Fear and loathing in Goodwill

Around Christmastime I had a run-in with a man in Columbia’s Goodwill. It niggled at the back of my brain for months, so I wrote this essay for my capstone class. I’ve re-worked it dozens of times; this is the final product.

The Christmas lights had something sticky on them. It was brown. Possibly tape residue. Traces of the substance oozed into the grooves on my fingertips, and I made a mental note to wash my hands when I got home.

The line moved up a step. I listened to the cashier talk to a customer in Spanish. She was purchasing Christmas decorations for her home. For those with tight funds around the holidays, Goodwill is ideal. I’d been asked to provide lights for an upcoming party, so here I was spending $6 on gently used icicle lights instead of purchasing Walmart’s $15 version. I’d come to Goodwill out of thriftiness, not out of necessity.

A couple carried on a loud conversation behind me. Their toddler screamed and squirmed in the wife’s arms. They talked over him. A pause. Then, “Hey honey,” the man said to his wife. From his tone I imagined his face twisted into a sneer, fists balled. “How would you like a North Face jacket for Christmas?”

He’d spotted the white-stitched logo on my left shoulder blade. Accentuated by two white curving lines, it was hard to miss. His voice dripped venom and I could feel his hatred congeal into a thick cloud behind me. My ears grew hot. My stomach dropped.

I was the target of his verbal one-two punch – me and my name brand clothing that did not belong in a secondhand store as far as he was concerned thank you very much. I cringed but was too petrified to respond. I arrived at the front of the line, paid my $6 and fled.

Later, in the car, I thought of all the things I should have said. Not clever comebacks or witty insults but simple, levelheaded explanations. I had not paid for the jacket. My friend had toted it around in the back of his car for a semester. When no one claimed it he offered it to me, the only one he knew whose size is extra-small.

But apparently the man thought I’d purchased the jacket and hated me for it. In Columbia two sorts of people shop at secondhand stores: college students and those who must. He knew I belonged to the former category.

From the acid in his voice, I can only assume he belonged to the latter. He, his wife and their restless child were probably among the 20 percent of married-couple families in Columbia whose income in the past 12 months fell below the poverty line. The statistic for families with “female householder, or no husband present” is even higher – 32 percent.

College students who are not actively seeking work are not included in unemployment statistics. I do not appear in the United States Census Bureau’s report on “Selected Economic Characteristics.” I am not wealthy, but I am not poor. I have a support system – a safety net of parents and friends and relatives and job opportunities that my level of education will allow me to access.

The couple behind me has no safety net. A North Face jacket is beyond their means. It is beyond mine, too, but they couldn’t have known. To them, the logo I wore defined me – it was a symbol of my privilege. They knew nothing about me except that my jacket was manufactured and distributed by North Face. But, in this day and age of branding, jumping to conclusions is designed to be easy.

Logos convey messages. A symbol by itself is useless – a marking on a page or a piece of clothing. It carries meaning only because we assign meaning to it. A red octagon means ‘stop’ only because we have universally agreed that it means ‘stop.’ Even words are arbitrary. They are assigned to a concrete object not based on the object’s qualities, but because human beings assign labels to make sense of the surrounding world.

A North Face logo is a status symbol. Because North Face products cost more than similar “off brand” products, society has concluded that North Face equals wealth and class – two qualities that, in our competitive, capitalist society, we value above all others.

In South Korea, the North Face brand is tearing households apart. The logo is so fetishized that elementary and teenage bullies snatch jackets from their peers. Children beg their parents for the jackets and, if denied, go to extreme measures to procure them. Parents who hate to see their kids unhappy blow their paychecks and sometimes their savings on the designer outerwear. They are obsessed with the status that the jackets represent.

The North Face status symbol hasn’t reached these extremes in the U.S., but it’s enough to bring resentment bubbling to the surface at Goodwill in Columbia, Mo.

It’s easy to imagine the man’s story: a childhood in relative poverty, a struggle up the socioeconomic ladder, a triumphant arrival into middle-class society, an economic crash and a fall from grace. North Face, in all its infamy, is not unknown to him. Once it was nearly in his grasp. Now he despises it.

Our interpretation of symbols has gone a long way toward dividing us. The man’s outrage at the logo on my back was, for him, a knee-jerk reaction. He knew the logo and instantly made assumptions about the person wearing it. In a way, he was right.

I felt for him. His fury and despair and wounded pride had built into a brute force that he launched at the first target that came into focus – me. For me, he crystallized a lurking discomfort that has accompanied me for years in secondhand stores. Walking into them, I feel guilty. My upper-middle-class, collegiate status sticks to me, announcing to everyone that I do not belong.

An invisible gulf, imposed by a status symbol, separated me from the family behind me. But empathy for others can transcend designer logos and hallmarks of privilege.

Easier said than done. The global capitalist economy thrives on brand lust. It thrives on individual competition for brands that represent status; it thrives on the resentment of the man in Goodwill.

But if we make an effort to evaluate a person’s worth based not on brands but on character, perhaps we can undermine the cycle of jealousy. If he’d asked why I was buying the lights, maybe we would have struck up a conversation.

Who knows, we might have gotten along.

Fear and loathing in Goodwill

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