The Library Thrift Store

I’ve heard positive comments about the Library Thrift Store. “They have treasures!” “Their prices are reasonable!” “They get new things in every week!”

At the corner of Third and Avenue J, the store does a booming business. In fact, at times it’s so crowded that cars are parked out by the curb and in the empty lot across the street.

I like resale shops and antique stores. If you’ve read Why Stuff Matters, you know that I wrote an entire farcical novel about people and their obsessive regard for stuff. I enjoy pondering provenance. I’m fascinated by the inflated prices stuck on chipped dishes and stained tablecloths. Every time I drove by there I thought—Quick, Jen, get in there before they sell all their stuff!

But before could I stop in for a browse, I became annoyed with the library’s head librarian and was therefore not of a mindset to spend money in their silly shop. Here’s what happened:

My author’s copies of Why Stuff Matters arrived from England. The first thing a writer does at this point is donate a signed copy to the local library. This is what David and I had done with Old Buildings in North Texas, but at that time the head librarian had been out. This time, however, she was there, perched behind the counter. When I explained who I was and offered her my lovely book, she held out a reluctant hand, accepting it as if it carried germs.  

“Thank you,” she said in a tone that lacked conviction. 

“I’m available to speak at one of your Meet the Author events,” I told her. 

I wasn’t comfortable putting myself forward, but in the name of publicity I was willing to climb the barrier. At that point I had prepared a talk that I’ve since given to readers’ groups and writers’ groups, and at several libraries across the state. Discussing inspiration, creativity, style, and editing decisions, it’s humorous and informative. I add readings of the opening chapters and take questions, which is always fun because I can be witty. It’s gone over well. 

“We’re booked up months in advance.” Her words are reasonable but the tone is glum and her eyes don’t meet mine. 

This unspoken negativity is one of my peeves. No without saying no. A slight so slight that only the most perceptive can perceive it. And why the attitude? At the very least a librarian should greet a writer with kindness and encouragement. 

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. 

 I tell her it was nice to meet her and David and I leave the library. 

“Why didn’t you ask her to put you on the schedule on her next open date?” he asks once we’re in the car. 

“If she wanted me she wouldn’t have right away offered an excuse.” 

“You’re too sensitive.”

“I’m just the right amount of sensitive.”

And that brief story is why I’ve been reluctant to support the Library Thrift Store. That was a year ago. That’s how long it’s taken me to get over the callousness of a stranger. 

Wednesday afternoon. Hot midsummer. As usual, the parking lot is full. The nearest space is half a block up the street. I park, get out, and, before entering, take a few photos. What is it about this place that draws such a crowd? I’m about to find out, though I’ve made a guess based on the local demographic. Retirees abound in this part of Texas, which means people are dying all the time. And what do their middle-aged children do with the stuff left behind? Why, they donate it to the local charity shop! Dead people’s stuff. How delightfully morbid. 

It’s not delightful. Out-of-style clothes. Costume jewelry, no gold or diamonds. Shelves of best sellers from the eighties and nineties. Sets of encyclopedias. The framed art is a letdown—prints bought at Kirkland’s, nothing of value, nothing unique. There is absolutely no item here that I haven’t seen a thousand times in similar places.

But I do have some positive things to say. The store is roomy and the overhead lights are bright, lending a sharp clean look. Also, jumble stores usually smell musty, but here someone has taken care that all the clothing is fresh and pressed. And though the framed work might not be quality, it has all been recently dusted. The few items I find that are of interest are priced fairly. So, as these places go, it rates highly on the Waldo resale scale. 

But wait a minute. There’s a slew of people working here. Five gray-haired women behind the long front counter. Three men busy with brooms. Two women wiping surfaces. 

There’s a door at the back that’s posted with a No Entry sign. I go on through to fine another large room. Seven long tables hold mixing bowls, wigs, cowboy boots, waffle irons, and pink flamingos. Stuff covers every surface and climbs up the walls. The room is so cluttered that it’s difficult to separate one item from another. A dozen gabbing people hang out around the tables. In a back corner a space has been cleared and three ironing boards are set up with three women ironing tops, pants, and linens. 

I’ve seen enough. On the way out I don’t come across a single other customer. 

And the mystery of why there are so many cars is solved. All these people who don’t have jobs anymore need something to do and an air-conditioned place to spend their time. Curiosity was eating at me and at least now I know. 

