by Nancy Werking Poling
author of OUT OF THE PUMPKIN SHELL
My husband and I were about to leave for our first trip to Italy. I’d purchased two of Rick Steves’ books and combed through numerous travel magazines. In one I read an article on sensible packing. Take clothes you don’t particularly like, the article recommended, then leave them in your hotel room. The maid will find a use for them, and on your return flight you’ll have suitcase space for all your purchases.
Looking through my closet, though, I found nothing I’d be willing to leave behind and practically no possibilities for mixing and matching, as several other magazines recommended. Hence an excursion to the Goodwill Store.
The warehouse-type building I entered reminded me of a cluttered attic. To my left pieces of furniture were tightly packed, with chairs on top of dressers, end tables turned upside down on sofas. Men’s clothing lay straight ahead, children’s wear in the very back of the store, women’s wear to my right.
On the women’s side, there was barely room to pass between the chrome racks jammed with hangers. I quickly began to sort through the skirts—ones made of polyester, wool, cotton, some fabrics plain, some with floral patterns. Short skirts, long ones, in-between lengths.
I paused to stare at an oversized polyester skirt with gold and rust leaves against a navy blue background. Maybe it had belonged to the woman I’d read about in the beauty salon a few days earlier, in the article titled, “I Lost a Hundred and Fifty Pounds.” This could be the before skirt, the one Sharon wore on that decisive day she walked her oldest son to school and heard his classmates snickering and whispering “fat” and “pig.” Coming home and facing herself in the mirror, she told herself, “I hate this skirt, I hate myself.”
Still fingering its hem, I considered Sharon’s later satisfaction as she dropped the skirt and others like it into the metal dumpster near her home, her triumph over being rid of the hundred and fifty pounds, rid of the extra person she’d come to despise. As she pulled back the handle of the drop box, she loved herself, took pride in her accomplishment. And according to the magazine article, her son was proud of her now. Her husband, too, looked at her with new affection.
Triumph for Sharon, defeat for the woman who would buy the skirt.
I rapidly pushed several more hangers along before stopping to consider a fashionable beige skirt of linen—much too small for me—that looked as if it had hardly been worn. Why would a woman get rid of it? Valerie was going to New Orleans to see her boyfriend, I decided. She found the skirt and a matching jacket, probably over on another rack, on sale at an upscale department store. But when she got home from her trip, she realized how pale she looked in beige and pushed the outfit to the back of her closet.
One day she read if you haven’t worn an article of clothing in a year, you should get rid of it. Recklessly she tore through her wardrobe, pulling pants and skirts and blouses off the hangers, heaping clothes on the bedroom floor. She paused when she came to the skirt and jacket. For a moment she contemplated returning it to the closet. She had such fond memories of the weekend in New Orleans; the boyfriend would soon become her husband. No, the outfit must go.
After trying on several articles in the cramped, curtained dressing room, I settled on several. As I headed toward the cash register, glistening gold flecks emanating from a piece of elegant brocade caught my eye. It was a floor length robe—no, a coat. Handmade in the Orient, I was sure; never worn, I was equally certain. Five dollars, the tag said.
Who could possibly have given up such a lovely garment? A woman I named Michelle. Searching for a gift to take home from China, her husband stepped into a small sewing shop, where an old man leaned over a treadle machine. After the husband selected fabric, the man inquired about the wife’s size. The husband put his hand to his chin, then with his arms formed a circle to demonstrate her girth.
When he arrived home with the gift, it was much too tight around the shoulders, but dutifully Michelle kept it packed away in a garment bag. Later, when they went through a painful divorce, she hated everything that reminded her of him. She gave the coat, along with souvenirs of India and Japan, to Goodwill.
By the time my expedition was over, my arms were overflowing with clothes: a skirt, three tops, two pairs of pants, the brocade coat, plus a light sweater I might need if Italian evenings were cool. I imagined myself sipping cappuccino in a Venetian restaurant, wearing the navy pants and simple white knit top, the sweater hanging down my back, its sleeves loosely tied across my chest. And there was a quick glimpse of myself at one of next year’s Christmas parties, wearing the brocade coat over black velvet pants and a black sweater.
As I dropped all of my selections on the counter by the cashier, she informed me that on Tuesdays everything with a yellow tag was fifty percent off. Each item I’d selected bore a yellow tag, which meant that the cost of two bags of clothes, including the Chinese coat, totaled less than fifteen dollars. I was beaming with satisfaction.
As I turned to leave the register, my arms wrapped around the bags of clothes, I nearly tripped. I looked down. A young woman with matted light brown hair, her pink blouse soiled and wrinkled, sat on the floor. Spread across one of her outstretched legs was a pale blue dress. Scattered in front of her were nickels, dimes, and quarters. As she pushed each coin to the side, one at a time, she counted aloud: “One dollar and ten cents, one dollar and fifteen cents, one dollar and…”
Memories of the trip to Italy have faded. Yet I clearly remember nearly tripping over the young woman on the floor of the Goodwill Store.
I think it’s because the brief encounter jolted my carefree attitude. While I was getting a kick out of finding clothes to leave behind on a European vacation, she barely had enough money to buy a single, previously owned dress. I could light-heartedly empathize with Sharon and Valerie and Michelle, who in my imagination were middle-class women like me, but when I looked down at this real woman on the floor I was startled. She wasn’t like me, and I didn’t consider the possibility that she had a name and a story too.
Years later I rewrite the script: When I see the young woman in my path, I recognize our connectedness and drop to the floor. A dirty floor, repugnant to middle-class sensitivities. I don’t care.
I sit down beside her. I ask her name.
But the truth is, I didn’t.