Stapled to a piece of thick yellow cardboard, the paper envelopes of rubbers were hung near a shelf filled with ancient bottles of Creme of Nature shampoo. Scott’s Beauty Supply on Pennsylvania Avenue SE stocked them, along with dusty jugs of relaxer cream and thin, silver-colored bangles that turned wrists green on contact, until only a couple of months ago when the store came under new management. The two brands available were both manufactured by Protex, and, at 25 cents per package of three, appeared to be the most economical birth-control option in town.
But a closer examination revealed the condoms to be well beyond their useful life. One brand, Sunrise, touted itself as “The Dawn of a New Age in Condoms.” Its paper envelope was covered with a picture of a beach—the sun rising, spraying the same brown, orange, and yellow tones that sold countless rolls of ’70s wallpaper. The package of the other kind, Arouse, sported the bare-shouldered bust of a blond woman, wearing Farrah Fawcett’s iconic curled style against a background of pickle green. Her mouth was open and her head tilted back, but both her naked body and the source of her pleasure were hidden from view.
The copyright symbol on the back of each packet was followed by “1984.” By the laws of packaging, the date wouldn’t necessarily mean that the product inside was 20 years old. Perhaps the condoms were new but the design of the package hadn’t changed in two decades?
But the packages lacked an expiration date, which became required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1997; even if they were produced just prior to the regulation, the condoms were still well beyond a maximum five-year shelf life. Also telling was the fact that the packaging implored users to stop the spread of “venereal disease” by strapping up, but made no mention of the deadliest of sexually transmitted diseases. (Closer examination revealed that both condom containers were stamped with manufacturing dates from 1987).
The condom display was up in Scott’s for years, its rows never diminishing. When customers purchased styling gel or stockings, their buys were recorded by display gaps that remained unfilled days or weeks at a time, but the condom selection always appeared well-tended. Either no one ever touched the Protex board or the owner focused so much time on refreshing the supply that it caused him to neglect restocking duties for most other product lines in his store.
Maybe he figured someone might want the Arouse and Sunrise packs as pieces of sexual memorabilia. Perhaps they would call out to a closet collector of erotic ephemera or someone in need of a bachelor-party gag gift. Or maybe he kept them hoping to appeal to someone intrigued by any items from a time when herpes was still perceived as the biggest threat to the collective sexual health. Save for the chance that they could have fallen into the wrong hands and been put to use, the condoms seemed harmless, charming even: a quaint, obsolete oddity among very ordinary necessities.
Things expire all of the time—they break, they wear out or slow down, they go out of style. They disappear from the daily lives of most of us. But they don’t disappear altogether. There are plenty of people willing to hang on to old objects—useless or useful, amusing or appalling, for reasons both noble and not.
Some are motivated by a determination to keep our landfills clear; others to keep their personal economies out of a recession. Some are lazy; some are resistant to change. Some cater to those resistant to change. Many just have a knack for finding beauty in the dilapidated.
The most interesting preservation practices inject a bit of humor and interest into everyday life. They add intrigue and an element of sport to the utilitarian practice of turning an object upside-down and scanning its bottom for an expiration date. Teasing out the stories of expired products can be engrossing—even if it carries the gross-out factor of a beauty-supply display that offers dried-out, unusable prophylactics.
Your Number’s Up
Liquor store owner Sheldon Plotnick holds on to obsolete T and A.
Painted on the lower left-hand corner of the sign above Target Liquor, at 500 Kennedy St. NW, is a date: “1/27/60.” The handwritten notation marks the day when the sign was erected, some 44 years ago.
The sign is two simple rectangles of industrial plastic that list the establishment’s name and phone number in black block lettering. A red-and-white bull’s-eye clock is attached between them. For Petworth residents, the graphic was associated with owner Sheldon Plotnick’s community package store long before it came to represent a certain hip discounter. The old-fashioned neighborhood beacon is an attention-grabber, hung higher than most others on the street. Only a billboard for rapper Jay-Z’s S. Carter Reeboks on the side of Target’s building reaches the same altitude.
