With D.C.’s economy booming, the market in cast-offs has never been better.
The mysterious hieroglyphics that decorate one slightly battered bedroom set may some day perplex 21st-century scholars. Fred Udemba, however, has it all figured it. His own theory of the ensemble, with its flat surfaces and its faux-pigskin veneer, is as precise as that of any pith-helmeted archaeologist.
“You have the entire story of the NFL here,” explains Udemba, the artifact’s current curator. Udemba meticulously points out that the set’s particle-board desk, chair, chest, bureau, and bed boards are rimmed with tiny carved glyphs that honor the teams of the National Football League. After a fashion, it’s reminiscent of ancient tablets celebrating the exploits of Mayan King Yax-Pac and Curl Snout of Tikal.
On a hot afternoon in the dimly lit recesses of his own kingdom—14th Street’s Ultimate Value Thrift Store—owner-manager Udemba’s forefinger traces the graven symbols of the Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles, Cincinnati Bengals, and the rest until he locates the tiny Panther head that, for him, was the key glyph that cracked the set’s code.
“See?” Udemba says triumphantly. “The Panthers didn’t exist until the 1990s. So you know it wasn’t made before that.”
Thrift stores are like that: the perfect place to study the anthropology of five years ago—of those lost days of antiquity when Georgetown University 1994 intramural basketball T-shirts and “Whoop! There It Is!” caps clothed the lowly people of the land. And according to Udemba and a handful of his fellow merchants/accidental archivists, this is a phenomenal time to be studying. With the national economy booming, people aren’t jettisoning just their moth-eaten ’70s gear. Take a peek through his shop and you’ll find the artifacts of a country rich enough to jettison icons as recent as Spuds McKenzie and the Macarena without so much as a second thought.
“One walk through our storeroom downstairs tells you we are definitely a material culture,” says Davis Memorial Goodwill Industries spokesperson Chris Falk, who attributes a recent explosion in thrift donations largely to a strong economy. “People are buying more new goods and making room for them by getting rid of things. Plus, they’re becoming aware of the tax benefits of charitable donations.”
And with the good times, the velocity of the jettisoning has only increased. Sure, Goodwill can point to big, fancy donations like the 1949 Packard or unopened World War II-vintage scotch bottle it recently inherited. But what’s really remarkable is not the old items so much as the new ones. “We’ve noticed an influx in the last year or so,” says Tobey Cohen, president of the Montgomery County Thrift Shop in Bethesda. “I don’t know whether it’s that people are moving or that there’s so much disposable income. But we’ve also had a decrease in our customer base.”
“I don’t know where it’s coming from,” adds a mystified Floyd Bennett, manager of the Langley Park Salvation Army store. One glance, though, and the answer is clear: It’s coming from 1997 summer softball leagues and 1994 Redskins tailgate parties and 1996 movie crazes (“ID4”), the suddenly fossilized detritus of a wildly accelerating culture.
Imagine a consignment shop somewhere near the outskirts of Angkor Wat, shortly before the kingdom fell but centuries before the antiquarians arrived to cart the stuff off and call it splendor. That’s kind of what D.C.’s thrift stores feel like during this final summer of the American Century. Besides Udemba’s NFL Rosetta bedroom set—priced at $200 but probably negotiable—the secondhand domain is stocked with recent necessities ranging from a PBS-series-inspired edition of late philosopher Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth to a fire-engine-red DDT-era “suburban power sprayer.”
In the wings of the Georgia Avenue Thrift Store Center on Georgia Avenue, Nyoka Cochran permits a reporter a glimpse of donations pouring in. “We get everything from the kitchen sink to whatever,” says Cochran, regional manager for a number of local Amvets thrift stores, including this one. “The hardest part is, because we get so much, we want to make sure not a lot of rags hit the floor.”
As Cochran speaks, a “Nirvana In Utero Concert Tour 93-94” T-shirt emerges from the piles of items being sorted by employees. It may or may not join the “Hard Rock Cafe Cancun” shirt already on the racks. And for students of society’s rituals, there’s the line of wedding dresses strung high above that wait hopefully for future brides not quite ready for Priscilla’s of Boston. What would prompt someone to donate her wedding dress to a thrift store? Bitter divorce? Emotional catharsis? “You know, I could never figure that out,” admits Cochran, gazing up at the row of beaded confections waiting for the altar.
Less forlorn is the Bart Simpson sleeping bag adorning a nearby hanger. Once upon a time, TV fans had to wait for a show to hit reruns before they could find its souvenirs on secondhand racks. Not any longer. “Sleeping’s for wimps,” snarls sleeping-bag Bart, whose ubiquitous face decorated so much fabric and plastic in the late ’80s. Historians may someday forget young Simpson’s incarnation as the voice of youthful dissent in the early Bush administration. Bart’s attitude problem even spurred an ACLU-style battle, when some distant school district decided to ban a subversive Bart T-shirt proclaiming its wearer to be an “underachiever.”
Like Georgia Avenue’s Bart, there’s much other Bush-era detritus cramming the bins of Goodwill’s “central processing area.” Like the zany “Poverty Sucks” poster, which features a helmeted 30-something guy in polo garb who sports a cigarette holder as he leans against the gleaming hood of a Bentley with the Health, Education, and Welfare office door in the background. Hilarious.
Of course, the junk that ever-larger numbers of Americans are discarding goes farther back than the Bush administration, too. But who wants to mess with an unopened shoebox-sized cardboard mailer dated 1972 containing an unassembled plastic model of the Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter when you can get barely read instructional books like Procomm Plus and 2nd Edition MS-DOS User’s Guide and Using AppleWorks, 2nd Edition. Amidst the electronics, you’ll have to look pretty hard to find a black-and-white TV, but Night Court-era Sonys seem to line every aisle.
Likewise, Eisenhower-era TV trays are rare and kitschy, but the fitness gizmos that were the stuff of early-’90s infomercials are piling up. Maybe it’s evidence that ’90s America doesn’t tone its Fresh Fields-engorged tummies anymore. Or maybe it’s just that donors have moved on to newer and higher-tech Abdomenizers. “We’re recently getting lots of exercise equipment,” says Cochran, pointing to a lineup of discarded stationary bikes and treadmills up for grabs in the back of Georgia Avenue Thrift.
These days, even graves are subject to donation when their owners go up-market. Of course, that process can be tricky. “It’s difficult to sell a final resting place,” Falk says. For this reason, Goodwill has begun to accept donations of cemetery lots—the burial spots discarded by folks suddenly in the mood for something grander, or less formal, or more Californian. In turn, Goodwill donates the unwanted plots to the District of Columbia for the burial of indigents. “Our referrals often come from cemetery caretakers,” Falk says. CP