Thrift store carousing is a stiff, 20-year habit -- refined during my college years, which I spent in a vintage haze. I paraded around campus dressed like a strung-out astronaut's wife, in zip-up-the-back, cotton print frocks and pink hair. An economically inspired pursuit of cool worn in spite of, because of, sorority sneers laced with whispers of "druggie." The dresses were about a dollar each. The drugs were usually free.
Once, I won an Iggy Pop album at a "Punk Night" dance contest wearing a short, chiffon thrifty-shift in acid green and blue swirls, with matching scarf tied in my hairdo. The tiny "alternative" scene was so peculiar to the Southern, historically preppy town that the local paper sent a photographer to capture the moment. When someone mailed my father a clipping of me dancing my little beehive off, he called to ask what the hell I thought I was doing with his money. I never did play that Iggy Pop record.
An art-school roommate took thrift store plundering to another dimension when she decorated the walls of our apartment with a collage of neon-colored purses, circa 1962. At the Salvation Army in a bad part of town, heavily under the influence of the B-52s, we had unearthed dozens of the wacky pocketbooks. For about a quarter each, we got a sack full of hard-sided rectangles and squares the color of Lifesavers, all with prissy little patent leather handles. They hung neatly on the wall, in a line from floor to ceiling. Our living room needed no further decor than the purses, a pink love seat and "Hawaii 5-O" on the TV.
High on our find, we had run into a couple of British exchange students on the way home from the Salvation Army. The boys laughed when we showed them our loot. They, in turn, thought they'd hit the jackpot, finding themselves a couple of those nutty American girls they'd been thinking of when they had first filled out their school applications.
Even armed with the Cure and one or two foreign guys, I never was as cool as I longed to be in those collegiate days. All the second-hand plums in the world could never attract the attentions of Verb or Lafayette, the only two indisputable punks in town. I could admire their style only from the periphery of a 2 a.m. dance floor.
There I could gaze upon their vintage gear -- moldy black jackets; stolen, safety-pinned fraternity jerseys with the "Kappa" ripped out; stovepipe jeans and jet-black hair. But I couldn't touch. Their immobile, blond girlfriends guarded them carefully, frozen in expensive-looking black cocktail dresses. All I could do was keep on dancing.
I gave up on thrift store booty just once. A terrible, terrible mistake. Having dropped out of college for an assortment of confused reasons, I eventually returned to the same campus to finalize a degree. I had been living nightside as a bartender, cocktail waitress and/or partygoer. It was a shock to be up early in the day. Peering over my sunglasses, I saw frisky coeds everywhere, always in motion, tanned from a summer's worth of sailing. At 26, I was completely intimidated by their fun. I would look for shade on the overheated campus and fade from the activity, unnoticed. Forget what Oscar Wilde said -- something along the lines that the more miserable a person is the better they dress. For the first time in my life, I was so down that outfitting myself fell off my radar. All I wanted that year was to put in my hours and hope no one recognized me -- the embarrassed, broken, seven-year student.
Barely into my first, lank-haired week back, this grinning dud who carried a geeky pile of books around in his arms plopped himself, uninvited, at my table, looked me straight in the eye and said loudly, "You used to dress really cool. What happened?"
My eyes filling with tears, I slunk away, nondescript, in a plain sweat shirt and jeans. It showed. I was just too spiritually and financially broke to care, to even fantasize a quickie, Salvation Army touch-up.
Two very long semesters later, I got a degree and left college life for good, trading in the pity and the sweat shirts for a professional life. Now, with a 401K, two pairs of Manolo Blahniks in the closet and a sturdier heart, I still drop by the Value Village Boutique, trolling for dollar goodies. I shop alone. The girlfriends I used to cruise the aisles with have moved on in their lives. There are anonymous, younger women shopping alongside me, outfitted in midriffs and tattoos.
Instead, my matured spirit favors a pair of casual-day khakis over a '50s party dress. Now, I head to housewares before the clothing -- the 25-cent cocktail strainer and potato masher in good condition, stainless steel. A rustic gray pitcher for $1.60, stuck on a shelf of Biz glassware, presents a portrait of Martha bundling summer's bluest hydrangeas into it.
Occasionally I'll pull a true retro frock from the racks, look it over for rips and stains, and sigh. My needs have changed. The events I shop for at the upscale mall call for something more glamorous and predictable. My life has slowly morphed into one of structure and responsibility. Thrift store carousing is a young woman's adventure. I put the dress back. Another girl's night out. Another exchange student gets lucky.