The essentials get hoarded by the rich, the fluff, and the oofy, the pantry stuffed with truffles and beans and such, starch and flour, coffees and chocolates, the hall closet full with bamboo bathroom tissue, the library stacked with first edition hardbacks, clean copies dust covers intact, and a few handmade porcelain jars and a cast bronze abstract sculpture catching some sunlight through weeping glass, the boudoir walls dressed with formal wear and evening gowns made from wet fly wings, the garden roamed with roses, wisteria, and a cherry tree, and three peacocks playing near a pond. Others make do with equivalents, pink flamingos made from plastic, for example. The necessities of life change slowly, and vary from place to place, person to person, time to time. What profits youths to join jobs where like their mothers and fathers would have made happier children? Predicament is everything. And connotations take us away. White, blue, or pink collar? What’s behind door number four? The privileged get on the job training. Someone cleans the privy, the house of office, wash the washroom the washer person. The human path is littered with exuviae, as one’s growth outstrips one’s capacity for change, “a nine-hundreds-year-old name” not a gift but a curse. When any name or experience will suffice, a number, a meal, a drink, or its equivalent.
Clouds crept over the north beaches and the vintners celebrated the annual crush in fog and rain and wind blowing inland across the coastal ranges and into the interior valleys and bunching up against the big mountains and emptying and running into streams and rivers and lakes as fall developed into a long and wet run-on sentence. Sylvie returned to Central America with her baseball team for fall and winter practice and play. No hard feelings, she said, she had just suddenly come down with an allergic reaction to my company, and when she ran into Pinch who offered her a flight out of Dodge she jumped. That was understandable, my company often giving off toxic pollins venom and dander, and Sylvie loved the sunny outdoors and adventure and felt the fog and fall in the offing, and I left Pinch to his medicine and made my way farther north up the coast and then over into Portland, increasingly hard on the road to maintain any kind of outdoor living or working in the deteriorating weather conditions. I had traded Pinch the yellow Hummer for a more practical and economic wagon I could sleep in and he threw in a bicycle and surfboard and camping and fishing gear to balance out the exchange. The surfboard wasn’t much use in Portland where I took a room in a hostel in the Hawthorne District, but the bicycle was keen and I traded the camping and fishing gear to a couple on their way south for a used Gypsy jazz guitar. And I thought I might kick back and do some writing in the little pocket notebook Sylvie had given me. I joined a workshop at a local writing school, but I wasn’t much interested in plausibility, page turning plots, credibility, memoir type stuff. Still I felt the urge to write, pencil to paper, inky fingers, daily exercise. I was interested in the rules and ways and means of writing only to the extent I could experiment with syntax and grammar and style and, in a word, language. I didn’t have any particular reader in mind, though I hoped Sylvie might be interested in getting her notebook back full of words. And around the same time I started thinking about fate, how Sylvie had said fate is the decisions you make, and about the gods, the old gods, the ones that make mistakes, as humans do too, toys of the gods, lives so full of mistakes and griefs and all the seven deadly sins oozing and piling up like oily rags until spontaneous combustion and rages erupted all around, but it was time to relax, to take it easy, to consider not just the deadly sins but the works of mercy and grace. Easy to say of course for a guy living on an annuity funded by the temporary borrowing of someone else’s capital such that he no longer needs to work, even as work is what, he’s learned in passing, most fulfills him. But the gods these days, one to ten percent of the population, it is estimated, continuing on much as the gods of yesterday, co-mingling with and catching their standard human wannabe-gods unawares in the snares of their own cravings, for attention, for respect, for a nice big piece of the plutocratic prosperous concentric pie, for publication, for a post, for stage time, minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and years of fame, terms of fame, concentric circles, and round and round and round we go, and where we stop, nobody knows, amateurs as we all are, for the wages for being human are nil on the open market.
“The Fall” is episode 76 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
What will we do after all the shops close and we’ve already ordered all the stuff we need or want from Amazon? And suppose, while we’re waiting for the packages to arrive, the Amazon warehouses go on strike?
