Every few days I find myself panicking. It’s the kind of panicking that has its roots in a sense of growing inadequacy which, in turn, derives from a fear of continuing to miss out. What has happened in those few days is that I haven’t made it back to one or more of my dear Housing Works Thrift Stores! My voluminous experience there tells me the stores’ clothing and shoe racks shouldn’t quite turn over that fast; that I need to just chill out. But the exciting vision of older old pieces having been supplanted by a just-unpacked load of newer old stuff en masse overnight isn’t quite the lure here. Instead, the dream (that’s right, DRRREAMMM!) is diligently hunting through racks of the already-seen and then victoriously spotting something previously unseen, something that makes me go, Yessss!, before I snatch it away in an instant and start praying it’ll fit me as I sprint away to the fitting room. Something which then impossibly fits just right and looks so incredibly good and the pending ownership of which makes me go wander about the store in a daze, like a sleepwalker, bumping into things and crashing into people. A piece of clothing like that pair of brand-new Topman purple skinny trousers ($20), or the torso-hugging white shirt with pink stripes and rather deep shirttails from Zara ($35), or that jacket with epaulets which has since vicariously deposited me in the ranks of some of history’s greatest warriors by earning itself such nicknames from amused gawkers as the Viking or the Genghis Khan Jacket ($30); all bought on separate visits here!
The essentially capricious nature of thrift stores in general demands an on-your-toes readiness on part of a recycled clothing aficionado. You never know when that dude from Chelsea will drop off his hand-me-downs on his way to Fire Island. But you do know he sure as hell will! Best to light out for a little Housing Works Thrift Store action whenever you have the time which, to me, it seems is always there.
On this particular day of panicking bearable no more, I leave my current place of stay, in East Harlem, finally forsake public transportation on 9th Ave. at 42nd St., and start walking up to 49th, where the Hell’s Kitchen Housing Works is located. Soon, on the same side of the avenue as I am, a boldly lettered sign announcing the Thai restaurant below it stands out:YUM YUM. I find the name to be memorably catchy and, presumably conveying the restaurant’s claim to delicious cooking, simply yet doubly to the point. Unless it’s a pun - the dish of Tom Yum soup is a popular presence on all Thai menus in America - in which case one can say the restaurant’s name is quite clever, too!
And so northward I continue. Then one moment I go in the thrift store and the next I emerge empty-handed from it. It’s a small store and smaller even for men.
And even smaller for small men! And even smaller for not-very-tall men! A guy learns to resign himself to the unfairness of it all pretty fast. What adds insult to injury, however, is finding some woman wrestling with you for a piece of the miniature men’s-section pie! “EXCUSE ME!,” she cries. “And WHAT THE FUCK are you doing here in the first place?,” I want to say. I can’t speculate who she is shopping for - herself?, her absent boyfriend?, an anthropomorphous pet? - but I can attest this kind of distaff trespassing isn’t uncommon.
Momentarily depressed, I now find myself hopefully heading down to another Housing Works store, this one in Chelsea, on 17th Street between 7th and 6th Avenues, and almost kitty-corner from Rubin Museum of Art. Their men’s collection is bigger, thankfully! Lots of pants hanging close together in a large square. But I’ve my own method of going through them all in no time, my own way of separating the wheat from the chaff, the gold from the dirt, the Versace from the Old Navy - pull a pair out a bit to the side, take one quick look at the waist and another at the cuffs, and I know they’re not for me! They won’t fit me or if they’ll I think they won’t make me look taller. Only when they seem to do both do I move on to check their style, color, brand, country of origin, and price. But no need for that extra discrimination today. I am out of luck. The store’s out of gold!
Subconsciously I’ve been saving my favorite Housing Works for the very last. This is the store where I’ve scored most of the Housing Works loot that now nearly constitutes most of my wardrobe. And it’s where I was introduced to this citywide network of not-for-profit thrift stores. I am speaking of the Housing Works on 10th Street between Bleecker and Hudson Streets, in West Village. Luckily it also makes sense where logistics are concerned: the store is to the south of the one in Chelsea, which is on my way down to it from the one in Hell’s Kitchen, where I started my sensible westside-only second-hand clothes shopping expedition today. (Across Manhattan, there are ten of these stores in all, besides the two in Brooklyn, and ideally I’d like to make a clean sweep through the entire dozen for complete satisfaction.) But not just clothes, shoes, too! In fact, the one big way in which the West Village store sets itself apart from the other Housing Works stores is with help from its interesting and chic shoe selection - I once scooped up a pair of salmon-color crafted-in-Switzerland suede shoes for 3 dollars - versus the others’ usually commonplace and lifeless footwear selection. After a futile beginning in Hell’s Kitchen followed by a desperate interlude in Chelsea I am now hoping for a happy ending in the Village to restore my spirits!
