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8-Bit Wonders of the Ancient World

April 17, 2010

In my last entry I said I didn’t think I would have time nor cause to update this blog for a while, as I was busy preparing for the Museum of Comic & Cartoon Art‘s annual Art Festival, which was this past weekend at the Lexington Ave. Armory. I was decidedly non-thrifty there, dropping a whopping $200 or so on the most exquisite selection of the finest indie comics barely on the market. It was precisely because I knew I was likely to spend so much (and, indeed, had I been more diligent on my own comics I’d have needed to spend even more to have them printed in time and spring for a table) that I thought it best to stay out of the thrift stores.

Alas, or perhaps “aha,” Thrift Fu is a slave to no one’s agenda but its own.

(Sidebar: Just how crazy do I sound when I speak of Thrift Fu as having its own undeniable will? I fully recognize that I am anthropomorphizing what in other terms is a very specific shopping addiction, more so than even my comic jones, which I have admitted I think would be harder to quit than any drug I could be taking. I do not wish for my readers to think I lack the perspective an outsider might have, wondering where the joke ends and where a serious pathology begins. I wonder it myself. I console myself and reassure you, thus far this fixation has yet to noticeably impair my life, and in fact I feel it enhances my life and adds mystery and wonder to it. And like The Church of the Subgenius, the distinction between the joke and reality may become irrelevant if it brings me a peace and joy analogous to that which organized faith supposedly does its adherents. If you don’t yet understand what I mean, perhaps you will by the end of this entry.)

As I also said in my previous entry, my finds had been stagnating, with my choice to half-assedly plunder one of the dying tendrils of the once mighty Blockbuster Video kraken unfortunately detouring my attendance of a show in my adored 8-bit chiptunes fringe genre. Chiptunes, in my opinion, are a cousin of Thrift Fu, or at least a spiritual peer, as they are a reappropriation of an anachronistic level of technology, now eclipsed by functionality found in a higher-end digital watch, to create their own unique beauty that their inheritors are too strictly-defined to allow. It gives planned obsolescence a much-deserved nutshot.

The tool of choice for most chiptune artists is the first generation Nintendo Game Boy. Interestingly, though the Game Boy was introduced onto the market at the very end of the 8-bit period, just before home video gaming systems upgraded to 16-bit, it would remain 8-bit through most of the 1990’s, supplanted by the Game Boy Advance just in advance of most gaming systems reaching 64 bits. It was not even the most advanced system on the market during that period, even at the time of its introduction: I owned an Atari Lynx, the first color portable gaming system (“portable” being a relative term, being roughly as long as my forearm), which streeted maybe a year after the Game Boy but flopped, and the more compact Sega Game Gear of the mid-1990’s was capable of running Sega Genesis games. Still, the simpler nature of the Game Boy made it more widely adaptable and easily-programmed. This, in the long run, would be key to its resurrection as the rock of the chiptune scene.

As with anything I admire enough, it was inevitable I would want to try it myself. One problem: no Game Boy.

It was always in the back of my mind whenever I visited a thrift store. I’d ask whether they’d got one in, and I always had seemed to miss it by several weeks. More often I’d spy a couple Game Boy cartridges, taunting me with my inability to play them. It was to the point I considered heading down to Video Games New York (né Multimedia 1.0) and shelling out the collector’s price, roughly one arm and one leg.

Three weeks ago I dropped into my local Goodwill, which I’d shunned for a while, thinking I’d gone to that well too often. The first thing I spied upon entering was a sweet Iron Man mask, which I snaked from right over the head of an adolescent kid who’d probably have dug it at least as much I do but hadn’t noticed it. (Did I consider giving it to him once he saw I’d snagged it? Ummm… no.) I ambled around the glass display case on the far side of the counter where smaller electronic devices and their peripherals are kept. A basket of doodads obscured my view, so I pulled it aside.

And there was my golden ticket. Literally, it was painted gold. A latter day 8-bit Game Boy, dated 1996 on the back, half the thickness of the original grey “brick,” with a stack of six cartridges: Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Super Mario Land, Tetris, Mickey Mouse’s Magic Wands and Bugs Bunny’s Crazy Castle 3. The Game Boy was marked $35, but at least one of the games was marked $5; I sure as shit didn’t want to shell out $65 for the entire kit n’ kaboodle. Even if I intended to use it for chiptunes, a Game Boy with no games was kinda pointless.

I needn’t have worried. $35 was the price for the entire lot. Ironically, I added on another $30 in purchases, including the Iron Man mask, three Club Penguin toys for my nephew and a stack of CDs and books, to bring my total to $65 anyway.

I’d intended to write an entry on that score for this blog, but as I said, I was busy with other matters. What I didn’t know was that the story wasn’t yet over.