We might find some ideas by looking back at what folks did before all the shops and shopping and online browsing and waiting impatiently for packages to arrive to satisfy our needs for instant gratification – what folks back then did.
We’ve already seen how the Sears Catalog was a precursor to today’s online shopping guides. But what of before the Catalog?
We get a glimpse of development and changing attitudes, from rural all the way through gentrification, in just a few pages in Frances Spalding’s “Stevie Smith: A Biography,” and we see that many of the attitudes are not much different from those since:
“Even the advent of the railway had brought little change, for the area was protected by owners of large estates who refused to carve up their land and therefore kept the speculative builder at bay….Then in 1902 Captain J. V. Taylor of Grovelands sold large tracts of his land for development. After this more and more land came on to the market and suburbia spread.”
Once the urban growth boundary falls, shops grow:
“Already by 1906, when Stevie and her relations arrived, Green Lanes was entirely lined with shops and houses. The surrounding fields, country lanes and toll gate that gave the area its charm were steadily diminishing with the spread of bricks and mortar, pavements and private hedges.”
Long time residents expressed concerns that with “all this building a poorer class of resident would be attracted to the area. Shopkeepers in Alderman’s Hill complained about the muddy state of the road and the need for more pavements.”
Feelings of entitlement boiled over. Citizens brought vegetables to town meetings and apparently showed little restraint in tossing them at speakers whose opinions differed from their own:
“Very quickly Palmers Green developed a reputation for being one of the most snobbish of London’s outer suburbs….The political flavour of this up-and-coming residential area was already noticeably right wing….The tone of the area is reflected in the correspondence columns of the local press, where a persistent demand for better services from Southgate Urban District Council is coupled with a violent antipathy to paying for these services in increased rates.”
Yet “the building of churches helped establish the community life of the area….and played an important social role…for its church hall hosted society meetings and, during the First World War, a great many concerts, plays and bazaars in aid of charity.”
Following the establishment of churches which fulfilled certain community gathering needs, came a “first cinema.” Still, “much entertainment was home-grown; societies and clubs flourished. The area had its own branch of the Fabian Society….The issue of women’s suffrage could not be ignored.” And a “Literary Society met once a month, on the Monday nearest to the full moon.”
Where should we live and what should we live for?
“Stevie never tired of extolling the virtues of Palmers Green, a true suburb, according to her, because it is an outer suburb and not one of the inner ones which have been captured by London. In her own lifetime it grew shabby and down-at-heel and has since her death deteriorated still further. But even before its decline few could share her view: Grovelands which for Stevie was ‘a happy place even when it is raining’ is a very average park, dull and dreary in bad weather; nor did the colours of Palmers Green, with its windy shopping corners and people attached to dogs or prams, seem to her friends quiet so fresh and exquisite.”
Spalding’s book on Stevie came out in 1988. Palmers Green is still a place, more urban than in Stevie’s time or even Spalding’s of the 80s. And there is today an Amazon locker located in the area.
A certain shabbiness and “down-at-heel” sentiment might be necessary for the proper inculcation of poetic or literary values. One wants to avoid being a snob, even while snobbishness remains one of the fuels that light up literature, and even literary critics might want to avoid being snobs of any sort.
It is 1985, and a corporate colleague tells me his grandfather and father had built the house he would come to grow up in just before World War II, having ordered it out of a Sears Catalog. The house was delivered as a kit, with plans, in parts, via rail to a nearby town, where it was then trucked to the lot where they put it together. Yes, “some assembly required.”
We were reading “In Search of Excellence” in the mid 80s, at all levels of the organization. But what many workers were actually in search of was a job with benefits that paid at least enough to buy a house for the fam and stuff to put in it, including sofa in the living room, pram in the entry, and car in the garage. For my part, I had recently come to realize the community college adjunct job I’d been working full time since the close of the 70s wasn’t going to produce such excellent results.
In the first half of the 20th Century, the Sears Catalog served a bit like today’s Amazon. But I searched Amazon this morning to see if I could buy a house online and have it delivered, and all I found were backyard sheds. Sears discontinued its catalog division in the early 1990s. It’s hard to stay close to the customer when the customer is constantly on the move. In any case, most corporations (and stores and shops) only affect concern for the customer; what they’re really after is a share of the customer’s wallet, or, in Amazon’s case, the whole wallet. But what happens when customers no longer pack wallets?
