I had an office job where I wasn’t responsible for people’s lives,” she says.
I think about her while I measure charm bracelets and unbox air fryers. She holds living, bleeding meaning in her hands every day and hates it, wants to quit. I hold crumbling metal toy cars in mine and wish they meant as much as organs.
I search around for other jobs. My friend sends me an opening at her company; the position is writing copy about restaurant equipment. $15/hour to bullshit about dish racks and tabletops and glasses and shelving. I feel suddenly incredibly stupid for getting a writing degree. Someone’s got to do these jobs, and that someone should probably be me, and I should probably be grateful to make enough money and blah blah blah, but I’m pretty sure the only thing more depressing than writing copy about the leftovers of civilization is writing enthusiastic copy about the features of industrial-sized freezers. At least here I finally learn the difference between the Victorian era and the Edwardian era; I learn that a genuine pearl will feel grainy when you bite down on it instead of smooth; I learn how to grade antique books by their condition. I learn the language of objects, essentially, and how to describe them in the 49 characters that a title allows. It is a very specific language, a very American, capitalist, search engine optimization language. It’s not often beautiful, but it’s real.
I tell myself I am taking inventory of the past century and a half. I sell a signed photograph of a former president and a signed photograph of a pop star.
“Are you happy?” My boss asks me in my second-year review. He is a kind man in his 50s who also has an English degree. “Not even career wise, just day to day?” I laugh; I can’t help it. I appreciate that he cares, I do. It’s just that I have no idea how to answer that question, let alone in a professional context.
The best part of the job, maybe, is getting to laugh at the ridiculous items that come through: oil paintings of sad clowns, NFL cologne, taxidermy frogs in little sombreros, Hannah Montana brand guitars, antique dolls with heads made from rotted apples, tiny hot dog earrings. I see at least one object a day that is entirely absurd. It’s comforting, in a way, that these items confirm what I’ve always secretly believed: that the world really makes no sense at all. Every one of them was at some point produced and transported and sold and bought and owned by a real person. Then, after an hour or 100 years, they were given away, to us. Some days, the garbage bags of worthless Beanie Babies make you laugh and some days they make you want to cry, all that hope people put into the future.
On a Thursday, I have a coat on my cart made of curiously long black hair. I can’t find any tags but my manager tells me it’s made of monkey and I instinctively drop it on the ground. I do some digging and find it was most likely made in the 1920s or 30s and that we cannot legally sell it because it’s an endangered species. Tom, who’s in charge of eBay selling and other things, takes it to his office along with another coat made from Cheetah that he has been holding onto. That fur is sickeningly soft and spotted, and the tags are still attached. He saves these to give to an organization that will store them in a warehouse full of other outlawed items, such as ivory and Nazi flags. I discover there are many of these places across the US: we have a lot to hide. The items sent to these places are not destroyed, but left to sit on shelves, ostensibly forever. Museums of evil; warehouses of sin.
What’s the true opposite, I wonder, of such a doom room? A hope chest? I had one growing up, but I don’t remember what was in it. It was supposed to be for my future, I remember. What objects could have carried me there?
Are these holding places the opposite of my office, or parallel to it? The objects there probably have more meaning attached per pound, even if the meaning comes primarily from pain. On the other hand, I wouldn’t categorize the items we sell as “good”, on the whole; if anything, the majority are neutral, with little inherent meaning at all. But then, does any object have inherent meaning before we ascribe it ourselves? The monkey jacket only makes me sad because I know it was once alive, and same with the photo of Michael. If I step back, they are just a jacket and a photograph. If I step back, close my eyes, they are pure surface.
There is something in me, I’m learning, as a writer or just a person, that needs to add the meaning. I need to pull it from the dirty bins and wipe it off and display it on my corkboard. This is what life is made out of, I want to say: pieces of junk. I say it every day into the Internet void; I photograph it and name it and sell it to the highest bidder. Maybe it won’t last forever. Maybe it will.
One morning, not long after the earliest shift of our department comes in, the fire alarm starts shrieking. This is not uncommon; ever since new smoke detectors were installed a few months before, they’ve been going off on an almost weekly basis. This time, however, there’s smoke. Not a lot, but some.
“It’s the baler,” my manager says, after we make it to the parking lot. “Maintenance must have put some batteries or perfume or something through. It happens.” She’s worked here over 40 years and has literally seen it all.
It’s late fall and crisp enough that I can see my breath. Amy takes a close-up picture of frost on the grass. One firetruck comes, then two, then five. Most of us left all our stuff inside, expecting a false alarm. We huddle in clumps with hands in our pockets and watch a little too eagerly for flames.
Inside, the warehouse is full of clothing and cardboard. The old home office was destroyed this way; it burned down in the 80s. I imagine the flames growing higher and consuming the whole building in one quick gulp. I imagine finding a new job, parting with my friends here, telling stories for years to come of all the insane and mundane things I saw and touched. I imagine the tons of objects smoldering inside, lost forever.
In reality, the fire fighters put out the flames that stayed contained in the dumpster outside the building. They clear us to go inside and we shuffle back to our florescent-lit corners piled high with treasure and trash. It’s not even 10 AM. The world hasn’t ended today, so I go back to work.
Samantha Krause is a writer from Black Earth, Wisconsin. She has a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from Bennington College and a cat named Kiki. Her work has appeared in Fiction Attic Press and 805 Lit+Art and she has an essay forthcoming in Madison Magazine.