Is it possible for a store to be infatuated with someone? Not the employees. I mean the store itself. Like an ardent suitor heaping on bouquets of daffodils and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, can a store express itself by presenting someone with everything it can think of to win their love? It’s an amusingly poetic if outrightly loony idea, I know. And yet, I’m beginning to wonder whether my local Goodwill is trying to win my heart so I might never grow weary of it again.

Almost two weeks ago, I was coming home from work just before several days of crunch time. I ought to have gone right home and got down to business. Hell, the Goodwill would be closing too soon to have a good look around anyway. Of course, I have a difficult time disciplining myself into doing what I ought to do and listening to reason.

I’d barely made it past the counter before the clerk was announcing the store was closing. I was ready to walk back out when I looked over where they tend to stick their larger electronics. I spied a wood-paneled hunk, like a coffee table with a gut. It had a glass surface, inside of which was a small TV monitor. There were on both sides small white joysticks and a couple buttons, and on one side I saw a coin slot.

There was no way this thing worked. It wouldn’t be here if it did, and it definitely wouldn’t be priced at only $40. And so I plugged it in and was unsurprised when it did nothing.

Until I flicked the switch on the bottom.

The monitor flared to life with wireframe graphics which produced Japanese kanji text which I could only assume meant the title printed on the control pad, ASTRO FIGHTER. The demo started, showing a game that looked like a cross between Space Invaders and Galaga. It was an honest-to-goodness, functional classic cocktail table arcade game.

I couldn’t get it. I couldn’t not get it. I had nowhere to put it. I would make a place to put it. What would I do? What would I do??? The store was closing! I had to decide!!!

“We’re having a 25% off everything sale today,” the clerk piped up.

SOLD,” I replied.

The next day I rolled my landlord’s handtruck over to pick it up. I had just spent $30+ on an old arcade game, and spent $65 the week before, and had a comic show I would be attending for which I’d be shelling out hundreds the next weekend. I could not afford any more. So of course I browsed, and naturally my erstwhile Goodwill shoved no less than eight graphic novels, among other items, into my eager hands for an additional $50 sale.

I think the Goodwill and I will have a June wedding, officiated by Thrift Fu.

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Lackluster Blockbuster

March 20, 2010

Wow, really? Five weeks since the last update? Way to be, Ken. You’re a tribute to adherence and focus. Bah.

In my own half-assed defense, I wasn’t completely sedentary in that interim. The day after my 34th birthday I started a new Tumblr blog called “Fuck Yeah, Voltron!!!!” where I’ve been posting almost daily. As you might expect from that title it’s pretty narrowly-focused, and it dovetails with another writing project for the upcoming anthology The Immanence of Myth from Mythos Media. Add to the mix that I’m finishing up a long dormant mini-comic in time for the Museum of Comic & Cartoon Art’s annual Art Festival on April 10 & 11, not to mention the day job, and you might have some forgiveness for my absence.

It doesn’t change that I dropped the ball, which is sadly something of a trend for me. I can’t and won’t promise it won’t happen again; hell, it’ll probably be another four weeks ’til I can get back around to this. But I am determined to continue this blog, not allowing it to be yet another abortive startup-turned-ghost town with which the net is littered. I have some definite plans for Thrift Fu, and I hope before long perhaps I’ll be able to bring on some other voices for whom thrifting is more than simply a distraction or an extension of home economics (not that there’s anything wrong with either).

I have been feeling somewhat constipated where Thrift Fu is concerned, both out of financial considerations and the quality of items I’m running across. It’s been rare that I’ve spent more than $20 in any one store lately; the last one may have been because I found the Clerks animated series on DVD, which was $10. That, I recognize, is not the bargain you may have come to expect I find. In trying to justify my actions under Thrift Fu I may at times stretch its reasonable boundaries into areas I know full well it’s not meant to go.

One such example happened a couple weeks ago after a twelve hour shift at my job. Since my longest, hardest days tend to be Fridays and Saturdays, it can be difficult to have a social life when most people get to enjoy one. (Luckily, it worked out for my birthday, which fell on a Tuesday this year.) Out of stubbornness and spite, when not totally destroyed by my workday, I try to go out and do things nonetheless, be it just a few drinks with friends or as much as a show or a party. I often suffer for it the next day, especially since for the past month my cat has been waking me before sunrise, but I prefer that to regret.

This particular evening I was to attend a show in my current favorite fringe musical niche, 8-bit chiptunes. (Brief lowdown: using outmoded videogame hardware no less than 20 years old, most commonly the original Nintendo Gameboy and specially-programmed cartridges, beats and notes are sequenced, sometimes augmented by filters, laptops and even live instruments, for music that is fresh and, by my palate, beautiful. I usually describe it as the music I thought as a kid I’d be listening to now.) I took three trains to an area I’d not been to in at least two years, despite its proximity to my neighborhood, and began plodding towards the vague promise of a club.

