A Modern-Day Treasure Hunter

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Why you should care

Because every addiction, no matter how minor, is both thrilling and unsettling.

It is, in one word, intoxicating. The cravings pull at my senses. I ignore the side of my brain that knows best. I choose the indulgence. I buy. Just because. 

It’s nothing for me to pull up to a thrift store and park next to someone’s car and recognize in them what I see in myself: They can hardly see the world as it is, so distorted is their reality. I know what they tell themselves: “I’m doing it to waste time,” and “I’ll go in, but I won’t buy anything.” My trick: I leave large bills at home and carry only $1 bills, my tips from earlier that day. 

It’s a way of pretending to be in control, but deep down inside, I know I’m not. I lost that control a long time ago, while salvaging at my first Goodwill at the age of 19. I was a student at Angelo State University and in need of some clothes to get me through my sophomore year. There was this guy we all called “T-bone” — my roommate — who wore something new and sharp every day. But he was from the same poverty-stricken area of Dallas as me. How did he look so fresh when he had so little? One day while T-bone was out, I examined his wardrobe. I’d never seen a closet so full. I was so fixated on all the shoes and shirts and suits that I didn’t even hear the door to our room open. 

“Man, what are you doing?” T-bone asked. There I stood, busted, still wistfully examining a shirt and a pair of pants. Was he a drug dealer? Was college just a cover? “What am I doing?” I responded. “Trying to understand how a man who lived down the street from me, and is a student, has so many clothes.”

“Man, tomorrow I’m gonna show you my secret, just be back in the room by 11,” he said. The next day after class I raced back to our room as fast as I could. We got in the car, headed out, and pulled into a parking lot. We stepped into a thrift store. I thought it was a joke. Then I saw T-bone reach into a rack of clothing and pull out a gorgeous shirt, almost exactly like the one he was wearing. Heaven! I felt like Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple on the day she received those letters from her long-lost sister, Nettie … just so many pairs of this and that; so many suits and shirts; and, listen to this, it was $5 sack day! Which meant that whatever you could get into a sack was only gonna cost you — you guessed it — $5.

After that, I became one of the best dressers at Angelo State University, or in town, for that matter. And ever since, for more than 35 years now, I have sworn by this way of life. In almost every city and state I’ve visited, one of the first places I hunt out is a thrift store. I get high off buying something for nothing. I love sifting through the rubble to find the jewels. A good friend of mine calls it “the deal of the day.”

But I know how many treasure hunters have lost their way over time. The addiction, it’s like dopamine. At my worst I had a $300-a week habit; now I’m down to $75, and declining. I’d guess that over the course of my professional life, I’ve spent around 35 percent of my income on these buys. Eventually you lose the thrill; each purchase contains less value until it holds no more meaning than shaking hands with a stranger. Like heroin or crack, the high never lasts long enough to get real satisfaction. So we shop on, searching for the next deal of the day.

I’ve seen people in thrift-store parking lots with their cars packed so high they can’t see out the windows. Their eyes covered by cataracts, blind. You can feel their illness. You ask yourself, “Just how far am I from being them?” How close are you, Anthony, to not being able to see through the rearview mirror? I am no better than those whose eyes are the same as mine. There is something in the eyes of what I jokingly call a “Thrifty” that we all have in common: hurt.

I’m getting better now. Today, I seek help that doesn’t come from things used, set aside and given away. But until then, I will continue to step inside those comforting walls, searching for the reason I am there, hoping to find that one thing that will satisfy.I do know that it is OK for my cupboards to go bare for a season. And I know, even if I sometimes forget, that there’s no one thing that can ever replace a harmony generated from within.


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