Patriotism In the Dump Bin

 

American Flag

American Flag

Patriotism in the Dump Bin Twin City winter living is a dichotomy of natural beauty and dodging that beauty when the mercury dips beyond 20 below zero. It’s visually breathtaking taking in the aftermath of an ice storm yet one’s breath is literally sucked out by the frigid air. You spend much of your time dashing from car to office, from car to supermarket, from parking lot to home, all in a quest to keep your various appendages from developing frostbite along the way. The residents either fall into one of two categories: Those who are undaunted by the arctic blasts and those who venture out only when absolutely necessary.

The former types, most likely native born, seem to possess an extra layer of toughness that enables them to carry out their daily routines in temperatures that would make a polar bear pause. I’ve seen bundled-up citizens of St. Paul gamely trudging, albeit gingerly, on the ice-covered sidewalks, sidling up to igloo-like bus stops, shopping bags clutched in mitten-clad hands, steam pouring from below their icicle-laden scarves. There’s camaraderie of sorts in the true Minnesotans, for whom a drastic dip in degrees only serves as a challenge.

As a transplanted Canadian via California and most recently the balmy climes of Atlanta, it was in this setting one afternoon that I found myself in conversation with a kindred soul.

Admiring my bus shelter companion’s wooly boots, I commented that as a newcomer to the Twin Cities, I’d need some warm footgear soon or I’d probably have to donate my toes to science. Laughing, she said, “Well you could spend a pretty penny on boots around here but if you’d like to be in on a little secret…I got these at the Salvation Army just down on University.”

Now she was speaking my language.

“Oh, really?” I exclaimed. “There’s one so close by?”

Now being the typical Minnesota-nice lady that she was, Kirsten, as her name turned out to be, promptly dug in her purse and produced a local map. Circling the street and scrawling an arrow, she said, “You can’t miss it, dearie. It’s three stories high and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be shopping there all day!”

I climbed aboard my bus that afternoon, sneaking glances at Kirsten’s boots from time to time, wondering what else I would uncover at my newest shopping venue. Meeting my new husband, Alex, at the bus stop, I plunked myself into the careworn bucket seat of our vintage Toyota and eagerly told him my news.

A recent convert to thrift store shopping, Alex smiled, “Do you think they’d have some nice pants for me there?”

That Saturday morning found us parked outside the most monstrous thrift store I had yet witnessed. As Kirsten had proclaimed, it was indeed a three-story brick building nestled underneath a highway overpass, its Salvation Army insignia on the 30 foot sign proclaiming its domination for miles around.

This was going to be good.

I darted across the small parking lot, dodging upended shopping carts and scattered sheets of ice, Alex in tow. Marching through the glass doors, my eyes took in the wonders before me.

An enormous room, clearly a converted warehouse, chock full of seemingly endless racks of clothing, invited me to browse. The soaring walls, covered with latent velvet art and various posters of bygone days, led the eye to a second level where a sign pointed out “Books, Records, Tapes, Baby.” To the left I noticed, amid bent orange racks of every type of plastic ware imaginable, haphazard stacks of coffee cups. One caught my eye. Along its pink side declared the words, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” Amen.

We decided to try the book section first, being avid readers and having discovered that paying full price for books on our newlywed budget was not feasible. Alex and I had already found hole-in-the-wall secondhand bookstores and were happy to come across another source of books. Noting a lack of elevators, we climbed the linoleum-clad stairs two at a time, eager to see what tomes awaited us on the dusty shelves.

Splitting up, Alex as usual headed for the magazine section, looking for those pertaining to his favorite topics of pop culture, history, and cars. We already had amassed a considerable collection of National Geographic magazines, and enjoyed looking at the vintage advertisements and laughing over the archaic lingo. We agreed to meet downstairs in half an hour in front of the shoes.

I perused the riveted shelves for a while, finding a copy of Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, a favorite from my childhood. Clutching it to my chest, I gazed down the mismatched collection, ranging from diet books, to coffee table books, to obscure computer-programming manuals. Finding nothing else compelling, I decided to return downstairs and look at shoes while I waited for Alex.

Passing a young man in dreadlocks, I had to smile. His T-shirt, clearly a joke, read “Outrageous Granny.” Meeting my smirking gaze he shrugged, as if to say, “It was cheap!”

At the bottom of the stairs, before turning right towards the rows of shoes, I noticed another sign. This one, scrawled in Magic Marker on a dingy piece of cardboard, said, “Bargain Basement Below.” The hand-drawn arrow drew my eyes down another flight of stairs to what seemed like a cavern.

Not wanting to lose sight of Alex, I waited for what seemed an eternity amid the shoes. Almost tripping over a pair of glittering gold-lame high heels, I finally spied him and waved him over.

“Hey, it says ‘Bargain Basement Below’, let’s go!” I could barely contain my excitement. A bargain basement in a thrift store was an added bonus. Peering over his shoulder at the sign, Alex took my hand and we descended into the depths.

What met our eyes next still reverberates in my mind today. Reaching the basement floor, spread out before us lay the largest collection of junk I had ever seen, haphazardly strewn on white tables, bric-a- brac aplenty jutting out at every angle. It resembled a tornado only with the debris field contained in one room. For what seemed like miles lay the remnants of society, tossed aside by one to be considered yet again by another. The fluorescent lights, intermittently blinking on and off, cast an eerie glow over the entire room. Children darted around and underneath the tables, mothers scolded while holding onto half-mended shirts, grunge kids crowded around a pile of LPs, and seasoned thrift store veterans established themselves at stations at various sites, carefully examining each careworn item in turn, seeking the value in the vastness.

I was in heaven.

