Magic And The Art Of Thrift Store Shopping With Ma

By Nick Trapani

I like going along when Ma goes thrift-store shopping. Out of necessity our clothes come from thrift stores. I am a clumsy kid, always have been. I am six foot three inches tall. Ichabod Crane with big feet, which explains my awkwardness. When I walk I shuffle instead of step, which some take as a sign of laziness.

Ma knows her way around the store, she knows which aisle has what and always knows where to begin. She deposits me at men’s clothing and I begin searching the racks like no one searches the racks. If I see a shirt like those worn by one of the cool guys at school, I snatch it off the rack. Whenever I find one that is my size, the sleeves are always too short. Ma still talks me into buying it and rolling the sleeves up. She promises that by summer she will have a sewing machine and will make it into a short-sleeve shirt. She never gets a sewing machine. I keep wearing the shirts with the sleeves rolled up. Buying pants is another story. They’re always too short, so I settle for a pair that are the least short. Most kids call them floods, I call it the Michael Jackson look. Buying shoes is easy, the only thing I ever find in size 12 medium are black thick-soled clodhopper work shoes.

This should give you a good visual of what I am like as a teenager. A clodhoppen awkward skinny kid in a neat shirt, sleeves rolled up, and a pair of black wool Michael Jackson style pants. I do wear black socks so as not to look totally weird.

In my freshman year of high school, grandma passed and left her house to Ma and Dad. Dad is an electrician and Ma a waitress at a diner. We are the poor family that lives in the nice middle-class suburban neighborhood. Dad goes to work each morning in dark blue coveralls carrying his black lunch pail. He waves to the neighbors, and they give him a gratuitous nod. In their dark suits, white shirts, coordinated ties, carrying their leather briefcases, the neighbors drive off in their big sedans. Dad drives off in his eight-year-old maroon Mercury Marquis. Ma takes the bus to work. She works lunch and dinner shifts. She leaves the house wearing her hair up in a bun covered by a colorful silk scarf tied in back at the neck. She wears clean, neat, pressed blouses and black slacks. Even in her black flat shoes Ma is a head taller than any of the neighbor ladies and most of the men. I always thought she belonged in movies, opposite Robert Redford or Paul Newman.

Ma encourages me to go to school dances. “You will find girls to dance with and maybe even find a girlfriend.”

So I go and I sit with Charles and Edward and the other wallflowers. I gawk at the cool guys dancing with the cool girls. Once or twice a night, on a dare or double dare by Charles, I go across the room and ask Margaret, a girl wallflower, to dance. Damn if she doesn’t say yes. We stay in a dark corner away from the others. She is stiff and trembling, her face red with embarrassment. We don’t speak and avoid eye contact. I shuffle my way through the dance, careful not to smash Margaret’s toes. The rest of the night I sit and watch the good dancers put on a show, a contest, one couple trying to outdo the other. I study their feet, their arms and their faces and wonder how it must feel to be that cool.

On a September day in 1985, my junior year of high school, Ma and I went to the thrift store. It was one of those special half price sale days that she never passes up. We arrived early and waited in line for the store to open. Everyone was jockeying for position at the start line, waiting for the bell and the call, “And they’re off!” We broke from the gate in good position, took to the outside and I headed for men’s shoes. I was going through the row of size 12 when I spotted an unusual pair. A pair of black dress shoes, thin souls, pointed toes, but not too pointed, like those that the cool guys at school wear to dances. They looked new. I grabbed them, sat on a stool and tried them on. They were a perfect fit, my toes wiggled and my feet felt free and light. I could walk in them, no more lazy shuffling for me. The tag said “made in Italy, $10.” Ma smiled and was happy to buy them for me, after all, it was a half-off-sale day.

When we got home I polished those beauties and gave them an honored place in my closet, I moved all the old heavy black work shoes to the back and side, giving the new shoes room to breathe. These were my dance-night-only shoes. At night I would talk to them, pleading not to let me down, Friday night we would be making our debut and we too would look cool.

Friday night arrived and I was more excited than I had ever been about going to a dance. I didn’t know why, they were just another pair of shoes. For the first time in my life I walked into a dance, and didn’t shuffle in. I sat down with Charles and the other wallflowers, eyed the room and waited for the DJ to start the music. Like the start of every dance for the past two years he started with a Michael Jackson song, this time it was “Billie Jean.” I sat in my chair, and something happened. My feet began shuffling from side to side and my toes tapped in time with the music. Possessed, unable to control myself, I got up from the chair and grabbed the arm of one of the nearest cool girls, I didn’t know her name and I’m sure she didn’t know mine. On the dance floor I began to put dance moves on her like she had never seen. Moves like no one in the room had ever seen. Moves I didn’t know I had in me. She laughed, threw her head back and in the next moment we were surrounded by a clapping yelling crowd wanting more. My feet had a mind of their own, stepping left, stepping right, kicking, hopping and shuffling in time with every beat of the music. My arms swung out, then above my head swinging from side to side. I arched my back and bobbed my head up and down. The music throbbed through my body. All night cool girls lined up waiting their turn and I didn’t disappoint.

