Bin There, Dumb That

by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith


There is an oriental proverb that goes something like this: “Stand by the river long enough and you’ll see one of everything float by.”

The first time I pulled up at 3728 Market Street and then entered the Bulk Goodwill store in St. Louis, it was because my 26-year old daughter told me they had one of everything inside. On that she was very nearly right.

For those who have never been to the Bulk Goodwill store, I’ll try to describe the facility. The room is very big. Maybe four basketball courts, side by side by side. The whole place is open, no walls inside, with a dozen stout beams at regular intervals rising from floor to ceiling.

On all four sides of the room there are huge windows. The store is right next to a highway, next to some big factories, and next to a huge vacant lot.

The store is very well lit and has plenty of parking. Despite the lack of luster in the offered products, the place is always crowded, at times like a flash mob happening, a gathering of people from Park Avenue condos and park bench communities all mingled together.

Inside there are huge carts. I read somewhere that items in carts are hard for customers to resist. The Bulk Goodwill store only has carts... bigger than you just now pictured them. Imagine a big blue plastic bathtub on wheels. Now make that tub even bigger, so large you could park a good-sized station wagon on it without any of the station wagon hanging out over the sides. That’s how big the bins are. They sit waist-high and roll on huge casters. On busy days, fifty carts have been seen on the sales floor.

Shopping has always been an American ideal. It is a necessary evil that has become, to many people, a gratifying experience. Look closely at that famous picture of two trains stopped face to face at Promontory Point, Utah, April 3rd, 1861, the picture that shows the merging of the Great Pacific Western Southern railway, and the East Island of Sodor Limited Express. If you look over the shoulder of the man leaning forward holding the champagne bottle, you’ll see a shopping mall being erected in the distant background.

My adult son and I shop at Bulk Goodwill and then sell the items we find. We sell things on eBay. More than half of the shoppers we talk to are following that same model. The new economy is there, on display.

Shopping at Bulk Goodwill is unlike any shopping in the world. To state more clearly how it feels to be us, as we walk inside, I must borrow some phrases from that delicate booklet All Quiet on the Western Front:

As we enter the fray our faces are neither paler nor more flushed; they are not more tense or more relaxed, still our faces are much changed. We feel it in our blood... an electric contact has been shot home. This is no mere figure of speech; it is a fact. We listen to the noises of the contestants. Off to the left there are flashes of light and thunder. Explosive echoes roll down from the hills. Horses dash about like madmen, mooing and bleating and making other sounds. We listen to blue bins slamming together like a crush of armored industry. It is the bins rolling that we hear. They will emerge soon and crush the wounded under their churning treads. We know we will be ground under. There is no way to stop the process once shopping has been declared.

There is a back room where the attendants fill carts and have coffee breaks and speak derisively about the clientele. No customer has ever seen inside that back room. No one seems to know where Bulk Goodwill obtains all the items it sells. Everything is available in that building: bicycles, Suzanne Somer’s bun-tightening devices, broken telescopes, clothes of every description, a full five-gallon canister of raw helium, games and tools, dirty curtains and photo albums showing John Wayne Gacy cutting birthday cakes and bouncing little children on his knees.

I heard one man say that the products are obtained by giant steam shovels digging up large landfill mountains all over America and bringing out dead products and failed inventories.

Why do I see a hundred enterprising men picking out old books and old copies of games like Chutes and Ladders and then taking them home and wrapping them and applying postage? And why are there people two thousand miles away buying these old copies of Chutes and Ladders off their computer screens? What sort of enterprise is this? What does a new game of Chutes and Ladders cost? Who knows?

All I know is that it doesn’t make much sense to have trucks traveling all night all across the country delivering the same junk that could be easily, quietly found in the cities of their distant arrival. My son has sold small picture frames to a lady in Florida. Aren’t there any small picture frames in Florida?

I know there are rare items that would be most easily found on the computer, but some of this stuff wouldn’t have to cross time zones in wrapping paper if the people seated facing screens so far away stood up and went to their own outlets of eccentricities.