The sign looks pretty good for a piece of craftsmanship that has withstood four decades’ worth of Washington winters and summers. But the phone number, listed in black letters, is a little dated: “TA.9-7000.” The old-fashioned alphanumeric format that was used to describe the phone number of D.C. businesses and residences was phased out in the late ’60s and almost nonexistent by the late ’70s—everyone had switched over to seven digits.
When Plotnick opened, most of the signs surrounding Target Liquor probably resembled his own. In a 1962 Polk’s Washington D.C. City Directory, the Washington Post’s phone number was recorded as NAtional8-4200, or NA8-4200. PEPCO’s was NA8-8800. Target eventually changed its phone book listing to seven digits. But Plotnick never updated his sign.
The sign isn’t wrong: Anyone who can look at a telephone keypad and figure out which letters correspond to the T and the A can dial up the beer and spirit seller. All that is required is the same quick decoding skill used to ring up 1-800-FLOWERS or 1-900-4-HOTSEX. But in both looks and personality, the sign stands out.
“It’s been there forever,” Anita Porter, a 30-year resident of the neighborhood, says of the sign. “I don’t know if the clock still works or not—I went to work in the morning by that clock.”
Porter has watched as the businesses around Target Liquor have been transformed. She’s seen a 7-Eleven turned into a Starlight Market, and a tax preparer’s morph into a Kenny’s carryout. But the Target Liquor sign, and the man who commissioned it, are untouched, more or less. “A lot has changed—but Shelly’s still the same,” Porter says, using Plotnick’s nickname.
Plotnick doesn’t claim to be keeping the clock because it’s one of the few things left on Kennedy Street from the year 1960. He leaves it as is for practical reasons: “It holds up,” Plotnick says. “It needs some minor repair every now and then, but that’s it.”
Home on the Range
Southern Avenue’s outdoor model kitchen
Tyrone Shirriel set the stoves out on his lawn about three years ago, for all to enjoy. They’d just been sitting down in his basement, not doing anybody any good. “I wouldn’t keep it in the house, so I decided to put it out for everyone to see,” he says of his collection.
A Depression-era wood-burning range, an old-fashioned potbelly stove, and a 1930s gas stove share the expanse of green. A misty-mint Signature electric-wringer washer stands off to one side, near the edge of the yard.
The stoves are kept company by an assortment of other finds that Shirriel has come across over the years. Two frogs and a giant bald eagle—all made of concrete and all hand-painted by Shirriel—guard a fishpond. A white plastic Washington Star newspaper street box that he “just found somewhere” is affixed to one of the porch posts. A stop sign has been driven into the ground by the driveway, and a fire hydrant with silver accents is tucked between the pond and porch.
The lawn is neatly trimmed, with flowerbeds scattered here and there—the display of old items looks like the work of someone dedicated to decoration. But not everyone gets that the objects are meant as art—parties interested in owning a stove of their own call or come by from time to time and try to take items off Shirriel’s hands.
“People say, ‘How much you want for it?’” Shirriel says. “I say, ‘Not for sale.’ ‘Well, why ya got it out here, then?’ I say, ‘For people to look at.’ People think I’m having a yard sale.”
The display has been misunderstood in other ways, too. Shirriel says he nabbed the fire hydrant right off the street in 1980 after a car hit it and knocked it off its base. Since taking up residence in the yard, the ornamental hydrant has been mistaken for a working one at least once. “The fire department tried to use it,” Shirriel says. “I saw them lined up across the street, and it was knocked over.”
And then there are the kids who, in the past, mistook the stove scene for a neighborhood playground. “They used to [play on it],” he says. “Until they found out I’m a mean man.”
But more often than confusion, the stoves are met with delight. Shirriel doesn’t have any immediate neighbors, so there isn’t anyone likely to protest his grand display. Only a high-rise apartment building and church across the four-lane Southern Avenue have a direct view. But the busy thoroughfare, which divides his Oxon Hill, Md., neighborhood and the District, provides a large audience for his work.
“Half of D.C. knows my house,” he says. “People say, ‘I always wondered who lived there.’”
His wife, Linda Shirriel, expresses indifference toward her husband’s collecting, but she’s tickled by the renown that the ovens on her lawn have brought. “Some people say it’s a landmark,” she says. “I’ll go across town, people will ask me, ‘Where you live? That’s your house with the stoves?’ I say, ‘Yeah.’”