After about 10 minutes of said plodding, I was getting kinda discouraged and questioned just how badly I wanted to go to this show. It was at that moment, rising like Brigadoon out of the mists, that I spotted the Blockbuster Video, and completely changed my plans for the evening.

It is no secret that for at least the past three years Netflix has been eating Blockbuster’s lunch, and for good reason: they provide a far wider variety of films without the need of a storefront or, in the case of their on-demand content, even a physical item. Blockbuster has tepidly tried to copy that model, but remains far too married to the anachronism of the video store. Unfortunately this also has put a lot of mom & pop video stores out of business, too; with the return of late fees and other ratcheting up of prices, it seems Blockbuster’s days are numbered.

But Blockbuster’s inability to adapt is our gain, it would seem. After any given DVD comes out, there’s usually at least 20 copies any given store receives to use as rentals. Depending on how those DVDs fare (which I would imagine is pretty lackluster on even the high-profile films), the store slowly phases out copies according to demand; in most cases they won’t hold onto any more than five copies. The rest are sold at a discount as “Previously Viewed,” with prices determined by quantity and quality. A box office smash might still go for over $10, whereas others go as low as $4.

Anyone who’s seen my Amazon wish list knows that it’s teeming with various DVDs (and books, and CDs, and random other crap). It’s less for the benefit of anyone who might want to gift me anything (though I never discourage that) than just a chunk of my brain I don’t need cluttered up with remembering everything that’s tickled my fancy. As I find items on it, often through Thrift Fu, I do go back and eliminate them, though like the Hydra, for every head I chop off three more spring up in its place. Furthermore, as someone who still has many dozens of VHS tapes (and, it should be noted, a functional VHS player) I’m always looking to phase out some movie’s old tape with its sexy newer DVD; indeed, the week before I’d found one of my favorite flicks, Dark City, on a street corner non-bootleg DVD vendor’s table. Still heady from that victory in Thrift Fu, I viewed this Blockbuster as a good opportunity to do both sorts of housecleaning.

I started on tables that were patently items on sale, four DVDs for $20. Normally the store has gone to no great pains to to organize the movies by any recognizable system, so it’s a matter of visually skimming as best as one can and hoping a desired movie asserts itself in one’s mind. I did in fact find several I was considering. But from my vantage, I could see that there were more areas around the store where there were even more movies at that great discount. I asked one of the employees to confirm where those areas started and ended; her answer no more clarified the matter than before I asked. Going on vain hope and a foggy idea of what was what, I got to aisles where it seemed as though every DVD I ever wanted were displayed, and in roughly alphabetical order to boot. I was on a spree that went for a couple hours. Was this location going out of business? Was my Fu that powerful?

When I finally brought my teetering tower of media to the counter, an inkling of sense took hold and I asked the clerk, “Let me just ask to be sure: are all these DVDs Previously Viewed, four for $20?”

He eyeballed the stack. “Uh, no. In fact, almost none of it is.”

Ah. No, I’d not become a DVD thrift savant; I was a grabby, greedy tool.

It was now approaching 1 am. The Blockbuster employees were looking to close up shop, I had worked a 12 hour shift, I had work again early the next morning and it would take me who knows how long to get home. I’d more or less wasted my evening.

In desperation I grabbed four DVDs and plunked down for them. Two of them I was definitely seeking: Renaissance and Waltz With Bashir. One other, Shoot ‘Em Up, is a good, fun flick, too. But the fourth…

…well, I was one of the few that derived unironic enjoyment from Southland Tales, but I’m not sure that’s one I needed to own.

I think in my very first post here I’d set a ground rule that Thrift Fu had to be utterly random. Stumbling across a table on the street containing a DVD of a Top Ten movie is random. Attempted plunder of a specialty store with thousands of just DVDs is not. It is not true Fu. Yes, even your humble master is not without folly. Thrift Fu talks to me when it damn well pleases. Forced conversation in any context is usually awkward and unsatisfying.

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The Housing Works in mysterious ways

February 11, 2010

Again, I must apologize for my lax attitude in updating this blog. I have still been restricting my thrift store visits in expectation of large expenditures, plus my job’s hours have been changed, which may curtail how much overtime I can get. Also, as I wrote in the previous entry, I’ve become more aware that in order to justify this blog, it must go beyond a mere laundry list of acquisitions and how much I paid and saved on them, and instead find the story in the hunt and those inherent in the items themselves.

But, as the saying goes, if you don’t play, you can’t win, and likewise, if I don’t engage with Thrift Fu, it won’t speak to me. But you won’t necessarily win every time you play. In the past month I’ve visited my local Salvation Army and, with a will you wouldn’t believe, I forced myself to put back a stack of CDs, including music collection essentials like The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and Björk’s Debut. Likewise, on a trip to my local Goodwill I decided against the soundtrack of Hedwig & The Angry Inch and an XL short-sleeved button-down shirt emblazoned with an anime-style samurai type.

