Monday, August 16, 2010

The Guilty Pleasures of a Consignment Shop

I am moving soon to a new condo in South Florida and I need to buy some furniture. As most people who live on the Gold Coast do in such a situation, I decided to check out some consignment shops. These establishments are hardly unique to SoFL but I firmly believe there are more of them per-capita than in any other region of the country. The reason for this is simple and somewhat depressing: the Gold Coast is Death's waiting room.

As one of the undisputed retirement meccas of the nation, Florida has more than its fair-share of people in their "declining years". Obviously this means a plethora of homes full of clothing and furniture that eventually become unneeded by their owners. Much of these items wind up on the selling floor of consignment shops

A few minutes drive from my house is a truly gigantic example of this business. It is stuffed to the gills with... stuff. Bedroom sets, dining tables, living room ensembles, paintings in every style and in every conceivable kind of frame, vases, clocks, sculptures, garden gnomes, desks, lamps, books, magazines, jewelry; all of it sitting rather forlornly far from their owners' intended location.

Not long after I stepped into this surreal environment I began to experience a strangely enjoyable sadness. Towards the back of the store, between an enormous Louis the XVth bed complete with royal blue hangings and a Swedish Modern liquor cabinet, was a wall unit that reeked of particle board and faux Mediteranean pretensions. Upon its terminally 1970s shelves were a series of neatly stacked boxes that I recognized immediately.

"Reel-to-reel tapes!! I haven't seen one of these in decades."

I pulled one of the boxes and opened it up.


Inside was a 7 inch Sony reel in mint condition. Taped to the interior back of the box was an index card with neat writing on it listing the items that had been recorded onto the reel. It listed a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, the soundtrack from some television program and a recording of a Broadway show LP (that's a vinyl record for those born after 1980).

Home recording in the 1960s and 70s was an expensive and onerous procedure largely pursued by those who were once called "audiophiles". Undoubtedly, the man who had owned this collection (there is no possibility, given the time period and its social mores, that it belonged to a woman) had the interest, time and resources to pursue this hobby with seriousness and dedication. So why did he give them up? I doubt that he surrendered the collection because he bought an iPod. No, I'm afraid the decision wasn't his but rather his next of kin.

I wondered, as I replaced the box, whether he ever thought his precious collection would wind up lost amid the detritus of thousands of other anonymous donors when he was painstakingly cataloging his collection? And if he had, would he have continued doing so?

I continued walking amongst the cacophony of items, every one of them with a prominent price tag dangling from it, wondering about the lives and eventual fate of those who had once owned them. I could no longer look at them as commodities for sale; all I could see were incoherent fragments of people's lives. Most poignant were the enormous and expensive bedroom and living room sets, once proudly displayed as symbols of wealth and success, now too out-of-fashion to be of interest to those with houses large enough to hold them, and too massive for the modest homes of those looking for a bargain.

I was thoroughly enjoying myself, lost in delicious thoughts of other people's mortality and the ultimate futility of their energy and effort, when The Lecture started. Whenever I'm behaving badly and enjoying it too much this voice starts up in my head. Freud would say that's my superego talking. It was called my conscience in a more innocent age. I prefer to call it Mr. Nanny.

Dan, you know what you're doing right now, don't you?

I'm enjoying myself, that's what I'm doing.

Don't be coy. You're having a heck of an attack of schadenfreude.

Well, how bad could that be? Any time a German word is needed to describe a state of being, we're probably talking about something very profound.

I'm afraid not. You only use it to impress other people with your erudition. It's meaning is hardly complimentary since it describes the pleasure someone gets from the misfortunes of others.

Oh, lighten up already!! I'm not really enjoying myself. I'm just kinda feeling good because this store reminds me that everyone winds up in the same place eventually, regardless of their lot in life. It just reassuring to know I'm not the only one.

That's still schadenfreude!!

So what? You know why the Germans came up with a name for this feeling? Because so many people have it. I'm in great company.

Just because it's common doesn't make it right. Isn't there a more enlightened moral you could learn from this place?

Of course.

Like what?

Like changing my will to force my heirs to hold onto my stuff.

I don't think you get my point.

Or at least making them bury it with me like the Egyptians did.

What about realizing that having things isn't quite as important as you think it is?

Are you nuts?? The only mistake these losers made was in not buying enough. Their things got so old nobody wanted them anymore. The moral is redecorate every five years.

You might not feel this way when your turn actually comes. Then you might have some regrets that you didn't value your time more than the process of acquisition.

What are you, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come??? You know, I'd have a schadenfreude orgasm if some misfortune would befall you at this moment, so why don't you just shut up for awhile?

I forced myself to concentrate on some truly horrendous imitation Baroque paintings nearby which terminated The Lecture, at least for the moment.

Is it really schadenfreude when you don't know whose troubles you're enjoying and when you might be making up the misfortune in the first place?

Doubts about my innocence crowded in on me. Mr. Nanny had clearly done his job: I immediately vowed to reform as I resumed strolling around the store.

Then I came upon a prominently displayed desk of enormous size that clearly had graced the Executive Suite of some medium sized company in the 1940s.

One day he's the boss of 400 employees. The next he's getting his veins filled with formaldehyde. Easy come, easy go.

God I love shopping!!!