Or no longer want stuff, or at least, not so much stuff. Or still want some stuff, but different stuff. In other words, does Amazon sell souls? Or, as Jung put in his “Modern Man in Search of a Soul”: “No psychic value can disappear without being replaced by another of equivalent intensity” (209).
There are, it is argued, certain efficiencies that promote the use of Amazon over the emotional expense of leaving one’s safe harbor for the voyage out to the mall or downtown or the shops of Hawthorne. Why should consumers feel shame about where or how or for what they shop? In any case, it appears most feel no shame. But is that because they are driven by unconscious desires, wants that may be manipulated by elevator music, trance inducing ads, or atavistic urges to covet one’s neighbor’s goods?
I don’t know, but it often seems shoppers are led to the market like the Eloi in “The Time Machine” are pulled to the Morlocks. In return for the seemingly safe setting the Morlocks have created, the Eloi serve themselves up as food to sustain the Morlockian system.
Met a hack on her back in the sack lovely but no ears
lugged a sack of socks as winter uncoiled into spring
all summer long rolled up socks & stuffed her bag
till full it was wool tossed socks fool me going barefoot
sandaled sock-less the warm early grasses of summer
by the sidewalks along the seashore in a summer
the weather news said would never end the waves
the summer the ocean beaches & solid gold weekends.
Noir fall & fell fall hard that year markets failed
& on socks tariffs hit feet cold wet & sore toenail
fungus infestation & the wooly cooly hack kneed
trumpet ear tinkered her socks along the esplanade
& came the coldest winter lemonade stands closed
nary a beer at the end of the year she was rich
& to boot boasted the warmest toes so near
impressed in silk slippers she was when I left her.
Last week, I saw a guy wheeling a couch down a sidewalk over near SE Woodstock. He had the full size living room couch balanced on an office chair on wheels, and was pushing the makeshift vehicle along the sidewalk, away from a garage sale, a clear sign summer is in the offing in Portland. I mentioned the couch on wheels to Susan, and she said let’s set sail for the new garage sale season come Saturday morning, foraging afield, stopping whim-whamfully, burying our treasure in the back of our little wagon. Yes, I added, and thence to the basement to add to our pile of previously purchased garage sale items that we will no doubt put out in our own garage sale later this summer. There you go again with the negative vibes, Moriarty, she replied, but come Saturday morning, off we jibed, cutting a course from Mt Tabor zigzagging northwest through uncharted garage sale waters.
Never mind, for the moment, why we keep stuff; why do we acquire the stuff to begin with? But what did we acquire on our Saturday garage sailing adventure?
Our first disembarkment came just a few blocks out of harbor. We looked at an ironing board (does anyone iron anymore? I asked Susan). We looked at a large, thick piece of glass and considered it for a table top. There was a DVD player for sale, a few books, and a treasure trove of old, vinyl albums, out of which I picked, for 50 cents, a Peggy Lee with George Shearing recording. I would have brought home a few more old, folk albums I saw, but most of them looked like they had served as scratching pads for a family of catastrophic cats. While I was thumbing through the albums, Susan picked out a shoe tree for her closet, and I wondered if this was a portent of an organized summer. Our garage sale hosts were themselves disembarking for adventures elsewhere, pulling up anchor, moving.
We stopped at a church rummage sale over on Burnside. Susan picked out a tiny, wire jeweled Christmas tree, though Christmas seems an ocean away to me. Things were half off at the church sale, and I showed Susan a lemonade sign leaning against a rail outside the vestibule. We could hang it somewhere, I said, assuring her I had no immediate plans to sell lemonade. The sign was marked $2.50, so we got it for $1.25, and Susan said churches often have the best garage sales.
But even half price was no match for Susan’s find at our next stop, an old, maple director’s chair at a garage sale off of Stark – in the free box pile. It had no seat nor back, and was missing the dowels that hold the seat fabric under the arms. If you can find any logic to buying a lemonade sign at half price, you can understand having to lug home the priceless, broken director’s chair. But on the way home we stopped by a specialty store where we got a director’s chair seat and back fabric replacement kit, on sale for three bucks. We were in favorable trade winds.