If you look at those two examples, you’ll notice a commonality. No, not CDs, you boobies. They were both LOCAL. These are the thrift stores I ALWAYS hit. I’ve been lapping myself.

A week ago Friday I was picking my nephew up from school with the intent of taking him to a movie after his tai kwon do class, all on the Upper West Side, which is outside my normal path of travel. My nephew was asserting his tastes and plans in movies which, being not yet 10, are at times questionable. (I am willing to sit through a lot of crap to hang out with my nephew. The Tooth Fairy wasn’t one of them.) Upon arrival at his class, he realized that he’d left his gloves at school, and granted me permission to go retrieve them on his behalf; how gracious of him. His school, when I returned, had already locked up the room from which I’d picked him up, and the room in which the lost & found was located currently hosted an afterschool class until 5.

My compounded annoyance led me to not return immediately to my nephew’s tai kwon do class, but instead visit the Columbus Ave. & 73rd St. location of my favorite New York thrift store chain: Housing Works, the upscale AIDS, homeless and now Haiti relief charity. I am constantly amazed by the quality of goods that Housing Works carries, though I figured out the sad truth behind its advantage years ago: aside from being a cause célèbré in upscale neighborhoods, they were inheriting the estates of gay men who died of AIDS. More than a little morbid, I grant you, but such music! Such books! Such clothes! I’m plotzing!

This was obviously a visit with a time limit, so I set right to work delving into the CD and book shelves. Though a DVD box set of The Beatles Anthology was very tempting, to the extent that I still regret not buying it, I ended up purchasing only four items: 2 DVDs (The Lawnmower Man and The Work of Director Chris Cunningham) and 2 CDs (Hayseed Dixie’s A Hillbilly Tribute to Mountain Love and Audiovent’s Dirty Sexy Knights in Paris).

As I waited on line to pay, my time before needing to pick up my nephew running short, an older man of flamboyant tastes had left a veritable mountain of clothes on the counter and scampered off to find the cherry for the top of his linen sundae. This apparently flummoxed the clerk so much that he couldn’t consider the idea of ringing me and my four items up while this cat was away, which would have saved me no less than five minutes.

But while I waited and fumed, a wordless howl went up from the back area of the store. Apparently some mentally-challenged sort was out with family and had chosen that moment to get vocal without the use of speech. This is not the first such type I’ve encountered in the circles I travel of late, so I was good enough to not gawp as though he was The Elephant Man. But it seemed as though I was there to witness this, since I was at that moment saddled with a family member who, while at times frustrating, was nowhere as taxing as this unfortunate spastic. Lesson received, Thrift Fu. Tithe for it: $11.

When I got back to my nephew’s tai kwon do school, he had discovered he’d remembered his gloves after all.

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Just last night, I had just started my new schedule at work, and was feeling restless and frustrated as I left due to certain ongoing personality clashes. I decided I would make a Thrift Fu pilgrimage to the Goodwill on 88th and 2nd Ave. It had snowed somewhat heavily all day, and icy slush seeped into my splitting duck boots as I crossed the avenues; I thanked myself of 9+ hours earlier for the foresight of wearing thermal socks over my normal ones. Not even 6 pm as I approached, I saw a middle-aged worker pulling down the grate on the storefront. “Are you closing already?” I asked him.

Peering at me through coke bottle glasses, he said, “Are we not good Christians? Some of us are even Jews!”

I took a moment to take this in, then replied, “…what the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Everybody else gets to close up early today. Why should we have to stay open any later?”

“Uh, you’re talking to someone who just worked a full eight hour day on his feet; nobody let me go home early.” So, you know, fuck ‘im. I wasn’t going to have trudged through brown sno-cones for naught; I took the chance that the Housing Works on 90th and 2nd was still open.

They were, and furthermore, they were having a 25% off everything sale, fully aware that they should be grateful for any business they were going to get on such a miserable day. The first thing I spotted was a good pair of black leather shoes, which I considered, since the ones that my job issues are only just tolerable to stand in all day, but the $20 pricetag, even marked down to $15, gave me pause. I proceeded to the back and rooted through the unusually paltry CD and DVD sections (which I’d also noticed at their 77th St. store when I was last there), and moved onto the books.

The first one I found was a novel telling an alternate life story of the famed Italian anarchists called Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! by Mark Binelli. But the next I found was a novel called The Last Universe by one of my favorite Young Adults author, William Sleator, author of such classic titles as Interstellar Pig, The Green Futures of Tycho and Singularity. Along with John Bellairs, he’s written some of the creepiest stories still developing minds were ever allowed to view. I considered for some time whether he was appropriate for my nephew.

