April 25th, 2009

Amid the Swirling Dust

Earlier today I briefly found myself inside a dust devil. Unfortunately, I realized what was happening -- I'd just opened the car door and stepped outside -- too late to close my mouth and inhaled a lot of what I not-so-affectionately call "particulate matter." I soon started having the sort of asthma that makes me feel like a grown man is standing on my chest. The odds are good that I will cough tonight when I should be sleeping.

Strangely, though, this highly unpleasant and typically Tucsonan experience motivated me to make it a dust-themed day. Since I had to go downtown anyway to drop Skylar and her mother off to see the musical Mamma Mia, I decided to stop by the St. Vincent de Paul. While I was in Seattle, I spent time poring through the massive stock of LPs and 78s at Ballard's Bop Street Records. The fun I had reminded me how much fun I have finding treasures in that kind of environment. A thrift store is different, surely. Like Moe's Books in Berkeley back in the day, Bop Street knows what things are worth and prices them accordingly. Because the owner is constantly buying up collections, however, and has a small staff, there's no way that the stock can be properly catalogued. What you find is the product of serendipity, most often coupled with great patience.

The pickings at the St. Vincent de Paul were thin today. I was reminded, comparing today's experience to the time I've spent in Seattle and Bay Area thrift stores over the past decade, that the majority of this area's population is and was culturally -- and frequently also financially -- impoverished. The goods people are willing to give away usually aren't much good. Still, I did find a few things worth taking home: a volume in the Time-Life international cookbook series from the late 1960s that I had yet to acquire, a pretty orange polyester flower print dress for Skylar and a Fodor's travel guide to Germany from 1972 with an Olympic Supplement.

That last item typifies the sort of thing I love to find. Like Walter Benjamin wandering through nineteenth-century arcades made not to last, long after they had passed their prime, I am drawn to material that is either figuratively or, in this case, literally dated. I especially like items that have yet to acquire the aura of the potentially lucrative collectible or which have seen the window of opportunity for such a second life come and go without becoming more valuable. The sort of things, in short, that people give away only because it's easier than finding room for them in the trash or because they can claim them on their taxes.

Even if the items I find in this category aren't worth obtaining -- and my threshhold is pretty low, as you might surmise -- their inert uselessness can still be transformed into knowledge that gives heat. Among the things I learned today are that Polaroid cameras are now turning up in thrift stores like grasshoppers; that the majority of workplace filing cabinets in this town did not meet professional standards of durability; and that a number of local residents who have passed on tried to satisfy their nostalgia for cooler climes with bad oil paintings of birch forests.

More importantly, given my work on music, I was struck by how many duplicates there were in the store's numerous albums full of 78s. In some cases, light classical pieces and famous arias from when opera was still a popular art form -- Puccini from when he was still an active composer, for example -- predominated. In others, Tex Williams and other cowboy-themed songs were in the majority. There were few traces of jazz and none of the foxtrot records that filled bins in the basement of Bop Street.

But there was plenty of dust. Each time I turned the page of one of these albums a little cloud puffed up. I remembered the scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas when the eponymous anti-hero tells the girl who is reluctant to play opposite Pig Pen that she should think of the dust he sheds as historical matter from the ancient Middle East. Particulate matter is the residue of a past we would otherwise only be able to access immaterially. While I'd rather inhale it in measured doses, instead of a single lung-compromising burst, I also don't want to spend my time in a world where every surface has been sanitized.