Always crowded, lots of stuff inside.

Always crowded, lots of stuff inside.

These canisters were in good shape and only fifteen dollars. I’ve seen them for three times as much at the antique mall in Burnet.

These canisters were in good shape and only fifteen dollars. I’ve seen them for three times as much at the antique mall in Burnet.

Whatever these cost, they’re not worth it.

Whatever these cost, they’re not worth it.

The Marble Falls Public Library, where I’m not appreciated.

The Marble Falls Public Library, where I’m not appreciated.

Childbirth Empathy

Here’s an excerpt from Sam’s most recent email where he tells about accompanying some friends to an unusual activity, a new trend among the thirty-somethings in Beijing: 

. . . a husband (or anyone else who wants to do it) gets electrodes stuck to his abdomen and is then zapped at different levels to simulate labor pains. The level adjusts from one to ten, where ten is meant to be something approximating actual birth pains. Beth had a great time watching her husband writhe, and Thomas said it was the most painful thing he'd ever experienced. I'm glad Julia isn't interested in such a vindictive way of showing love.

Oh Sam. While I’m sure Julia wouldn’t ordinarily wish unnecessary pain on you, giving birth is hardly an ordinary circumstance. You have no idea what sort of snarling beast a woman in labor can turn into, nor how poorly an otherwise sensible man might comport himself when coming face to face with the primitive creature that is clearly a fraction of the whole. 

Considering Beth’s sadistic pleasure, I’m going to assume that she and Thomas have had a baby in the last year or so. I imagine the whole experience is still fresh in her mind, including the way her husband floundered ineffectually at her bedside as she was wrenched, stretched, and torn. 

How useless he must have felt. But he’s not alone; no man on the planet has a clue. His moon-faced sympathy, befuddled offers of help, and strained encouragement must have all echoed foolishly as they ricocheted off the transcendental barrier formed by her consuming hell.   

When a woman is at her best, her man is at his worst. It’s a balance thing. 

Sam’s tale evokes my own experience and a resulting envy that what is available now was not available when my first son was born. David is the best husband. All he ever wants is for me to be happy. He’s a rock. But at the time it was one mistake after another. 

We all have our stories and I’ll make this brief:

When Curtis was born we were living in Holland. There were no childbirth classes. No one in the hospital, doctors and nurses included, spoke English. David came directly from running a triathlon. He was sweaty, filling the entire room with brackish steam. He’d heard somewhere that breathing was part of the process, so he puffed hot runner’s breath directly into my face for the whole thirty-hour labor. 

It was a weekend and he joked about what a good corporate wife I was. I spent a single night in the hospital and was sent home on Sunday afternoon. By Monday morning I was running a high fever, at which point David began to don his suit and tie, getting ready for work. We actually had a screaming fight about him leaving me, sick and alone with a newborn. He even turned caveman, using the word “hysterics” in the most antiquated chauvinistic sense. What man does that? The best of them, that’s who. David, bewildered and disoriented, suddenly a father, was striving to meet his new responsibility in the only way he knew—by working. 

They say the trauma fades, joining other memories that have been boxed and stored; obviously it’s more a fester than a fade. 

As I said, knowing what I know, if it were possible and if I had it to do over again, I’d hook him up to that labor-simulation contraption so fast that he wouldn’t have time to puff out a single triathlated protest. 

From a woman’s point of view, the advice I’d give a man faced with the upcoming birth of his first child is that if he truly wants to empathize with his wife, and if he wants her to view him as her equal, he should go get those electrodes placed on his abdomen and crank the level up to high. Feel her pain. 

Really, look at the size of that head!

Really, look at the size of that head!

Welcoming Julia

When I tell my cleaning lady that my son, Sam, is engaged, and the situation, which is that Julia is British and working in the US, and that Sam lives and works in China, she becomes concerned about Julia’s status. 

“They must marry within ninety days,” she states authoritatively. 

“I can’t see that happening,” I say. “They live on separate continents. The arrangements will be tricky.”

She becomes agitated, opening and closing her mouth, clearly with something to say, but her English isn’t great. 

“She will be sent from here if they not marry in ninety days.”

Oh. She’s coming at it from what she knows. She’s in the US illegally and must soon leave the country. She married an American in April, likely in an attempt to meet the ninety-day deadline. She knows my son is a lawyer and asks if I will talk to him about an alternative. She desperately wants someone to tell her that her life isn’t fixing to be disrupted. I say I’ll ask Curtis, though he isn’t in the business of telling people what they want to hear. 