We stopped here and there, browsing more than buying, listening to a seller’s story here, a buyer’s tale there. Then we landed at the most enjoyable sale of the day, where three ladies joyfully called our attention toward multiple kitchenware items, a mirror, homemade stuffed toy animals, blankets and quilts, dishes, knickknacks, tools – these and more sundries arranged neatly on tables and blankets and leaning against a tree in the front yard. And I made my third purchase of the day. For 50 cents, I bought a little Singer box of sewing machine parts, but I got it for the tiny, specialized screwdrivers it contained.
I’m the kind of garage sailor who vows every voyage is his last, though it’s not the long run on the open sea I want, either, instead of tacking through neighborhoods, but I’ll probably sail through the summer stopping at garage sales if I see books, albums, tools, or guitars. The sailor on land wants to walk. And if I find myself some distance from the mother ship wanting to haul a garage sale item home, I can always ask if they happen to have any office chairs on wheels for sale. The garage sale offers a unique barometer of local economic conditions, windows of interest into local communities, and the stories one hears surely fill part of the void left by the disappearance of newspapers. In any case, there’s always the chance of the odd lemonade sign showing up.
Click any photo for gallery view:
Don’t miss the Chicago Two waxing on happiness in the latest posts at the Becker-Posner blog; the January 10 posts are impoverished economic analyses attempting to explain why Americans are unhappy. Neither the Nobel economist nor the federal judge seems happy with his conclusions.
Even as they both begin to move away from the Chicago School’s famed ignorance of psychology, the problem still seems to be with their approach, as John Cassidy explains in his January 8, New Yorker article, “After the Blowup”: “A useful new economics will need to integrate an awareness of human nature with extensive practical knowledge and high-level mathematical expertise” (32). It’s not that an attempt to explain human nature is lacking in the Becker-Posner posts. They both conclude that the pursuit of wealth is the paramount claim of value for Americans, but they ignore their colleague Rajan’s argument “that the initial causes of the breakdown [the recent crash] were stagnant wages and rising inequality” (32-33), that upward mobility, in other words, is a metaphorical, ultimately unreachable carrot, for as one moves upward, so does the top.
Their analyses do not mention half-day commutes in mortgaged, gas-expensive rigs to institutionalized jobs (public and private) so Dad can pay the mortgage and Mom get the health benefits and pay for daycare until the divorce where everyone gets the Community Chest card that says “Return to Go.” Posner argues in his conclusion that “People have a strong preference for more income over less and thus for a rising standard of living. Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that people fooled themselves in thinking they would be happier with more money. Maybe so; but as long as people do have this strong preference, economics can explain a great deal of human behavior.” The faulty assumption in Posner’s argument is the claim that more income leads to an improved standard of living. Rising income results in rising costs of living and a breakeven that continues to move upward, like the unreachable carrot.
Becker seems closer to reality: “My conclusion is that happiness data have been useful, and the relation with income is plausible. Yet happiness data do not enable us to directly measure utility and wellbeing. I admit I do not know why average degree of happiness has not risen in recent decades in the US as incomes rose.”
Posner gives Adam Smith short shrift, for Smith is much more devastating in his argument than merely suggesting that “people fool themselves”: No doubt we do fool ourselves, about many things, but about money buying happiness the fooling is an aggressive and dynamic belief, not passive and benign, a belief that requires as a tenet a dichotomy of human worth. This belief is what allows some of us to live comfortably in mansions paid for by the labor in sweatshops of people who live in shanties: Smith says, “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.” This is at least evident in the gated communities that sprung up in response to a new age of fear fostered by the holders of the carrots to secure their own positions of power and wealth, increasing the gap between the claim of value and its reason and exposing the underlying faulty assumption that wealth buys happiness, for as Tennessee Ernie Ford sang in Merle Travis’s classic “Sixteen Tons” (1955):
“You load sixteen tons, what do you get / Another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store.”