“I take Metro Access, and the driver told me one day, ‘I’m honored to know someone that lives in that house,’” she continues. “I tried to tell him how to get to the house and he said, ‘Don’t tell me—I know.’”
Tyrone Shirriel, 60, an apartment-maintenance worker and part-time fix-it guy, culled his stoves collection from a variety of sources—the potbelly came from a flea market down South, the Magic Chef gas cooker was procured by helping a friend clean out a basement, and the Home Comfort range came from a cousin who also has a tendency to amass things. “He likes to collect stuff—he won’t throw it away, he won’t sell it. You should see his yard.”
None of the stoves have been formally appraised, but Shirriel knows they’re valuable enough to attract thieves. When they were first arranged on the lawn, he dug a few trenches, filled them with cement, and stuck the bottom of each in the gray mix. Only the Home Comfort stove lacks an anchor—it’s too heavy to steal away with. “They’d have to get a tow truck,” Shirriel says.
Shirriel says he’s not done putting stuff on the grass—he’s working on acquiring an old plow, and he’s got an old-fashioned cash register that’s going out as soon as he can find someone to help him lift it. But he concedes that sometimes he can feel swallowed by his finds.
“Right now, I’m trying to clean my shed out, because I can’t get in there to find the stuff I need to work with,” he says. “I’ll go out and buy something new—and then see that I already had it in there, but I couldn’t find it.”
But Shirriel insists that the current inventory is pretty pared down—when he moved things from the basement to the outdoors, he broke down and got some of it hauled away. “This isn’t half the stuff. I had to pay $200 to get the salvage yard to take some away,” he sighs. “But trying to save everything—that’s good.”
Every Day is the 14th
Overstock Valentine’s Day items keep dollar stores out of the red.
The Dollar Capital discount store at Georgia Avenue and Morton Street NW is filled with seasonal goods—figurines, wrapping paper, napkins, and other accessories pegged to the celebration of various holidays. On an afternoon in late June, the only items that seem to be in sync with the current month’s sales opportunities are the Mylar balloons with mortarboards and “2004” splashed across their fronts.
This isn’t a Hallmark store or a Party City, where flattened balloons for every occasion are taped to the walls for customers to choose from. There appears to be only one variety to be had here today. Management has taken the liberty of blowing a bunch up and attaching curly ribbons to their tails, so they’re ready to grab and go.
School-aged girls file in and snatch up the floating silver orbs to give to siblings, cousins, friends who’ve just graduated. After calling dibs on balloons, they scan the store for small gifts to go along with them. A couple are drawn to a display of furry white bears holding red synthetic velvet “I Love You” pillows.
A girl who has nabbed one of the last congratulatory baby blimps uses her fingers to fluff the matted fur of one of the bears, then pulls it from its perch with one arm and takes it to the cash register.
Christmas is the holiday most often noted for insipid paraphernalia, which usually doesn’t begin to dry up until after St. Patrick’s Day. Old ladies with lots of storage space have need for 99-cent Santa votives no matter the weather. But Valentine’s Day crap has even more staying power. Area dollar and discount stores have fake roses, heart-shaped balloons, and those pillow-clutching bears stacked up to the rafters.
With limited storage space mostly given over to necessities, it would be difficult for such retailers to keep all the various holiday items in stock. Much easier to buy tons of Valentine’s Day items once a year and convince customers that the bounty exists because the pieces have an indefinite shelf life and are suitable for gift-giving, no matter the occasion.
But resellers insist that the goods have appeal because of the public’s general fondness for anything reminiscent of the day of love. After all, love should be celebrated all year long, right? A giant display of red-and-white gifts may smack of St. Valentine, but who’s to say that a pair of thong underwear decorated with pink and purple hearts can’t be used for a birthday or anniversary, or given “just because”?
Inside Saddle’s 5 & 10 discount store on Alabama Avenue SE, there is plenty of Valentine booty to be had: “I Love You” balloons written in the loopy script that is associated with amour the world over, ceramic bears clutching plastic roses, plush bears clutching plastic roses, plastic wrappers clutching…plastic roses. There’s even a tiny heart-shaped ceramic vase that holds a teeny tiny bouquet. Most of the items can be had for under $10.