If she leaves Texas I will find no one better to do what she does. She fights dirt like a warrior and she sings while she works. She pays no taxes on the puny amount she makes, which I don’t mind. 

I share the woeful news of her pending departure with a friend. 

“You hired an illegal?” Lydia, shocked and indignant. “Why, Jenny, you’re part of the problem!”

“What problem?” 

I see no problem other than Maria having to go away. At least Lydia stands by her principles. She has no cleaner because there is no cleaner to be found who isn’t here without sanction.  

That Maria sees a comparison between Julia and herself is naïve and somewhat poignant. 

And none of this is to the point. It’s just me pondering the lives of two people from different countries and their relationships to the US. One of them is a forty-something Mexican who has no skills other than joyfully cleaning my house. And the other is my future daughter-in-law who has recently received her masters from the Harvard-Kennedy International School and is the Belfer Center’s Research Director on the issue of international cyber policy, specifically focusing on American and Chinese cooperation on the issue. As far as I know, Julia is a British citizen and has no intention of becoming an American, though she’s enjoying her time in the states. 

We went to Boston, yes, to see Julia walk across the stage, but primarily to meet her parents, who are themselves immigrants to the UK from Malaysia. Retired now, Julia’s mother was a midwife and her father was in IT in Plymouth for his working life. These days both of them are dedicated to bringing eastern treatments and remedies to their corner of England, which is timely in that lately old medicines are becoming new medicines and the established western medical culture is opening its mind to holistic concepts. 

Khim and David—yes, another David—Julia’s parents, were friendly and predisposed to like us, as we were them. We love Julia, they love Sam. Getting along was inevitable. David (not my David) seemed reticent, but a conversation with him revealed him to be a thoughtful man who holds his opinions until asked. Khim has an inclusive heart. She possesses no deception, no ulterior motives. As soon as we shake hands she merrily begins to share and probe. Within five minutes we’re merry pals with many things in common. Two family friends accompanied them to Boston—Helen, twenty-five; and Julie, early seventies. 

That these two women would feel comfortable accompanying them to Boston, sitting through a three-hour graduation ceremony, and participating in group activities is a revealing detail about the family Sam is marrying into. Julia’s people meet the world with open arms. I have no friends who would journey across the world with me and applaud my grown child’s accomplishments; nor, frankly, would I welcome the intimacy. But their ease with relationships is something to admire, possibly even aspire to. 

Sam has always been outgoing, comfortable with pretty much everyone, interested rather than judgmental. This sincere openness is something he and Julia have in common. Also, I see in their relationship a “got your back” quality, which is always good. They’re both proactive and ambitious, but also generous. Julia seems more organized than Sam, while Sam is an ideas guy. So, they’re balanced. As to what their future holds, Julia is in Boston for the foreseeable future and Sam intends to extricate himself from his interests in Beijing at some point. This vague plan is so opposite to the way David and I have done things that David becomes jittery just thinking about it. 

“So many uncertainties!” he says.

“Not our concern,” I say. 

My preoccupation is the melancholy that comes from having sons. They say if you have a daughter when she marries you gain a son; and if you have a son when he marries you lose a son. While both sons do a good job of keeping us in the loop, my older son and his wife live three blocks from her parents. And the eventual plan for Sam is that he and Julia will settle in the UK, which is where Julia’s parents are. 

I don’t mean to sound bitter or disappointed; and I’m not. The ultimate goal, always, was for my kids to be happy. But still, there’s a sadness that comes when your children are grown and gone. 

“That’s why you have a dog,” David hollers from the next room as he arrives at this point in the blog. 

And he’s right. I pet Dilly, who’s been sleeping in my lap for an hour, place her gently on the floor, and push away from the computer. 

Julia before graduation. Congratulations, Julia!

Julia before graduation. Congratulations, Julia!

Julia, Sam, Khim, David, Julie, and Helen drove to Niagara Falls. Sam’s license wasn’t up to date so Julia and Helen, both used to right-side driving, took turns behind the wheel. I was beside myself with worry!

Julia, Sam, Khim, David, Julie, and Helen drove to Niagara Falls. Sam’s license wasn’t up to date so Julia and Helen, both used to right-side driving, took turns behind the wheel. I was beside myself with worry!

