Tuesday, May 27, 2008

st. vincent de paul, savior of man

Something's been off these last few days and I haven't been my walking-on-the-sunny-side self. I've been rippled and agitated, like people are throwing rocks to upset my surface. And the well of stillness down below? The one Tolle talks about? I can't seem to access that. It's like it's been roped off from me.

This state of flux is kicking my ass.

Make friends with uncertainty, says Tolle.

I mean damn, says I. Me and uncertainty go all the way back. You even need a break from friends you like. I want uncertainty to take a trip, starting right now today. I want him to go anywhere I'm not. I want him to love it there. I want him to decide to buy a house and put down roots.

Just leave me alone, uncertainty. You've upturned my picnic long enough.

Now that I've gotten that said, I want to talk about one place where I always feel at home, never leave empty handed, and know I am loved.

St. Vincent de Paul's thrift store. Not just any old St. Vincent de Paul's thrift store, but mine, the one on Washington Street in Toledo.

I started going back in 9th grade, when I was living in the uncertainty of the Port Lawrence housing projects down the block. I'd become hard for my mother to manage (not that she was trying much), and I'd gone to live, for the first and only time in my life, with my father. My father had married Blanche by then. They were raising two of her children, my sisters, from her previous marriage (her other two, my brothers, were with their father), and together they'd had my baby brother, Aladdin. Unless you count the drugs, the poverty, and the prostitution, the six of us did okay. That might sound sarcastic, or even ridiculous, but while those things were a large part of our lives, due to my parents' choices, they weren't the things that caught my focus every day. It was only a matter of months before my mother took me back, but while I was with my father I had the usual concerns of a 9th grade girl -- boys -- and of an eldest sibling -- looking after my sisters and brother (while scheming up ways to spend less time doing that and more time with boys). And it wasn't like I wasn't accustomed to drug addiction. My mother had it worse than my father.

With drug use comes an insidious form of neglect. My parents, all three, were around but not around, and even when the hustles that kept them absent paid off financially, the money went right back into the family business. Regardless, my mother was a southern girl and hardly messed around when it came to food. But in living with my father, this lack of money meant eating lots of egg salad sandwiches on white bread, deviled eggs when we didn't have bread, and just plain boiled eggs when we didn't have bread or whatever generic brand of Miracle Whip. This is what my sisters and I remember the most, eggs. If I'd stayed with them any longer, I would've been ruined for eggs forever.

It also meant that I couldn't keep up with the Rita and Pams of the world. Rita and Pam were the queens of my high school, firmly established as such by the time we hit the second week of classes freshman year. I could live with this. I hadn't emerged from a pool of popularity out of junior high. They had.

The one thing that pained me, two things, actually, were their Gloria Vanderbilt designer jeans, and their authentic Bass leather penny loafers. These irked me more than all the drugs and egg sandwiches and prostitution on earth.

There was no way I could compete with such symbols of prosperity. Every time I looked at Rita and Pam in their nouveau preppy outfits, I knew that their parents had good jobs, put them first in family life, and worst of all, spoiled them rotten. I would've hated them, but I wanted too desperately for them to like me.

When the school gave out vouchers to poor kids, I knew what I wanted to buy with mine. Unfortunately, the voucher wasn't enough to cover them, plus it relegated me to shopping at Picway Shoes (now commonly known as the more fashion forward Payless). So my father took me there, and I got the most pathetic pair of penny loafers your eyes have ever seen. To call them pleather would be an upgrade. When I bought them, I knew they couldn't compete with Bass loafers, but I didn't know how truly horrible they were until I wore them to school and compared my feet to Rita and Pam's. (I mean to use them as a single unit here, Rita and Pam's, rather than Rita's and Pam's, as they still appear to me as one entity, sharing feet and everything else.) Their loafers were crisp, rich in mahogany brown, and expertly stitched, with sturdy heels providing lots of cushion and support for the long walk through life. What's more, Rita and Pam had upgraded from pennies to dimes. The eyes on my loafers were too wide and flimsy to hold dimes, and the shiny pennies I'd placed just so in them appeared worth more than the shoes themselves. In fact, the coins seemed to mock the shoes, which within a few weeks buckled under the weight of the taunting and began to come apart at the seams.

My Picway penny loafers made me see that it would never be RitaPamandCarla's world. They signaled to me that I needed to go and find a world of my own, or lose myself in comparison, and in longing for things I couldn't have and only wanted because other people did.

But I was 14, and the lesson didn't hit me the way it would now. Instead, what I got was: Go secondhand, young lady. It wasn't vintage then. It wasn't even thrift. It was hand-me-down. It was used. It was old. It was what I could afford. And St. Vincent de Paul was full of it, especially when it came to shoes.

Around St. Vincent de Paul's shoe section I developed an entire "look." Let's call it classic secretary. Vintage 50s pumps could often be found there. A blue pair that I will never forget sparked numerous navy and white pairings -- a white blouse with navy piping worn with navy slacks; a navy and white diagonally striped dolman sleeved sweater worn with the same slacks, or with a navy skirt to mix things up. Navy or white tights to polish the look. Everything topped off by my navy pumps. I wish I had a picture of them. Once I got into this look there was no stopping me. I went crazy for pumps, from St. Vincent de Paul and elsewhere, and tights and pencil skirts and blouses were my best friends. No one else dressed this way (Who would've wanted to?), leaving me in a class by myself. I looked like I was out of school and working already, which implied an element of direction and ambition that I didn't have, but liked to look like I did.

Here are some pictures of things I bought/saw when I was home last month. My interests have changed, and St. Vincent de Paul still delivers.

