A friend calls me from Costco. Her voice, unclear as it is on the cell phone, is full of excitement.
“I am at Costco,” she says. “There are these–“
I know what’s coming next. I have been in that situation, at the entrance of my local Costco store, full of something, some possibility that I see in the distance: a new kind of cheese mixture, or jeans thick as sandpaper, or frozen salmon (there are always salmon at Costco) in plastic bags ready to be tossed in the oven—things I certainly don’t need at a price which is so low it would be a sin, or simple stupidity, not to buy it.
Today, it’s hangers. But the clincher is coming—that “B” word.
“Fifty hangers,” she continues. “They are not the cheap, plastic kind. They look stylish, black. Fifty hangers for twenty-dollars. A bargain!”
Of course I don’t need hangers; I have the plastic kind; the wooden Ikea ones someone left behind (or was it me who bought them in a moment of euphoria?); the wire ones even, which I often return to the cleaners down the street from my house. I have a lot of hangers. We all do. It’s our lot to have an abundance of things we don’t really need: pantyhose and skirts and turtle necks and t-shirts from Target and sandals with soles so thick you think you’re walking on hot asphalt, and flip flops that fall apart as soon as your toes hit them, not to mention the vitamins in bulk that end up hiding from our sights although we know that fish oil is very good for our joints; and scores of plastic containers so large we can store our entire household in; and fat pots and pans which sit most of the year in the dark because, let’s face it, we all end up using one or two of our favorite pans though we can spend an outrageous amount on the entire set which could feed the US army in Afghanistan.
“Hangers?” I am hoping for some time to disentangle myself from the allure of her voice, the trap it’s weaving for me.
“I’ll take half and you’ll take half,” she says.
“But I have enough hangers for an institution,” I answer. “I don’t need them.”
“I am buying them anyway. I’ll give you some. I’ll drop them off. It’s a bargain! I gotta go!”
How many hangers can a home accommodate? Or how many of those fashionable vibrant- colored handbags that are so big you need wheels to lug them around? How many is too many of these things that do not lend themselves to much else besides wasting away in the cupboard?
When she drops them later that afternoon, I see that they are indeed nice looking, with a black, leathery sheen, and I suspect they hold the clothes draped on them very well. They’ll do just fine—for the time being. But does this mean I have to change my entire supply of hangers? Does this mean I have to revive my Costco subscription that I let lapse after I bought an entire carton of lettuce and watched the poor vegetables all rot away? (Alas, I don’t compost).
Don’t get me wrong. Though I was never much of a shopper, I know how to shop, how to make food staples go a long way, how to rehabilitate things others had thrown out. In my graduate student days in Iowa City, I would make one poor chicken’s offerings last an entire week; I would bake my own bread, make my own yogurt, boil my own jam, not to mention the cotton diapers which I washed and dried in the living room. (I know, I know. Those were the days when everyone’s noses grew alfalfa sprouts and the allure of food co-ops was as irresistible as sex–well, almost!)
I would re-upholster furniture I found on the street and scrub away the grime from brass pots for plants, not to mention my romance with washing machines. First, the most rudimentary, which was a large round bowl really, with the sole capacity to whirl the soiled washing, but nothing else. No spinning, no nothing. We had to do the rest by hand. Then, a year later, four of our friends carried into our apartment a large, commercial-size washer thrown on the curb of a laundromat, which we would feed with quarters to make it do the work. We used the same quarters for more than a year and then gave them to the washer’s new owners to whom we sold our machine for the price of a hardcover book.
Now, decades of life behind me, I think about such little feats of ingenuity with a mixture of pride and amusement, self-mockery even. I come from the Third World (remember the Third World?), where water is often rationed in the summer, and every scrap—from food to fabric–is put to use and re-use. Such habits last long, and die hard. They are the kinds of attitudes which some of us have carried across our passages from our native countries to these shores where plenty abounds and most of our energies have gone into enterprises which are more exciting than spending sleepless nights thinking of way to breath new life into others’ discards.