Here I can employ my quick eye once again and make short work of the scouring process. Instead, I find myself going around scanning as if in slow motion, not sure whether I am trying to postpone the heartbreaking culmination of a luckless day or savor the anticipation before tripping over the mother of all thrift store finds! Third time in a row I score nada! The three-damn-stores-and-not-ONE-fucking-thing feeling is now there but it’s short-lived. I think I know why. I get the answer when I dig deeper inside me. Mostly I am now content since I got to check the stores out for myself. See, nothing here, why all that panic! The other thing about me is that I am a minimalist. I hate accumulating stuff. I like to live light. Somewhere in my mind (and heart) I am secretly happy! Happy that I’ve held out on buying until my next visit here, very soon, maybe even in this week again, and for nothing short of spectacular!
I could use a meal now and I walk over to the “100% Vegetarian” Punjabi Deli on Houston St. near Avenue A. In the Deli’s ultra-skinny passageway, which also serves as a stand-up eating space, I see its staunch mix of clientele - Sikh cab drivers and downtown hipsters - milling around. I just never get it why, at least whenever I am here, the otherwise alert and curious foodie hipster should almost always order white rice over the other option of whole wheat flat bread to go with his or her vegetables. After a satisfying meal that includes the most palatable (and even desirable) preparation of spinach of any world cuisine that I know of I start making my way over west to catch the M103 bus going home, uptown. The random combination of streets and avenues that I wander along to get to anywhere on 3rd Avenue brings me to 3rd Street, where I pause to look up at another boldly lettered food place name, struck by its similarity with the one I saw earlier in the day! That one advertised Thai food while this one is inviting passersby to enter it from just around the corner on 2nd Ave. and try some of its falafel. That one was YUM YUM. This one, several avenues east and several dozen streets to the south, is YEM YEM! What bizarre coincidence that I started my day outside at YUM YUM and am now ending it at YEM YEM!! Shouldn’t I be recording this bizarre coincidence in photographs and then reporting it on my blog?
As I click a few shots of the sign a youngish-looking man gently approaches me. He asks me if I can help him out with some change. I reply that I am sorry but I’ve none. He lets it go easily but he remains at my side. He then asks me whether I am a tourist. I tell him that I actually live here. “You live here in the East Village?,” he asks. Now if it were a pretty downtown girl who had just asked me this it would have given me the perfect excuse to launch into a little personal residential history, telling her that, yes, as a matter of fact at one point I did live here, in the East Village, and for no less than three years, my longest stay in one place in New York! “Yeah, I was living in a studio on 12th and 3rd”, I’d slip in, seeming to just fill in the details while affecting sincerity. For revealing first such a hip and cozy piece of biography from my past would then make me feel not so uncomfortable following it with my courtesy-required current situation. But do I really need to impress him?
“No, I meant here in the city, I live in East Harlem”, I clarify. The stranger who has just accosted me for money must obviously be down on his luck himself. It could only help to parade my East Harlem residency before him and, if need be, a series of dramatic-sounding details such as, Oh, I’ve been crashing at a friend’s studio, sleeping on a couch that’s wrapped in plastic drop cloth - just to keep any possible bed bugs away; he might then take me to be not that much better off than himself and therefore maybe even feel a little better about himself, not to mention not resent my denial of charity. But his speech doesn’t suggest much capacity for ill will nor does his manner threaten any violence. In fact, he doesn’t appear at all like your typical New York panhandler: he doesn’t talk like crazy, he doesn’t move like crazy, neither does he wear crazy things nor smells crazy! And unlike others in his line of work he doesn’t bother to swiftly move on and solicit the next person he sees after he is done trying shaking me down.
I quickly grow at ease around him. Since I can detect an accent and also because I would like to oblige him with more conversation I ask him where’s he from. “Ivory Coast,” he replies. “Abidjan?, ” I promptly ask. This is a very peculiarly Indian thing to do! We like to show off our knowledge of other people’s far-flung lands in order to ingratiate ourselves with them. And it actually might work if our knowledge wasn’t always only restricted to banal bits of geographical or political trivia. You know, things we could easily pick up from maps and newspapers growing up, without having to leave home, without our families having the resources to visit other countries? You are the Tamale Woman on 116th and Third and I cheerfully ask you where you’re from and you cheerfully answer me back, Bolivia! Like to take a guess what reflexively zooms past my open mouth? Lake Titicaca!! You are my friend visiting from India and we go to chill together in Sheep Meadow in Central Park one afternoon and find ourselves sitting near a large circle of boisterous teenagers who volunteer to loudly inform us that they’re from Venezuela, want to know what my friend throws back at them, equally loudly? HUGO CHAVEZ!!
“Oh, you know!” My impromptu company at 3rd Street seems impressed, though. “I am from India,” I say to him. We swap our respective durations of stay so far in this country. He tells me he lives just up the street, right before the block ends at the next avenue over, in a shelter. Finally, we part, without promising to see each other again. I mosey over to 4th Street. Lots of people circulating, or standing in a line, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Turns out it’s New York International Fringe Festival time, again. Every year at this time I am painfully reminded of not having done anything in the intervening months to meet my resolve from last year of putting up a one-person show at the next Fringe.