Meanwhile, I’d also found two non-fiction books: Scrolling Forward by David M. Levy and Dungeons & Dreamers by Brad King & John Borland. I was just about ready when my eyes alit onto a pocket paperback edition of Orson Scott Card’s Children of the Mind. I’ve long kept a holding pattern around Card’s works, which I’m to understand are masterful in and of themselves, but the man’s social politics, particularly his unabashed homophobia, have made me reluctant to contribute, either financially or psychically, to his success, which I’m sure needs no support from me. Beyond my personal distaste of homophobia, as a writer with interest in sci-fi, I believe a writer without the imagination to conceive of why two adults ought to be allowed to love one another has no right to dabble in the genre. In fact, in a store which was largely staffed by gays and was benefitting AIDS charity it seemed like a country bumpkin hollering for the jelly at an upper class brunch. I’d recently picked up three of the books in his Ender quartet at Goodwill, and this seemed like an opportunity to complete the set. Perhaps this was a message from Thrift Fu telling me to keep my aesthetic and political tastes apart? After all, on some level it must burn Card’s buns for his book’s resale to support that which he despises.

In the end I put back the Sleator novel, as my cultural offerings to my nephew seem to have gone unappreciated lately, and chose the Card book. The four books when rung up by the gender-indeterminate clerk at the counter, came to an $11.43 tithe, a savings of about $3 over the usual price there and a savings of over $50 off the original price.

Here, of course, is the true lesson from Thrift Fu: when I got home, I realized that the Card book was actually one of the three I’d already got from Goodwill. Sometimes Thrift Fu has something to say; sometimes it just lets you make an ass of yourself. At least it was a lesson that only cost me 75¢ to learn.

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Appropros of little else, the computer on which I’ve been composing these entries is a last generation Apple iMac I got from Housing Works’ off-Houston St. store in November for a $350 + tax tithe (minus a $150 dedicated Hannukkah gift from my dad). While it is gee-whiz slick (especially compared to the MacBook it replaced), it did not come with a word processor installed other than the bare bones TextEdit. I’ve made do with that, but it is dull as dishwater. Luckily, I just found online a free beta of a slightly better text editor called Ommwriter, which has managed to keep even my ferret-like attention by being a floating field of text, clicking softly with every keystroke, playing ambient music and nature sounds over a tranquil winter landscape. I hope the full version will include a little more variety and tools, but as it is, I’m glad for the focus it’s afforded me at such reasonable terms.

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If Thrift Is In The Shop & No One’s Around to ‘Fu It…

January 25, 2010

It’s been over two weeks since I posted on here, and I’m feeling very neglectful. This is in part because I’m still saving my shekels for the big unnecessary awesome purchase, which means that I’ve got to be careful about small unnecessary mildly impressive purchases. It’s unfortunate timing that I should be looking to make such an acquisition right after launching this blog, but there are lessons in Thrift Fu to be gained in its absence.

This evening I found myself in a fly-by-night discount DVD store that’s sprung up across the street from The Strand. While there were at least a few DVDs at reasonable prices I was interested in, those for which I have a BURNING DESIRE were absent (or, in a couple cases, in a format I didn’t want them in), and after sifting through just about the entire store’s stock I suddenly realized there was no good reason for me to drop over $20 on DVDs about which I was only somewhat chuffed. I put them back with not a little regret, but I realize now this was false Thrift Fu, and I successfully resisted it. The DVDs I want will find their way to me on their own path at their own pace, and I will appreciate them all the more when they do.

Observant readers may have noticed that my username on WordPress is “jerryabington.” Since I’ve been quite open that my name is in fact Ken Applebaum, who then is Jerry Abington? He is the narrator of Cory Doctorow‘s seminal sci-fi short story “Craphound.” Craphound is the nickname of Jerry’s alien partner, but it’s also a breed of person who scours yard sales, thrift stores, backwood auctions and the like, seeking items of unsuspected value that might be snaked for a song, be it for one’s own collection or an appreciable profit in resale to a more knowledgable buyer. At least, that’s the way Jerry views it. Craphound, on the other hand, comes from a race who puts ultimate value on stories, and they trade advanced technology to Earthlings for the physical totems of memories.

I chose Jerry’s name as my handle not because my interest in Thrift Fu is a purely materialistic one. If anything, I’d like to become less materialistic and more sensitive to the inherent stories in my practice thereof; why else write a blog about what in the end is random shopping? Jerry eventually reaches this consciousness in the story by Craphound’s example, though not before shunning Craphound for what he sees as a gross violation of The Craphound’s Code:

And then I explained to him all about how you never bid against a craphound at a yard-sale, how you get to know the other fellows’ tastes, and when you see something they might like, you haul it out for them, and they’ll do the same for you, and how you never buy something that another craphound might be looking for, if all you’re buying it for is to sell it back to him. Just good form and common sense, really, but you’d be surprised how many amateurs just fail to make the jump to pro because they can’t grasp it.