The amusement comes from looking back, from having a more mature vantage point and seeing the sweet folly of how we infused, forced meaning and drama into such simple acts as though every turn of that simple washing machine were an act of revolution against the Establishment. (Remember, The Establishment?) Our romances (real ones, not those with washing machines) get the brunt of this backward look: the folly and pathos of it, and, yes, the sweet aftertaste of what remains from the heat of youth’s nights and days.
I digress. Back to these bargains of which my friend speaks, which have nothing to do with the kind of resourcefulness and common sense I speak about. If anything, they are the extreme opposite of the vernacular creativity that turned near-death objects and implements and furniture into gleaming re-makes. For a bargain, if we are to follow the standard meaning (and I do because I am a teacher of writing and a writer; and the standard use is often singular) is something we do unwillingly, often for some gain. A vulgar pact, if you will, though a pact is more classy, more literate.
In its ancient variant, the bargain seals the haggling; it is the language of the bazaars and the souks of my childhood and adolescence. I would accompany my mother as she bought everything from black olives to leaks to beautiful shantung fabric to electrical wires. She did all the buying for our household and did it downtown where the prices were relatively less expensive. And she was a great, great haggler, combining charm, broken Arabic, and severe logic. Invariably, she disarmed the shop-keepers and got her way. But they gave in with relish, and I still remember the huge smile on their faces when we would enter a store, as though they were getting ready for some sort of performance (a comedy no doubt), and to hell with the loss they would incur from my mother histrionics. If there was a bargain involved, it was the shop-keepers who were making it, trading reduced profits for a few minutes of fun and amusement.
Alas, all that kind of everyday haggling is gone now that I am on these shores. I must confess that the first thing I do when I return to the Middle East of my adolescence—to Amman, and Jerusalem, and Damascus, and Beirut—is go to the markets, to test myself, see how well I can do it, now that my mother is no longer alive to go with me. That’s the bargain I know and love for all its laughter and sleaziness and expressivity. And that is very different from the “bargain shopping” for the hangers which are sitting here on my table. And for all their nice sheen, for all the shouting about sales and reduced prices, I am not sure I like what I have bought for what I have given up—inexpensive hangers I don’t need. And we’re not talking about the working conditions of the people who made these hangers in remote places in the world whose names we don’t know, and don’t really care to know so long as TJMax and Costco and WallMart are able to supply our insatiable hunger for things.
Excess, that’s the price we pay for such deals. Excess—not only in hangers, but in food portions. Excess—in sizes of things speakable and unspeakable. Excess—most of all in wanting, in needing these wretched things which we can do without, for sure.
Every time I return to the US after an extended stay in other parts of the world, I go on a throwing-away binge. The last big cleansing of this sort happened when I returned from Yerevan some years ago. I had lived in Armenia for six weeks; it was after the horrific three-year blockade when the country almost broke under the absence of heat, electricity and basic food stuffs. Almost broke, but not quite. The people of Armenia are resilient people who know how to do a lot with very little. I came back and threw away the blender and the food processor and the electric can opener and a host of useless items. After the purge, I had much more space, and less of that violent noise of the food machinery that sounds like a massacre is taking place.
These days I am in the throes of more lightening (downsizing, you could say, if you accept the corporate lingo of our daily life), in the aftermath of my return from Europe, where people do with so much less, and do better than we do, for the most part. But these hangers and the bargain which brought them, along with the stuff I have accumulated over the years, are a reminder that as easy as it seems to fight excess, to resist the bargain, to call things by their name (“eyewear” is glasses, “shopping experience” is going to the store, and “markets” are not the quaint things that come with gentrification), it is hard work, and I have fallen off the narrow path time and time again. But as I look at these poor hangers I know that for all my battles with objects, my surroundings are better, more pleasing, than they were even two years ago; that all bargains carry a heavy price whose pleasures lift neither the heart nor the body. Every once in a while, when I leaf through the Macy’s catalogue, I long for a food processor or a micro-wave oven (no, I don’t have one; yes, perhaps I should buy one) but it passes, and with the passage comes a beautiful feeling of lightness and pleasure of the sort which needs very little. Yes, small joys, worth a lot.
As for these hangers—they are good looking things but I won’t renew my Costco subscription and end up with rotten lettuce again. Still, I need to put nice clothes on them—the hangers, I mean. Off to the consignment store down the street!