Julia and her parents, Sam and his parents.

Julia and her parents, Sam and his parents.

The ring. She was giddy, Sam was thrilled.

The ring. She was giddy, Sam was thrilled.

Summer Lunch Program

“Here’s a thing we should do,” David says as he sits behind his computer, gazing at the screen, reading glasses perched.

“What?” It’s feigned interest. The last thing I want to do is something I should do.

“Hand out lunches to kids during the summer.”

It has its appeal. This sounds like a thing we can do together. David has become so busy volunteering in the community that he has little time to do things with me or even to keep up with his responsibilities here at home. On the other hand, I’m protective of my time.

“Are you competing to see who can do the most good works?” I ask with a dubious squint. 

“No.” But he sounds defensive. “Come on, it’ll be fun.”

So he signs us up to attend the mandated orientation meeting. Because this is a federally funded program there are hoops to be jumped through before we can come in contact with food or kids. We expect to hear about these hoops at the meeting. But in actuality what we’re subjected to is the muddlement of two women who take up positions between the flags at the front of a large room and wonder aloud why they’re there and what it is they’re supposed to be communicating. 

To the bewilderment of the potential volunteers, the women mainly talk to each other about what they should be talking about. At one point they discuss different hand-out locations throughout the county and which ones will offer chocolate milk. One of them gives a power point presentation that tells how many children are fed by the program each year and how important it is for kids living below poverty level to have lunch. The pair spends a lot of time apologizing about how we were required to attend this meeting. 

As I said, I value my time and this has been an hour wasted. We exit the building with only the knowledge that we’re required to take and pass two exams—one concerned with food handling and the other in civil rights. We are not told the names of these courses, where to find them, what’ll they cost, or how much time they will consume. 

“I want nothing to do with such a disorganized program,” I say to David. 

The lack of forethought that went into this meeting is appalling. Standing unprepared in front of a group is the stuff of nightmares. Apparently not for these two women. 

“I’ll figure it out,” he says. 

When we get home he emails everybody he knows who might be able to point us to the courses. Eventually he hears back from someone and he sends me two links. 

The food-handling course is geared toward restaurant workers. It teaches the different types of food contaminants, the temperature at which bacteria stops proliferating, how to properly put on rubber gloves, how to wash a dish, how to empty a trash, what to look for when you suspect an insect or rodent infestation. I reiterate: we will be handing out prepackaged sack lunches to children. The food exam takes three hours from my life, hours I could have spent playing spider solitaire or checking out the deals on Zulily. 

The civil rights course and exam isn’t quite as long. It consists of six simple chapters that give rules about being sensitive and treating all people uniformly; except, of course, those with special needs, and them we must treat better while maintaining the illusion that they’re being treated equally. 

Believe it or not, there’s a fine line between treating someone in a wheelchair equally and giving a person in a wheelchair special treatment. As a class, handicapped people seem to want both. 

Civil rights, to sum up: be kind to all, but not overly kind to anyone. I already know this and feel the course to be a waste of my time. An hour and a half. 

I’m to begin my lunch duties tomorrow and have just received a reminder that I must clear a background check before I can take my position behind the sack lunches. This is the first I’ve heard about it, though I suppose it’s best to make sure I’m not a pervert. Will there be time to get this done before tomorrow? I can’t be bothered to care. 

Oh, and the way this project is laid out, David and I will not be doing any of it together. I anticipate a chaotic farce. I agreed to this misadventure during a few fuzzy seconds when I forgot who I am and what I was taught by my father: 

Jennifer, do never volunteer. 

David, scheming to get me involved in good deed doing.

David, scheming to get me involved in good deed doing.

The apartment complex where I’ll be handing out lunches. Though people whisper about it as though it’s a shameful slum, it’s quite pleasant and well-maintained. I don’t get the attitude.

The apartment complex where I’ll be handing out lunches. Though people whisper about it as though it’s a shameful slum, it’s quite pleasant and well-maintained. I don’t get the attitude.

Here’s the other venue for lunches in Marble Falls. Apparently the Boys and Girls Club came close to going broke last year and all the businesses in town rallied around and donated food and funds.

Here’s the other venue for lunches in Marble Falls. Apparently the Boys and Girls Club came close to going broke last year and all the businesses in town rallied around and donated food and funds.