I don’t know yet if there’s a Thrift Fu Code, since up to now it’s been a mostly solitary pursuit (and I prefer it remain so to preserve the personal nature of whatever its message may be), but this seems a good starting point, as is the whole moral parable that is “Craphound.” If you’ve never read it, for the sake of the ‘Fu, it’s available for free online (as are almost all of Cory’s works); here is a .txt version, and it wouldn’t take much of a hunt to find it in almost any other format you like. There’s even several podcast readings of it online (of which I think the best is from Escape Pod) and a comic adaptation.

I should note I’ve not gone completely cold turkey on Thrift Fu lately. Some of the best scores from Goodwill from the past couple weeks have included:

There may be a couple items I’m forgetting. Obviously, you can take the boy out of Thrift Fu for a little while, but you can’t take the Thrift Fu out of the boy.

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Full Thrift Fu Jacket

January 8, 2010

I’ve stayed out of the thrift shops so far this week, mulling over a large, unnecessary but incredible expense, yet Thrift Fu stalks me nevertheless. As I walked from the train to my apartment Monday evening I found an item I needed: a two-shelf glass display case simply dropped at the corner of Fulton and Spencer. It needs to be cleaned like you wouldn’t believe & the side is cracked, held together with duct tape, but neither matters: it’s now a key component in my toy robot shrine. I’ll be putting more delicate & valuable items inside (some of them Thrift Fu finds themselves), and I’ve replaced a missing door with a grate from the extant shrine scaffolding to keep my young, curious, destructive cat out. I may install the blacklight tube I’ve had long dormant inside for a cool effect, and it adds two shelves to the entire affair, not to mention a more formal air. Pictures when it’s worth sharing.

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I should at this early stage in the game detail exactly how it is that Thrift Fu made itself aware to me. As I said before, it was in the summer of 1999. I was still living in my little college town in Wisconsin that was at one point both an industrial hub and a daytrip destination, but by the time I got there it was neither any longer. What is was, according to scuttlebutt, was the axis of regional illegal narcotics trade. Better by far than the next major town north, which had the dubious reputation as the Midwestern capitol of the KKK. I had been working since that February as a telephone bill collector, a nasty business for which I showed surprising aptitude, and had just finished up co-professoring a course in comic & animation semiotics. (I should note that I was not the TA, as I was indeed under contract to the college for the semester; I did in fact teach the bulk of the classes, having greater fluency in the topic than the tenured professor in charge.) I lived across the street from my office in a chilly, ramshackle railroad apartment directly over a redneck poolhall, which later became a disappointingly tepid crafting store.

During the school year, my girlfriend more or less lived with me, but she had gone home to her native land of Finland for the summer. We’d shared a ratty single bed for that whole year, & I was determined to make my piss-poor surroundings more amenable to her company, so I decided to buy a queen sized bed. I checked the Salvation Army Thrift Store near the supermarket I frequented, but their prices were unusually sky high, or perhaps they had none in stock; I forget which.

(A detour: it was at that Sally Ann that I found my “costume” two years before for an annual event known as “Dress To Get Laid.” It was a navy blue, corduroy, bell-bottomed, snug-fitting, wide-lapelled, zippered from the neck to the crotch jumpsuit. I wore it mostly open with a coupla faux gold chains & a medallion across my hairy chest and told people I was the Lost Bee-Gee. It was the one time that party lived up to its billing for me. Down the road, it looked even better when my girlfriend rocked it, hugging her curves and opened just enough to showcase her impressive cleavage. Perhaps that was the true first manifestation of Thrift Fu, but I was unaware of it at that time.)

Foiled at my usual haunts, my one co-worker of equally outré tastes, if not more so, drove me to a smaller thrift shop on the opposite side of the river that ran through town. There were plenty of cheap mattresses to be had, and though I’m only slightly less squeamish about sleeping on another’s bed than I am in wearing someone else’s underwear, my ardor for my girlfriend trumped any concern, real or imagined. I’d found one that looked sufficiently unsullied, and was getting ready to pay, when it caught my eye. I quite visibly froze and drooled.

The jacket.

To be more specific, a Berman’s leather motorcycle jacket. I have never owned a motorcycle, and though the image of shooting through late night Manhattan atop a sleek, growling two-wheeler is fucking badass and sexy, I very much doubt I ever will own one. Hell, I’ve barely ever rode one. But this jacket was the next best thing. Both retro and futuristic, with a side-zipper, buckles, ribbed padding, the works. The shop owner reckoned it was worth up to $500, but he was asking a measly $20. Best of all, at a size 42, it fit me to a T, and was sooo warm. I was in love.