When I got home I removed the shoes, stared at them wide-eyed and returned them to their place of honor in the closet, waiting for the next dance. Exhausted, I lay in bed unable to sleep, replaying the night, every song, every girl and every move.

That was the beginning of the best year of my life. I can’t say that I became popular, at least not with the cool guys who hated my sudden rise to king of the dance floor. I was the same old awkward shuffling me at school, in my thick-soled clodhoppers, but I had my own coolness. My popularity with the girls improved, especially the day of a dance. I still couldn’t claim any as a girlfriend, but that was okay, I had time and I had reached a new level of coolness.

Others shop thrift stores with a sense of purpose, marching down the aisles, pushing aside hangers, holding up a shirt, a sweater, a dress, a pair of slacks, then either throwing it in their basket or slamming it back on the rack. Ma glides down the aisles like a ballerina, she even looks like one, graceful and lean, her dark hair up in a tight bun. She starts with scarves, Ma likes colorful silk scarves and is always on the prowl for a new one. She stares at the rack, removes one, red and blue silk, her favorite colors, she clutches it to her neck and face, smells it and gazes at it for a moment, then carefully returns it to the rack.

On one of our Saturday thrift-store outings, I became curious about Ma’s ritual, and watched her meander up and down the aisles. She lingered a long time at blouses, shuffling from side to side touching one blouse, then another. She stopped, gently removed a white blouse from the size 4 rack, held it up at arm’s length, twisted and turned her wrist, eying it on all sides, brought it closer, eyed the label and the inside of the blouse, whispered to it and brought it near to her face, smelled it and held it against her cheek. Ma gently wrapped her arms around the white blouse and placed it in her basket.

I was thumbing through men’s shirts when she came up and asked what I was looking for. “Something cool and something that fits,” I said.

What do you mean by cool?”

Something like the cool kids at school would wear.”

Well that’s your problem,” she said.

Ma went on to educate me in the art of thrift-store shopping. “Slow down, feel the magic, smell the sweetness of it and become one with the experience.”

This sounded a little crazy to me, but I knew Ma wasn’t crazy and besides I did have the magical shoes.

Ma went on to explain why she picked the white blouse. “I didn’t come here to buy a blouse,” she said. “When I walked down the aisle, the white blouse spoke to me. It stood out from the rest. I took it off the rack and I knew that a good person had worn it, someone that took care of it and loved it. I could feel and smell that person in the cloth and when I closed my eyes I saw a kind, gentle person. So I told her I would buy the blouse and take care of it and that I would love it.”

Ma led me to a rack of shirts. “Now close your eyes and get the cool kids out of your head,” she said. “Okay, open them, look at these cotton T-shirts, look at the colors, go through them and see if you are drawn to one.”

I started pushing hangers aside when mom stopped me. “Slow down you can’t hurry magic,” she said. I came to a black T-shirt and my thumb stuck to it. I took the shirt off the rack. I liked the rainbow-colored lightning bolt that stretched across the chest. Mom asked how it looked to me and I told her it looked new.

She smiled and said, “See how it feels against your skin and face, how it smells.”

It felt soft against my arms and face and smelled clean and sweet like a flower, maybe a rose, I don’t know many flower smells. She told me to close my eyes and try to picture who might have worn it before. That didn’t work for me. I drew a blank. I tried to guess at how it ended up on this rack, another blank, maybe I needed more experience. I tried the shirt on. I liked the way it felt and looked. I didn’t care what anyone else thought, I liked it and for two bucks I had to have it.

We kept shopping. I found a pair of pre-loved jeans that were a perfect fit and not too short. At the shoe rack a pair of black Converse high top sneakers in my size, labeled “new factory rejects $5”, said try me on. They were comfortable and I could forget those thick-soled clunkers. It was a good day’s haul for only twelve bucks after the 20% off sale. Ma and I left the store wearing smiles, well, Ma’s face always wears a smile.

The night of the first dance of my senior year, it happened. I put on my best pre-owned cool shirt with the sleeves rolled up, my too short Michael Jackson style pants and dark socks. I removed the newly polished dancing shoes from their place of honor and sat on the edge of the bed. I slid my right foot into the shoe and it would not budge past half way. After a half hour of prodding with fingers and shoe horns, I knew it was over, I had outgrown the dancing shoes.

I gathered myself, changed into my soft black T-shirt with the rainbow lightning bolt, my pair of pre-loved good fitting jeans, my new factory rejected black Converse canvas high top sneakers and I went to the dance, a new pre-loved me.

thrift store photo courtesy of Becca McHaffie via unsplash

Nick Trapani is a writer of short stories and flash fiction. He lives in San Francisco with his artist wife Maria, his best friend and source of inspiration. He was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan where he developed his first taste for creative writing as an English major at Wayne State University.

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10 thoughts on “Magic And The Art Of Thrift Store Shopping With Ma

  1. What a wonderful memory of your mother. I got teary. Also loved feeling your sense of awkwardness, so universal and so unique to you. Through your words, I stepped into your young life. Thank you. Great work.

  2. Wonderful sense of place in this, Nick. I can so relate to his feelings of not fitting in, and you do such a good job of showing that without words. And his growth. Well done!

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