I remember when they knocked down the Salvation Army Donation store on Atlantic Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn. It hit me hard, like a sucker punch to the gut. A few pillar stones and rubble was all that was left of an establishment that did so much for me in my youth. I copped my first Ralph Lauren power piece there. It was a three button long sleeved polo shirt. Even in it’s discarded state, it was easily, the most valuable thing I owned.
I couldn’t afford Polo by Ralph Lauren growing up. Or Nike, or Nautica, or Hilfiger. Or even Karl Kani. Basically nothing fly, that would solidify my “social status” in the hood. You see, my Moms came to this country as an immigrant, so not only could she not afford brand names, she simply didn’t give a shit. She could care less ‘bout designer names like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. She grew up on a tiny island, in the middle of the Caribbean with nine brothers and sisters. The only thing she cared about was which sister she was getting her next hand me downs from. Still I begged her, “Come on Maaaaa…everyone is wearing ‘Lo. I’m the only person in the neighborhood wearing these wack ass clothes” I whined as I tugged at the off brand T-shirt I had on for emphasis.
“What the hell is…low?” she asked in her fading Caribbean accent.
“Polo, Ma, by Ralph Lauren, it’s the dopest gear out. Don’t you want me, your only son, to look good? If so, I need that emblem of the man riding a horse on my chest!” I said as I pounded my fist to my chest with pride. She was silent for a moment as she scrunched up her face with a questioning look. She squinted at me as if she was seeing me for the very first time.
Finally she answered, “Boy, ya ugly as a damn horse, no amount of expensive clothes will change that.” She threw her head back in laughter turning her attention back to the food she was cooking on the stove. I got so heated. I knew she was just joking around but I was for real.
Ma just couldn’t understand that reputation and appearance meant everything in the hood. All of us were first generation kids in this country with no real wealth, so we put all our time and effort into frontin’ like we did. Whoever could pretend the best, got the most respect. We knew it was all for show, because the pageantry was all we had. We lauded those who put on the best act, and even dreamed of someday being in the spotlight ourselves.
While most of my friends were boosting their clothes, I was sitting in my room a little envious. They would run up in department stores twenty deep and roll out with an armful of colorful jackets and sweaters as security attempted to keep them from bum-rushing the exit. I was raised better than that though, so I was not about to commit crimes for fashion, hell no. If Ma saw a bunch of luxury items in my room that she knew I couldn’t possibly pay for, my rep on the block would be the least of my problems.
It was just Ma and me growing up. My dad got deported and was probably happy to get away from us. Caribbean men wear their pride like a tumor and his struggle to work two or three jobs hustlin’ to support us probably made him terminal. Ma worked at a nursing home during the week. But every other weekend, she worked for a white family in Long Island, cooking and cleaning to make ends meet. It was cool though, because I finally turned 14, and was able to apply for New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program after I begged Ma to give me her consent.
That summer I worked my ass off as an assistant camp counselor at the Flatbush YMCA. I daydreamed about all the ‘Lo clothing I was going to buy with my very first paycheck, that is until I opened the envelope. “Taxes! What the!” I knew there was no chance at sporting brand new Polo Sport or RL2000 collections in my future, not with this measly check. It hurt me to work as hard as I did, just to find out that this was all my effort was worth. Is this how Ma felt coming home from work, exhausted, too tired to speak?
I needed to burn off the frustration I was feeling, so I linked up with my boy Darryl in Kings Plaza Mall. We went sneaker shopping at Jimmy Jazz, which always had dope end of season sneakers at half-off. I bought a pair of Nike Air Max 95’s at a great price but the purchase still ate up half my check. I couldn’t really afford to buy what I really wanted, but I had to get something. I was ready to leave the mall when Darryl asked me what I was getting into next. I told him I was about to go home. “Come thrift with me” he said. I was confused. “What the hell is that?” I asked, wondering if he was trying to do some weird shit with me. He basically explained that we would hunt down used designer clothes that people gave away to the Salvation Army and Goodwill stores. I was little skeptical at first but also curious so I tagged along, even though in the back of my mind, I thought he was bugging to be digging through strangers’ old clothes.
We hopped on the B41 bus headed Downtown Brooklyn to check out Goodwill and the Salvation Army on Atlantic Avenue. “Always check the shoes isle first. That’s what everyone goes after so you gotta grab your size real quick. I found a pair of Flu Game Jordan 12’s here last week. Like some rich dude just wore them once and decided he ain’t a Jordan fan no more.” Darryl explained as we got off the bus. We walked into a huge building that looked like a warehouse full of old shit. The stale smell was overwhelming at first but Darryl breathed it in like it was fresh air. He showed me how to look through the many racks of clothes, picking the best gems without even touching them. “You can tell what’s quality material and what’s garbage by checking the stitching in the shoulder seams. Plus, look at the patterns, you know a ‘Lo pattern, and Tommy color scheme when you see it. Here, like this one.” He walked to the middle of the rack, letting his hand slowly graze over each garment until he stopped suddenly, his hand lingering on one particular shirt. He began to check the tags inside. I stood there in awe watching him as he worked. He moved swiftly like a seasoned butcher, expertly trimming fat and separating the prime pieces from the bone. “What size are you?” he called over his shoulder. I broke out of my trance and walked over to him. “Large” I answered. I really wore size medium but nobody wore their actual size, that was corny back then. He smiled and held the shirt up. “Yeah, this one is yours” he said. And there it was, a white polo long sleeve with slightly faded navy blue stripes, a white collar and the recognizable Ralph Lauren bear mascot on the left breast. It was beautiful but I immediately feared I couldn’t afford it with my anemic check. “How much?” I asked tentatively.
“Let’s see” Darryl said with a weird smirk on his face. He fumbled with the shirt until he found the tiny green price tag under the left armpit. “Take a look for yourself” he told me, passing the shirt to me. I slowly took a look at the tag and was in shock, $24.99! This HAD to be a mistake. Darryl peeped the look on my face and busted out laughing. “I was waiting for that reaction! Yeah, $25 bills Why you think I be out here in these musty ass stores. These people don’t know the treasure they have in their closet.” He said. I couldn’t believe it. Brand new, this shirt would have been at least $125! We hit up a few more spots and I found a Polo Sport duffle bag that usually comes as a free gift when you buy Polo Sport cologne at department stores, but that was it for me that day. I became addicted to thrifting after that.
Ma didn’t understand my new hobby, which was ironic because she grew up wearing used hand me down clothes like they were new. “Boy, I come to this country and work hard in white people house so you can have better than I did, not to wear people ol’ clothes.” I would just laugh and tell her I was happy with my “old clothes”. I was the envy of everyone in the neighborhood because of it. I had vintage, never before seen ‘Lo and damn near brand new Jordan half the price. I even flipped a few pieces I found that weren’t my size for a nice profit.
Thrifting is something that meant everything to me. I would imagine those who owned the items before me. Who were they? What were they like? Did the clothes define them, elevate them, make them feel like they were worth something, like they did for me? Or were they just clothes to them? I found out later that my favorite thrift spot was demolished to make way for a new luxury complex. This block that was once neglected and used up as the clothes I bought from thrifting, was full of brand spanking new buildings, ready to accept all of the out of towners, hungry for a piece of the big apple. And like the discarded clothes that once populated those lonely racks of the thrift store, I wondered… is there still space for me?