And yet, I had a mission at this store, and after the $40 I was spending on the mattress, I couldn’t eat another $20 on top of it. I sadly, reluctantly took it off and hung it back up, concluded my business, and hauled my mattress back to my warren. At least I had the greater surface area of my bed to console me, and soon enough I’d have a happy girlfriend to go with it.

Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about the jacket. It preoccupied me while I strong-armed money out of poor area bastards all day. Thus it should come as no surprise that as soon as I got my next paycheck, I booked it across the river to that same thrift shop. I exploded through the door, sought out the rack I’d seen it on…

…and it wasn’t there.

Of course it wasn’t there. It had been two weeks, and a jacket that shit-hot wasn’t going to wait patiently for me to return to claim it; some other lucky bastard snatched it up and was looking quite the dashing sort rather than me. Deflated, I began slinking towards the door, next to which was the counter where the same owner sat in front of a “20% Off Everything Today!” sign.

Clinging to a shred of hope, I looked up at him. “Hi. I don’t know if you recall, but I was in a couple weeks ago buying a mattress.”

“Yep, I remember you,” he replied, sensing a question.

“Oh, cool. Well, there was this brown leather motorcycle jacket hanging over there that I was really into. It’s not there now, so I’m guessing you’ve sold it by now…”

“Nope.” His eyes twinkled.

“…what?”

“I said, nope. I didn’t sell it.” He stood up, got a step stool and reached up over the cabinets above the counter. “I saw that you wanted it, and I knew that you’d be coming back for it, so I put it aside for you.” And with that, he pulled the jacket off the cabinet.

I was stunned. My entire sense of reality collapsed. I couldn’t speak; whenever I tried, I sputtered random syllables, so bad was my cognitive dissonance. “B… but, but you couldn’t have known I’d be back for it!” I finally choked out. “You could’ve SOLD this!”

“I knew, and I am selling it. To you.”

The price tag I’d seen was gone. I remembered it said $20, but did he? “Um, um, okay. So, uh, how much is this gonna be?”

He remembered. “It’s $15.” He remembered, and cited me an even lower price than it had been priced at before.

Just how far could I push this? I pointed to the sign behind him. “Does that apply?”

He made a show of looking behind him, though he knew full well what it read. He understood that this was a ritualistic dance, and he needed to give me every thrill of victory. “Of course.”

I walked out of that shop with the baddest fucking $500 motorcycle jacket, saved just for me without any conscious intent on my behalf, for a mere $12.

That summer, I sensed something was different; machinery was in motion and forces were at work on me. I began visiting thrift stores and yard sales more often when finances allowed (and sometimes even when not). At one yard sale, I managed to charm a family into selling me a functional Atari 2600, with two extra controllers and a 25 game library, for $15. This was mere months before the retro videogaming boom exploded, and nowadays the system itself would go for no less than $80. I still have it.

In August, my girlfriend returned from Finland and promptly broke up with me. By April 2000 I’d found a job back in New York; when I moved, I abandoned the mattress on which I’d never got to sleep with her, along with the rest of my hopes and dreams where she was concerned. The item I’d specifically sought out was the one which turned out to be the most disposable, while those that Fate had delivered into my hands were the ones that are still with me over a decade later. The jacket’s potency is no diminished; while moving several years back, a carload of teens pulled up just to ask me how much pussy the jacket had got me and whether they could buy it off me. They could not.

All praise be to Thrift Fu. Let go and trust it, and it will provide.

h1

Enter the dojo of The Thrift Fu Master

January 1, 2010

Today, January 1, 2010, is my older sister Julia’s 40th birthday. That’s a pretty big one of those. She’s six years, two months and one day older than me, so that’s the current countdown to when that particular ax falls on me. Being as it’s pretty big, no ordinary gifts would do. And ordinarily, I, being a cheap bastard, would just smoosh her birthday together with Hannukkah & call it a day, but obviously that wouldn’t do this year.

In the end, I gave her three gifts today. The first and cheapest was a CD containing assorted mp3s I reckoned she would enjoy. (Though she’s scaled it back somewhat, she nevertheless has a ginormous music collection, with musical tastes to match, so it’s both easy AND hard to cater to her palate.) Bang, one down.

The second and, until last night, the only other one I’d intended to give her, was a pendant I found for her at my job. It’s sterling silver, and features a Chinese character that, according to the accompanying literature, means “long life.” Kind of appropriate to one’s fortieth birthday, I should think, and furthermore, since family lore has it that somewhere a bunch of generations back on my mother’s side there was Mongolian blood introduced to our Russian forebears, my sister likes to believe we are, by some definition thereof, part Asian. Two birds, one stone: BANG! Two down.

