Ventura, Calif., the Patent Office — In 1878 an eccentric English preacher hit upon the idea of wedding spiritual evangelism and social reform to the uniforms, insignia and command structure of a paramilitary organization, and the Salvation Army was born. Within a few years, it had beachheads in Australia, the United States, Canada, Australia, France, Switzerland, India, South Africa and Iceland. It began collecting refuse in handcarts, introducing its trademark pairing of salvation of souls with salvage of goods, and the following century saw it became one of our nation’s first and biggest chain stores. Its Santa-with-red-kettle fundraising campaigns became an iconic part of Christmas in America. So far, so good. But then in the Christmas season of 1988, the Salvation Army marched into our neighborhood and opened a store around the corner. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s when the whole project — whatever its many accomplishments and good intentions — went to hell.
“Don’t you dare even look into that filthy store,” my mother warned us. “Just close your eyes as you pass it.” An obedient son might well have been killed crossing the street, since there were similar strictures against looking at the liquor store next door, which stocked pornographic magazines in plain view of innocents, and at the pizza parlor across the way, which lured them in with video games.
I found this filthy new store almost as wonderful as pornography. I was going through my first David Bowie phase and soon came home in crotch-tight bell bottoms and a red, white and blue leather vest with “Cockpit lips” spelled out in metal studs. Mom demanded the pants be disinfected — I’d “catch AIDS” if they weren’t, she said — and turned the vest into a chew toy for the family dogs. Ignorant theories abounded in those years about the genesis and transmission of AIDS, and my mother’s had the virtue of being neither racist nor homophobic but merely classist. What people did behind closed doors was their own business. But public contact with the unwashed masses? Hoo-boy, watch out. The suburbs were suburban for a reason.
It turns out such fears have an impressive pedigree. In a study last year, “Philanthropic Capitalism and the Rise of American Thrift Stores,” Jennifer Le Zotte charts the American thrift store’s centurylong trajectory toward respectability. She cites as representative of fin de siècle social attitudes an 1884 story in The Saturday Evening Post about a debutante who defies family counsel against “second-hand gentility,” buys a gown from a secondhand shop, contracts smallpox from it and proceeds to infect her whole household. The gown is “buried three feet deep, at the end of the garden”; the girl is left “scarred, seamed, hideous to look upon, with not a vestige of the roses and the lilies which had bloomed of old upon her cheeks and lips.” Hipsters beware! You get what you pay for.
When I read that story and Le Zotte’s essay, I realized that this trajectory was repeated, in microcosm, over the course of about 18 months in the Brown house in the early 1990s. I can’t remember the exact moment when my mom first skulked into the house with some Waterford crystal or the first of her 100 sets of English silver. But it was probably around the time she dropped the epithet “that filthy store,” and started calling it “Sal’s.”
She's gonna pop some tags
It began with glasses, table settings, tchotchkes, clay vases, giant blue ceramic pots filled with marbles. The trickle of loot became a stream, the stream a bankless, unnaturally swollen river, chunky with anonymous belongings, like you see in disaster footage — a wrought-iron quilt rack, a creepy stuffed W.C. Fields doll, rustic hacienda bookcases, a 12-foot-long church pew, hundreds of coffee-table books, a gun cabinet, leaning towers of Dalton and Wedgwood china.
Ultimately she ran out of places, even odd ones. Surfaces were stacked, beds covered with cigar boxes and jewelry cases, and the washer and dryer buried in mason jars filled with miscellany. The dishwasher was filled with wicker baskets full of plate sets. Mirrors and medicine cabinets were stripped from the bathrooms, creating recessed niches ideal for abstract dioramas — a metal bird, a Persian bath tile, a glass flower. Joseph Cornell would have been intrigued. My brother and I, on the other hand, found it difficult to shave.
My mother's snobbery against secondhand gentility evolved into a fierce opposition to consumerism and disposability.
Viktor Shklovsky famously said of Leo Tolstoy that his genius lay in taking the familiar and making it strange. By that standard, my mother was the Tolstoy of interior decorators. Where books should have been, there were cereal boxes. Where cereal might have been, there were photographic slides, martini glasses and bulk laundry detergent. Where family pictures once stood, there were now portraits of strangers. A reading nook beckoned, but there was no way to get to it. Three of the four doors into the house were now blocked, and a freestanding solid-oak door in the middle of the garden looked like a portal into thin air. It is a deeply unnerving thing, to become a stranger in your own childhood home.
That sense of estrangement may have been part of the idea, because what began as hoarding became something else, particularly when I, the last of four, left for college. The empty nest was now an orphanage for abandoned objects. The snobbery against secondhand gentility had evolved into its opposite, a fierce opposition to consumerism and disposability. It was a moral imperative: These were her treasures, all the more precious for being undervalued by others.
But at a certain point, anti-consumerism begins to look very like insatiable consumerism. My mother knew the entire staff at the Salvation Army store by name. At Christmastime she moved through the store like Ray Liotta through the Copacabana in “Goodfellas,” pressing fresh banknotes into the palms of all. Almost daily she would walk in and, with hands on hips, bellow, “Gentlemen! Show me what’s new!”
My father, meanwhile, set up ground rules. New acquisitions had to be small enough to be brought in without a crew, discreet enough to be placed without new disruption or blockage, and it all had to be done while he was out. He knew he couldn’t quash her hobby, but he hoped to minimize the psychological impact on him.
One evening he came home and found her sprawled on the ground in the courtyard, pinned to a tree trunk by a large Japanese teak armchair.
“Oh, good, Bob, you’re home,” she said airily. “You can help me with this.”
Too many Santas
Even the greatest of empires eventually declines. In this case, it began with my father’s illness. The medical and hospice teams demanded that a path be cleared through the vegetation. My mother silently assented. It was as if a spell had lifted: Once one thing had gone, others could follow. When he died, the doors of the secret garden flew open, and there was a purge.
For several months she didn’t return to the store. She’d walk past it but didn’t dare look in. The first Christmas after his death, though, she went in to do the rounds and, after that, she began stopping by weekly. A steady stream of goods back into the Brown house resumed.
Then a week before Christmas this year, we were burglarized. My mom walked into the house and saw a large fat man carrying three stuffed sacks waddle past her to the front door. She followed him outside, remonstrating with him, and then grabbed hold of his arm and shoved him into the front gate, watched his knees buckle and listened with satisfaction to the crash of her precious china.
I swear to God, reader, I didn’t pay poor fat bad Santa to rob our house. But I’ll admit this: My mother insists that my dad visits her regularly — sometimes as a wind or a rustling in the trees, often as a particularly persistent yellow butterfly — and I can’t help wondering if this was one of his incarnations, an answer not to her prayers but ours.
At any rate, I couldn’t match my mother’s high spirits when another fat Santa, this one in a police uniform, knocked on the door the other day and announced that the burglar had been arrested and a great deal of loot recovered. Could she go down to the station to identify it? Oh, she could, officer. She called from the station, incoherent with joy. It was all there. She’d be home in 10 minutes, and we could celebrate. I poured myself a strong drink and waited. It was two hours before she got back. She’d stopped off at Sal’s, you see, to say hello to her friends and to find out what was new.