Cashier Kenneth Kim maintains that the stuff is multipurpose. “It can be for Mother’s Day, a girl’s birthday present…” He does acknowledge that sales drop off after February. “After Valentine’s Day, it’s really Mother’s Day, and after Mother’s Day, it slows down. After that, really, it’s Christmas.”
But Zahira Rawi, a cashier at Dollar Star on Mount Pleasant Street NW, says the demand seems to be mostly a function of price. “Sometimes they’ll buy something for a birthday: for their mom, their lover,” she says. “They say, ‘OK, for a gift, one dollar is cheap.’”
Kenny Rob drags a red metal two-wheeled hand truck with a cardboard box on top of it through the Metro system five days a week. He takes an escalator down into whichever subway station is first on his list around 9 a.m., and often doesn’t see natural light again until 3 p.m., when his shift is over.
“Once you’re in the system, you’re in the system,” he says.
Rob is a supervisor in charge of sign maintenance for Metrorail. He and his crew make sure that the advertisements for marathons and motion pictures that line the walls of station entryways, or glow in lighted boxes down on the platforms, never direct riders to an event that has passed.
Viacom Outdoor, a contractor of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, handles the advertising for Metro. Viacom relies on J. Perez, Rob’s company, for labor—it makes sure that clients can see their copy put up, and then taken down, in a timely fashion.
“We do buses and rail,” Rob says. “But bus shelters—we don’t do those. But we do bus-stop [schedule] panels. We have one guy doing buses, I’m in charge of the rail, and another young lady does the bus stops.”
The time that an ad is allowed to stay in place usually depends on what a client has paid for. Evergreen ads can remain up from six months to a year, and nonprofit ads, through a public-service program, are guaranteed a month of display. Sometimes they’re left up longer if nothing comes along to replace them. But the time-sensitive ads in Metro’s 83 stations require constant monitoring. “We get a week to get them up and a week to get them down,” Rob says. “But naturally, we do it as soon as possible.”
Down in the bowels of the U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo station, Rob points out a metal wall frame, which currently holds a poster for Will Smith’s I, Robot pasted onto a thick board called a “two-sheet.” Ads like this one aren’t often thrown away when they come down, he explains—they’re shipped off to other cities, reclaimed by the studio, or, in some cases, given away.
“Customers come up—‘Can I have that?’ [Smith’s] a popular guy, so they’ll ask for him,” Rob says. “But I have to go through the proper channels—they may send it to another city. They’ll call down and ask, ‘You have any extra I, Robots?’”
A few frames down is a promotion from television station WB-50 that urges viewers to tune into The Parkers and The Steve Harvey Show for an opportunity to get their bills paid. The date on the sign is hard to spot, but there it is: “April 26 to May 26.” Rob pops out the two-sheet with his screwdriver, but he doesn’t toss it in the trash—he just flips it over, revealing an ad for Fresh Look color contact lenses, and puts it back in place. Rob says that new ads are pasted over old ones on both sides of two-sheets until they are so crammed with glue and paper that they are no longer usable.
“We reuse the boards two to three times until it gets too thick. Then it goes in the trash can,” Rob says.
Ron Rydstrom, Metro’s assistant manager for market development, says that there’s no written policy that ad boards must be recycled, but the practice makes sense. “Obviously, from a cost-savings standpoint, it’s to everyone’s advantage to use back boards as many times as we can,” he notes.
But even if the rationale for reusing materials is to save money, rather than the Earth, Metro recycles a ton of material—the ad boards, newspapers, and even the trains themselves.
Old trains aren’t shipped off to a transit graveyard, but refurbished and put back on the tracks. Raggedy cars are shipped up to Hornell, N.Y., where Alstom Transportation Inc. overhauls them. In 2000, the company was awarded a $382.6 million contract to rehabilitate 364 cars.
“They gut the cars and rebuild them,” says Metro spokesperson Lisa Farbstein of the process. “It’s cheaper than buying new ones, but they have the look of the newer ones.”