As I say, these might have been the only gifts she’d have got, and good gifts they’d have been on their own merits, no doubt. Last night as I came home from work, I had nothing in my intentions for the following couple hours but a speedy preparation for a New Years party I would attend. And yet, as I stepped off my train, for reasons I didn’t really understand, rather than a direct course to my apartment, I instead was walking the other way to my local Goodwill Thrift Store. At several points I nearly turned around, sure that I was wasting valuable time, even once I’d set foot in the Goodwill. Yet still I trudged on.

I’d found a couple books I was merely lukewarm about, & was perusing the housewares area with muted interest when my eyes landed on what looked like an old children’s book. Well, it’s hardly unusual in any thrift store to see miscategorized items in areas they don’t belong, either by employee or customer neglect. But as my eyes focused, I saw that it had newer spiral binding. I picked it up to look at it. Indeed, the cover and first several pages were from a 1940’s era kids book called The Birthday Cake, but then they stopped, replaced by blank pages. It was, in fact, a journal made from a children’s book by a crafty outfit called Ex Libris Anonymous. Best of all, Goodwill was asking a whopping $1.79 for it. (A check of ELA’s site reveals that even their smallest journals go for $12.) I put back the lukewarm books, picked up one I liked better about how the Internet has changed art, plus the first season of Aqua Teen Hunger Force on DVD. Total tithe was $7.58. (More on “tithing” in a bit.) Bang, three down.

Today, upon arrival at my sister’s party, I presented her with these three gifts one by one. The CD was received graciously, fully aware it didn’t cost me a dime. (Many has been the birthday or holiday my sister has done likewise, so who better to know those economics but her?) The pendant was appropriately impressive, and she immediately put it on, saying, “Look, it’s our people!” (What did I tell you?) But the journal, presented in a lowly brown paper bag, was the one gift that elicited oohs and aahs not only from my sister, but all her ladyfriends in attendance as well.

“Where did you find this?” one of them demanded of me. “I want one, too!”

I just shrugged, not wishing to tip my hand.

_____________________________________________________

Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Ken Applebaum. I am something of a big nerd, so I wished my whole life for superpowers. Around 1999, I discovered at last that I had one, if one a bit unconventional. Two years later, on a BBS for nerds who wanted to look cool, I gave it a name.

THRIFT FU.

I have since seen this term used elsewhere, so I must have really tapped into some primal energy, but I assure you, I coined it nearly a decade ago. If I could search the archives of said BBS I could prove that, but alas, I cannot. Like anything that requires a certain suspension of disbelief, like Thrift Fu itself, you must take this on faith, for now, at least. Indeed, Thrift Fu is the closest I’ve ever had to true spirituality, having never truly connected with Judaism as it was presented to me or have since learned of it, nor any other organized religion for that matter.

If you hear the term “Thrift Fu,” your mind may leap to a number of suppositions about what it means, and a good many of them would be grossly inaccurate. It is not bargain hunting. It is not eBay trawling or comparing prices on Amazon. It is not lowball bidding. It is not coupon clipping.

So what, then, is Thrift Fu?

Thrift Fu is a kind of zen and a kind of divination. Thrift Fu is surrendering yourself to pure chance, utter happenstance. Thrift Fu is whatever The Universe wants you to know or to have, placed in your path at a price at which you are willing to pay for it.

Still confused? I’m not surprised. It’s less something that you can understand intellectually and more something that you have to intuit. When I found myself yesterday evening with two hours to get ready for my evening yet walking away from where I needed to go, that was Thrift Fu working through me. Had I been operating completely, robotically intellectually, I’d have missed an opportunity to get one of the more memorable presents I’ve ever given.

Thrift Fu is not just about finding the lowest price on something. I’ve never claimed it was the absolute cheapest way to any given item. It’s not about finding the item or the price; it’s about the item or the price finding you. There are things that might be available to you absolutely free, but they are still not worth it, be it in intrinsic value or what other, less obvious price they might ask of you. They might even be the right items at the right price, just at the wrong moment.

On the other hand, there are items that are so precious, perhaps to no one more so than you, that no price is too high to pay to acquire them. That price is your tithe to Thrift Fu.  It is your exchange to put things in balance. Sometimes, that price may not even be in currency, but in whatever function you must perform. The item itself may not be intended for you, so your role in its journey is as a conduit for whomever it’s intended.

Thrift Fu is a power, and like all powers, it can run out of control. I’ve at times been helpless before its might as items practically threw themselves at me. Despite the word “thrift” in its name, it can actually get expensive if not kept within limits. That’s part of why I’ve created this blog: to chronicle my finds & try to connect the dots between them into whatever I’m being told, but also to receive external feedback whether I’m seeing the same things others are, and to hear some of your stories on the matter, too. (And, should this blog turn any sort of profit, perhaps I can start writing off my thrift store visits on my taxes as business-related expenses.)

I welcome you to this journey that I’ve been on. In time, perhaps you will go on your own. May only the bitchenest shit find you. I shall speak to you all again soon.

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