I do know there are people for whom shopping off the screen makes sense. I myself had to use the screen to buy a type of pipe tap that was of an unusual size. I’d already visited four hardware stores with no satisfaction, and the screen purchase made it possible for me to tap a concrete-embedded pipe and save the hundreds of dollars it might have taken to dig out the water supply line. I understand need when it presents itself.

But my son and I make money sending mildewed copies of Moby Dick to North Dakota. And I know in my heart there must be a few copies of Melville’s classic lingering some place close to Fargo, even if the place is landlocked.

I’ve been shopping twice when my half-filled shopping cart just disappeared. I think there might be some people who let others spend all day shopping and then they just highjack the preselected. There are people who cover their carts with sheets as they move from place to place, so that no one pilfers coveted items.

It’s like a quote from a Peewee Herman movie, where Peewee says, “Your mind plays tricks on you; you play tricks back.” Only in this case the saying would be: “The world sells junk to you; you sell junk back.”

I’m living on disability. I have no real income. I appreciate the small amounts of money I make by selling junk, but there must be a better way. I have divided opinions when I see young men selling discarded items. I applaud their industry but wonder if there might not be better ways to employ young people.

I worked in a foundry when I was young. I worked at a pipe factory years ago. I worked making car parts at a huge noisy factory. But now? Are there even any factories in St. Louis? I haven’t seen them. Are there foundries, milliners, puddlers, tinkers, chandlers?

Has anyone taken up the spark-flinging hammer used by the mythological ironsmith Hephaestus? Is there no longer iron or wood or clay to wrestle towards the uses of man? Every corner seems to have a Starbucks or a McDonalds, even as Detroit falls into idle decay.

I’m not one to call for old industry when new should prevail. I’m not saying smokestacks should be brought back or every tree should become stacked lumber, but wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could experience the finish of a good project? An empty box of nails and a new one opened? Newly planted wires carrying light and heat and info and sound?

I like the Goodwill store.
I like recycling.
I will be going someday soon to the Bulk Goodwill store.
I hope it stays open, and I also hope it closes.

* * *

I know there will be a day, a day in the near future, where the company involved in moving around those big blue bins will demonstrate its true agenda. Selling used garden hoses can’t be its only concern.

I think one day I’ll walk inside and the fluorescent lights will be flickering, like lightning far away, and yet the back of the large room will be ominously dark. There may even be secreted resins covering some of the windows.

The secreted resins are similar to the dark-crust alien-nesting wallpaper encountered by Sigourney Weaver in the movie Aliens. Remember when Ferro, the female commander piloting the drop ship, says, “We’re in the pipe, five by five”? And then later she says, “Spunkmeyer, get in here.” Remember when the character Hudson says, “Yeah, but it’s a dry heat”?

There may be blood dripping from the fire sprinklers at the Bulk Goodwill store, like the scene in the Wesley Snipes movie Blade. In that movie, blood was drooling out of the fire sprinklers and falling down on the wildly dancing male and female vampires.

There may be a bright woman in a blue frock spinning around with her arms outstretched, singing about hills and streams as in the movie The Sound of Music.

The store will open for business, and a lot of people will stream in. I’ll be with them, all of us standing around, all looking confused and transfixed. There will be plenty of space on the concrete floor because all the bins will be back in the secret part of the building, the part where the customers aren’t allowed.

Then, slowly, the bins will be rolled out. I’m used to seeing bins loaded shoulder high. Bins with five hundred items gathered in clusters. The bins on this particular day will be loaded high with large green pods: green, leafy pods with tendrils streaming off over the edges of the bins.

People will follow behind the bins. People will shrink and melt away and the pods will grow their replacements. The naked replacement people will climb off the bins and they will pick up the clothes off the concrete floor and they will dress themselves, putting on the abandoned clothing, and they will take the place of the shoppers, making the transformation complete.

And the people will no longer be people addicted to low shopping. They will be product and purchase combined. They will be consumed consumers, a great mass of people who feel they are hunting to feed their families and carving red meat for their tables when they are merely finding carrion and making soup from dropped, dried bones.

Can I sell you something in red?
Can I sell you some Chutes and Ladders?


Copyright © 2014 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

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