The remodeled cars, the first of which were reintroduced into the system in 2003, have the same red-and-blue color scheme as the brand-new cars that were first placed on Green Line tracks in 2001. And, contrary to urban legend, the puke-yellow groups of seating at the ends of both brand-new and refurbished cars are not recycled from older trains—the upholstery is brand-new. In fact, the yellow isn’t even yellow at all.
“It’s Chesapeake Sand,” says Farbstein.
King Discount offers throwback goods at roll-back prices.
The 6-ounce bottle of Jazzing was discontinued in 2000. The 8-ounce bottle got the ax, too. The generous containers of the gentle, “semi-permanent” hair color left a sheer, commitment-free coating on strands—the results washed out in a few shampoos.
The 8-ounce bottle delivered about three applications, but was too bulky and difficult to handle for home use. The smaller hot-pink plastic bottle held only enough shellac for two sessions, but it seemed engineered to fit snugly in the palm of your hand. Its size made it easy to squeeze its contents right onto the hair, leaving the other hand free to work the stuff in.
The big bottles were replaced with a tiny 3-ouncer that has a precision nozzle. The shade selection remains the same—No. 60 Racy Wine and No. 30 Spiced Cognac, among others—but colors are the only choices. The single-application bottle is the only Jazzing to be had—unless you happen to stumble upon the selection at King Discount on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, where owner Steve Choi has the elusive 6-ouncer in stock for $7.99.
“Discontinued,” Choi says proudly as he points to the bottom-shelf hair color display, where the rows of Jazzing shades sit atop a cardboard box. “They only make the small.”
Choi, 47, has been in the discount business for more than a decade—seven years at this store alone. Before King Discount, he ran a Super Discount, and prior to that, a Rainbow Discount—both in Baltimore. A look through the shelves at King reveals many products that appear so ancient that you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they had put in time on the shelves of each of Choi’s locations.
Not that Choi doesn’t introduce new merchandise: Most mornings he rises at 5, drives from his home in Columbia, Md., to hit wholesalers in the District by 6, and then has to unload whatever he’s picked up before opening at 9. Buying big lots of things such as toilet paper, soap, and toothpaste from suppliers and passing on the savings to customers is what makes discount stores profitable, but Choi is committed to offering the obscure alongside the essential.
In the beauty section of the store, there is a cloudy bottle of something called Dryfast concentrated setting lotion. The container is shaped like an emaciated snowman, and about a quarter of its contents have evaporated. The instructions on the back of the bottle say to “shake well” to incorporate the sandy sediment at the bottom into the murky liquid above it, so that it can then be poured into a jug of water and “stand for 24 hours to fully develop.” But shaking does no good. Only after enduring a long soak in a sink of hot water and a few hours trapped in a car on a 90-degree day does “The world’s oldest hair setting lotion since 1929” cooperate and submit to being mixed.
Choi doesn’t say if the bottles followed him down from Baltimore, but he does concede that the lotion isn’t a big seller at King. “In the Baltimore area, this was popular—not in this area,” he says. The item is kept on hand just in case a lady from Charm City might come in and ask for it by name. “Every two months, a customer might want it,” Choi says. The proprietor is dedicated to catering to the whims of his patrons, mostly families who live in the homes and apartments surrounding his Congress Heights operation.
Over on the household side of the huge, crowded store, in an aisle of cleaning products, is a tall, geometric bottle of Crystal White Octagon liquid detergent. The Colgate-Palmolive product is still manufactured, but it’s somewhat elusive—the company claims to have only one store within the city limits that it sends regular shipments to. Choi retains the brand for his customers of advanced age. “The older ladies and men, they know this,” he says, explaining his choice to allow such a little-known product to take up precious shelf space.
Choi seems to have cornered the market in all things discontinued and hard-to-find, but there isn’t much in his establishment that has truly gone bad. The few visibly ruined products—an oozing jar of Isoplus hairdress here, a conditioner without a cap there—can be blamed on customer mishandling as easily as age.