Splitting up again, I left Alex to mingle with the grunge kids while I made my way toward a likely looking first table. The only other patron there, a wizened man in too-short overalls and red flannel shirt glanced up from his inspection of a CB radio microphone to smile at me.

“Nice day,” he grunted. Agreeing, I carefully set to work a respectful few paces away from him. Grasping the first item that seemed promising, I turned it over. Stuck inside a wad of ages-old corner lint, sat a thimble from Niagara Falls. Only a small chip marred its bottom rim. Dusting the lint on my pants leg, I considered it’s value but then I noticed no price tag. Looking about for a clue to unlock the mysteries of this bargain bazaar, I saw a sign taped to a support post behind my elderly partner.

“All bin items 10 cents CASH only. NO RETURNS. You Broke It you Bought it. Shoplifters will be persecuted.”

Taking this information in, noting the reasonable price and the standard warnings, amusing misspelling notwithstanding, I decided the terms were fair and continued on in my quest.

Regretfully returning the thimble from my home country, mentally noting to acquire a tube of super glue for just such an emergency in the future, I returned to the bin before me. Digging through tangles of telephone wire, pushing aside a half-clothed dolly, her blonde locks shorn to stubs and missing a finger or two, my fingers brushed up against those of my gentleman shopping partner.

“Oops! Sorry about that.” I said. “Didja want that mike over there?” he asked, pointing at another CB radio microphone hiding below a blue plastic Las Vegas visor, its frayed cord patched here and there with electrical tape. “Gosh, no, it’s all yours,” I said, and slid the mike over to his digging burrow. “Oh, good, thanks. I collect these. Remind me of the days on the road.” His blue eyes twinkled with glee as he began unraveling the cord from around a shoelace.

Finding nothing more at this table of particular interest, I waved farewell to my ex-trucker friend and proceeded along the cracked concrete floor towards the back of the basement where a sign read, “Jewlry and watches 50 cents each.” Nimbly jumping over a purple jump rope strewn in my path, I scanned the area for Alex. Still bent over an enormous collection of vinyl, he seemed quite content. I turned my attention back towards the jewelry table when I stopped dead in my tracks.

The stripes poking out beneath a one-eyed doll called to me. Walking over to the table, blissfully unmanned, heart pounding, I hoped that what I thought I saw was indeed the real thing. Setting my book aside on top of a broken wrench, I grasped the fabric’s corner. Pulling it slowly so as not to usurp a chipped teapot, I gathered the fabric into my trembling hands.

The brass grommets gleamed in the fluorescent light. Turning it over, I read the still-intact tag, “Defiance, Reg US Pat Off, 2 ply Moth Proof, Bunting.” Between the grommets, barely discernible, was a name, “Andersen.”

Counting the stars on the field, I found only 48 individually sewn stars, the patina of age only making the flag more intriguing and poignant. The frayed halyard edge, its fibers unraveled only slightly, still bore marks of attachment to a pole. There were no silk-screened stripes here. Only lovely alternating red and white intermingled in the basement’s harsh light. A single tiny moth-eaten hole marred the field, near the topmost left star. I brought it close to my face, touching its fabric to my skin and breathed in the ancient air.

Whose hands had sewn these stars so precisely? What winds had fluttered this beautiful flag? Where had it been before its untimely and unceremonious end here in the dump bin deep in the bowels of the Salvation Army thrift store? What Andersen had seen fit to donate such a memento rather than preserving it for future generations or retiring it properly? And why, as a Canadian citizen, did I seem more touched than the other shoppers around me by this hapless vintage flag?

Drawing it to my breast, I gathered its folds gently and ambled over to Alex, now holding a copy of an obscure jazz musician’s last LP.

“Look at this.” I held out the flag.

His eyes widened at the find. He took it from me, carefully ensuring that it would not touch the floor, unfolding it fully for the first time in probably a decade. Dust entrapped in years-old creases fell at our feet. Alex drew his finger along one carefully handsewn seam and whistled. “Wow,” was all he could say. His eyes caught mine and we knew we had to have this flag, insulting at a cost of 10 cents yet priceless to us.

We brought it to the cashier, along with my book and his record. Ringing us up, the pockmarked boy stopped for a moment upon seeing the flag.

“It’s ripped. Do ya still want it?” He paused over the register, waiting for our response. Silently we nodded, paying our total bill of $2.58 and took our flag home.

Later research led us to discover that this flag dated somewhere between July 4, 1912 when the State of Arizona was admitted to the Union and July 4, 1959 when Alaska joined the United States. This beautiful old girl had flown during the presidencies of eight men from Taft to Eisenhower. The history she had seen from her vantage point atop a pole resonated in our minds.

The Andersen flag, or as we came to call it, “Salvation Army” flag once again flew proudly at each of our homes until this past winter when a sudden ice storm ripped it in two. Heartbroken we gave it a proper sendoff. We brought it to the American Legion and we participated in a flag retirement ceremony.

And as the flames transformed our flag to smoke, no one was prouder than I was.

Rules of the Road for Dump Bin Items: Never be afraid to get your hands dirty.
 
From: Second Hand Roses: Lessons From the Junktiquing Road, copyright 2009 Dawn Edwards 
 
 

 

 

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Sorry to hear of the Death of your flag. I remember it hanging proudly from your porch. You gave it a good second life. Maybe it was even its third or fifth life? Who could know. It took its secrets with it, I think. I’m glad you gave it the proper send off. 🙂
    Donna

    • Yes, it was a good flag and made me very proud to hang it, Canadian or not!

  2. Very nice and so true. Quite a poignant story.

    Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Wow. you really are a writer. Great job. Cool story.


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