If you ask for it, they'll give you a free plastic rosary as a parting gift. (The ones made of wood or glass are 3 dollars.)

Like those navy blue pumps, One Great Thing can usually be found. This trip, it was my new coat.

This coat goes a long way in aiding my bid to look like Willona Woods. I bought it because I'd gone to Toledo unprepared to freeze my askalattabackbone off, and we were going to Chicago the next day. Schmin and I ran into St. Vincent de Paul's about 15 minutes before closing, and there it hung, the coat of my 1970s "Good Times" dreams, in perfect condition. (Nature played a trick on us and it was cold enough to wear it here last Friday.) Schmin also found some things he liked, and I'd passed the torch on to a new generation.

(Please ignore the sale sign on the front of St. Vincent de Paul's. I just noticed it while posting the first shot. I cannot think about this place closing. Not today.)


Ellen Bloom said...

The St. Vincent de Paul here in L.A. (Lioncoln Hts.) is one of my fave old haunts. We have many lamps, kitchen items, clothing, etc. from their vaults.

p.s. I think I may still have my Bass Weejum penny loafers from the late 1960's....must check the closet. If I do have them, I'll give them to you!

golden star said...

I remember fondly the St. VdP store on Chicago's northside. Now, there's only one on the far south side. Sigh.

I can relate to buying from thrift stores in high school. The entire cultural narrative has changed, hasn't it? Then, thrift store purchases were stigmatized. Now, these are heralded. I prefer the current cultural norm!

Orchidophile said...

I admire your candor. I truly do.

I do indeed remember the Gloria Vanderbuilt jeans and the Bass loafers (also Sperry Topsiders).

Your Willona reference made me giggle. After the day I've had, I desperately needed.

You have no idea.

Anonymous said...

Lovely writing as per usual - and a wonderful jacket.

Anonymous said...

we want the funk, give up the funk
we need the funk, we gotta have the funk
nah nah nah nah ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo nanah

Sorry. Got this song in my head as I as reading about the state you're in. Hey, this should pick you right up!

Growing up, we were ALL poor. Some kids got to have Vans or Reeboks but most of us got them at Payless and dealt with the 'funk' that emanated from the plastic/vinyl shoes until we got jobs. I know the Vincent de Paul's in Lincoln Heights well and my mother and sister and I often raided the Goodwill drop off after closing. We found great stuff and we'd say we got the item at Bullock's. It was a department store back then that we would have never dreamed of walking into.

Thanks for sharing your story. It's very brave of you to share. At least I think so.

Lola and Ava said...

I love and admire your candor. It brings a new perspective on life in general. We had uniforms growing up, but you could always tell who was "in" based upon the shoes and the jeans they wore on Friday nights to the games. I remember begging my mother to let me "borrow" a pair she was hemming for a client since their were Guess . . . worked for a night.

Mo said...

My version of Bass Weejuns envy was Sperry Topsiders. I tried to be okay with the too square-toed pleather pair my mom bought me but I still lusted after the real deal with their bright white soles, so much so that when my well-to-do best friend got a new pair, I stayed up half the night practicing how to ask her if I could have her old pair.

Thankfully, I wimped out and never asked. Imagine if I'd spent any part of my life walking around in K's worn, stinky Topsiders. Phew!

Love the coat.

normanack said...

I want to go back in time and give you a big hug and all the shoes you could ever have wanted.

And I want to give you a big hug right now. {hugs}

I'm in the odd position (odd? given the state of our union, maybe not) of being far less well off than my parents were at this age. Back then I wore Bass and Sperry (and did I appreciate it? not at all); right now my kids wear Wal*Mart.

I hope I'm giving them the love and attention they need, the love and attention you so obviously give your child. He looks like a great kid. :-)

woolanthropy said...

I remember those shiny, hefty Bass loafers. I liked the way they looked but could never imagine them on my feet. Still can't. I definitely would have went with the St. Vincent pumps. For 6th grade graduation I had to have disco white, wrap around the ankle heels. They were very sophisticated, I thought. Then I paired it with my Gunne Sax dress. The Gunne Sax dress was a coup. I don't know how my mom could afford it. I still have it hanging in my closet.

Willona..hehe..love the coat!

miserablebliss said...

Love the coat. LOVE it. And talk about an exceptionally well-written post..

In my school, all the kids had "Esprit" branded stuff. Jeans, t-shirts, socks, who-knows-what-else. And I coveted 'em something fierce. I wailed to my parents about *needing* those clothes.

And my parents, rightfully, told me there was no way they were sacrificing a week's worth of groceries to buy me a single pair of jeans.

So my Nana *knitted* me a green and white striped sweater that said "ESPRIT" across the front in green text. Super sweet of her and a helluva' lot of work.. and people started making fun of it the very first day that I wore it.

I was mortified. I felt like a fraud for wanting to fit in and not having any other way to attempt it..

And I look at my kids. All three of my boys love hand-me-downs - the adventure of it! the quantity they get! - from veritable strangers in some cases, who happened to hear about our new family and wanted to help us out.

And I am in awe of this when I think back on the kid that I was..

But maybe it shaped my priorities? Because now I'm old enough and, in theory, make enough money to occasionally splurge on an expensive outfit or fancy shoes - and instead I buy t-shirts and books and dollar store plates..

WineGrrl said...

Rita and Pam probably peaked in high school.

AllyB said...

I had a coat like that in 1976, it was the burnt orange version. Classy in any color and it looks great on you in the pic. Sending wishes for a great day your way!

Frank said...

Your story, as usual, struck a cord with my being, my upbring, and my teenage angst. Thanks for putting into words what I only now vaguely remember.


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