More often than not, it’s just the packaging that’s old. For instance, the Nice ’n Easy hair coloring at King Discount is in a dark-blue box with a different woman’s profile for each color; the product has been through no less than two packaging redesigns since this version graced drugstore shelves. But independent stores can’t absorb the cost of tossing out an entire lot of dye just because a company swaps the model pictured on the box.
“The companies—so many times, they change the product, add something, change the box—they change so many times,” Choi says. “It’s hard to keep up.”
Choi explains his frustration using the example of hair extensions. “There are 25 different hair companies—they all have so many different styles—human and kanekalon hair.” He grabs a package of red-tinted Soft N’ Silky wefts to demonstrate. “This might be the new style—everyone wants it. But in six months, the company makes a new one, so this is slow.”
Choi tosses the hair back into one of the cardboard boxes of tracks that line the aisles. There are bins stuffed with hair in original bags, and, toward the rear of the store, boxes full of hair in small plastic bags, packaged like homemade sandwiches. “In the back, I put the older,” Choi says. “In the front, the newer.”
While customers who are getting on in years tend to shop the back half of the store, younger patrons stick to the front—when they come in they want the latest hair products, fragrance oils, and jewelry, not their grandmother’s dish soap. Choi is expert at meeting the needs of steady, longtime customers, but it’s more difficult to predict the items that the kids will take a liking to.
On a Tuesday afternoon in July, a young woman talking on her cell phone with a headset comes in looking for a new ponytail. Choi has quite an assortment of sample falls hanging on the wall behind the register in the beauty section. The area is being managed by Tim, a part-time employee, while Choi’s wife is visiting her mother in Korea.
While the young woman continues to chat with her phone friend, she spots the ponytail she wants—dark brown, auburn highlights, bouncy but not curly—and says she wants to buy it. Tim yells over to Choi, who is holding down housewares, gets a response, and then looks at the woman and says, “Sorry, discontinued.” And, unlike many other discontinued products in the store, the hairpiece is not stockpiled in back.
Tim tries to show her others, with no luck. “I want this one,” she sighs, sample still in hand. “Why’d they have to discontinue it?” Tim offers to sell her the floor model. “That’s all right,” she laughs.
Power to the Peoples
Old-time drugstore sign gives passers-by a nostalgic high.
The rolling gray trash bin sitting in a service hallway in Southwest’s Waterside Mall is spray-painted with white letters. “RED COATS,” it reads, but it’s filled with long cardboard tubes, broken-down boxes, and packing peanuts. Behind the trash is a pane of glass with a giant “P” logo in blue and red. Across the giant letter are the words “Peoples Drug.” A pharmacist’s mortar and pestle are off to the right, preceded by “the prescription stores.”
Local drugstore chain People’s Drug was taken over by the Rhode Island–based CVS in 1990, but longtime Southwest residents still remember shopping at the branch at 401 M St. SW. A CVS took over the space and carved out a new entrance, around the corner from the old one.
“I remember using that [hallway] entrance once or twice when it was People’s,” says Richard Westbrook, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1964.
The shopping center is slated for a complete redevelopment, to begin sometime next year. In preparation for the project, the Kaempfer Co.—one of the groups tasked with turning the site into the “Waterfront,” an office, retail, and residential complex—took over the property two years ago. But the People’s logo was never disturbed.
“It’s a curiosity,” says Steve Nanney, senior property manager for Waterfront. “Everyone we took on tours of the back of the house, the old D.C. people just stand there and look at it, like they’re going back 30 years ago.” Nanney points out that the logo isn’t in a public area of the mall. It’s in a hallway that used to lead to a parking garage; when the garage closed two years ago, the corridor became an employees-only zone.
“If it was in a public area, we would have gotten rid of it, unless CVS convinced us there was some good in it. Which makes no sense—they’re CVS,” Nanney says. “Most major chains want to de-identify when they move out, and most landlords would want it covered up so doesn’t look vacant, but in this case, it’s off the beaten path.”
The logo’s lucky streak could well run out sometime next year, which is when most of Waterside Mall is scheduled for demolition. Nanney notes that the fact that it’s stuck behind glass presents preservation difficulties, but says if anyone applies to adopt the historic oddity, he’ll see what he can do.
“If someone wants it, it may be possible to let someone have it,” he says. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.