Catch and Release

They were Levi’s. 501’s. The classic American pant. Straight leg, button fly, epitome of cool and functionality. They came to me by a trainee’s mistake at the Family Thrift Center—big block building with a blue roof tucked away on the East side of Albuquerque. A magnetic security tag was left on the collar of late 70’s chambray. The shirt folded and bagged. Me none the wiser. I discovered it while unloading a haul of clothes I planned to resell. It’s what I do when I should be writing. Buy things, mostly clothing, at thrift stores, estate sales, and indoor flea markets to resell on eBay.

When I tell people this, they think I’m turning nickels into dimes. But sometimes something I buy for a few dollars earn hundreds.

A jolt in my pocket when the eBay app on my phone hums notifications of accomplishment. Making money this way feels good. I liken the experience to the thrill of an acceptance letter in my inbox.

I write in hopes of resurrecting the dead. My mother. My past self. My future self. I want to offer them longevity. The act of forgetting scares me. It’s why I can’t seem to write about anything other than myself and my family. They are personal markers that I strive to hammer into a greater consciousness. Each of my pieces that finds print strikes a nail on its head. Dozens of poems and a score of stories are talismans. Proof that I’ve done something. That I existed.

Family Thrift Center is not some mom and pop thrift shop with racks of pungent used clothing and shelves of mismatched cutlery, chipped dinnerware, and glass coffee pots long separated from their machines. Family Thrift Center is a 10,000 sq. ft. stockpile of a city’s castoffs. Rows and rows of grade-A garments, glass cases filled with jewelry and sparking trinkets. Home goods and tchotchkes crowd built-in shelving units. Puzzles, board games, and media neatly separated and housed by their likeness. A wild assortment of potential that raises my heart rate and focuses my mind.

I was shopping on a Tuesday as an excuse to avoid the writing. I had come to Albuquerque for grad school—a second stint in an MFA program. It was time to hone my craft, learn how to teach, build myself into the person I wanted to be—a writer, something reliant on my mind, but the closer I got to this existence, the greater my urge became to run from it. So I ran into the embrace of the local thrift scene. Found trinkets from generations past. I gave new life to old clothes.

I think writers want their work to be pieces of themselves to latch onto others. An old lover tells me she was reading at a bookstore in the old neighborhood and the lady behind the counter was telling her about this guy who read a story about a piñata come to life. She said the bookstore wants me back there someday. Then why didn’t she carry my chapbook?

There is thrill in the flip—the discovery and the sell. My phone buzzing dollar signs inside the classroom and out. The academy offered health insurance and the meager hope of someday-tenure. It was also time to the work.

The last four years had found me treading water in two writing programs, enjoying the occasional publication, learning the motions of alcoholism, and suffering the pleasures and anguish of graduate school romances. I wanted to experience more tangible strides in my life. A mortgage, a retirement plan, stability never felt by my parents. I found inklings of this type of success in the matrixes of my eBay sales reports. Makeshift entrepreneur, I experienced excitements reserved for treasure hunters.

The middle-aged woman with tattoo covered arms and silver crew cut shook her head when I presented her with the still-tagged-chambray. She doesn’t like mistakes like these, evident by her tucked lower lip and squinted eyes. With someone else, she might raise suspicion, but she sees me every Friday, remarks when I’m absent one week. She likes to give my finds a going over, broadcasts a sly smile when she thinks I’ve found something good. It’s as if we’re in collusion. I wonder what she’d think if she knew what brought me to Albuquerque. I worry she’d find me to be a double-dipper. She uses the magnet machine to clear the tag from the collar. She tells me she’ll keep the shirt up front for me. An invitation to shop. As if I needed it.

I don’t think there is a reseller who can resist a quick jaunt through the thrift once they’ve crossed its threshold. Especially one whose grown Pavlovian to the rumble of success in his pocket.

It had been a year since I had pumped my fist in the excitement of publication. Everything I was writing felt familiar. Was I caught in a loop? Had I reached my potential? I could report on the best finds of the week—a cool jacket, concert tee, dead-stock underwear. The hunt had become a stronger pursuit.

It’s stimulus overload. A skilled thrifter uses all his senses. His eyes scan everything. His ears can hear a crack in porcelain, perk when the intercom announce a day’s special. His nose staves off mildew and hints at Bakelite. Fingers detect fine yarns and elusive rayon blends. Tongue set to silver. Watch me thrift and see the levity of a bird floating about a space, head on a swivel, hand reaching out to grasp everything.

The search is ritual. For me, it is jackets to plus-size, sweatshirts to jersey, sweaters to button-ups, t-shirts to polos, that odd row of underwear and sleep wear always positioned at some far end, and finally a glance at the denim.

Early on I set out for t-shirts first. They were cheapest, offering big thrills that could multiply quickly on a rack, but time has taught me that while the little flips keep me profitable, it’s the big finds that keep me going.

I have noticed that people donate clothing in swathes. A hole drawer from the burrow could disappear. Wardrobes are easier to shed than identities.

While my search’s methodology shifts with the seasons, my mind is rife with consideration. Sweaters can turn a greater dollar but also take up more room. Jackets are a nightmare to store. Silky shirts are fun and exciting but stacking them is a nightmare. In the end, potential profit is all that seems to matter to me. It finds me restructuring my inventory more often than revising my art.

Despite all this figuring, denim remains at the periphery of my reselling vision. I’m more of a tops guy than a bottoms guy when it comes to reselling. It’s a matter of ease. All of this is a matter of ease. Many resellers hesitate to hunt pants because they are awkward to photograph and oddly specific when it comes to fit. A good pair of jeans are like a good piece of writing. You can spend hours in search of the right pair, but until you have got them on and walked around a bit in their glory, it is all just hope and uncertainty.

There is a hierarchy in the world of denim. And the jeans that reign supreme are the originals—Levi Strauss. The brand established by a tent maker floods the used clothing market. Once crafted in the USA, chances are the Levi’s in your local thrift store were sewn and riveted in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, or China. The Levi’s that command the attention of fashionistas and fashionistos across the globe have labels that read, Made in the USA. These jeans that harken back to cowboys and rebels without causes. They are American ingenuity, toughness, and style displayed on one’s legs. They are a symbol of singularity and populous charm. They are the iconic lynchpin between the Smith and Wesson wild west and the Coca-Cola technicolor dream of the 60s. In essence: they are the America sold to us from childhood. They are everything wild and free while simultaneously classic and convenient. They are the feeling I’m searching for.

If you are going to put monetary figures on it, the thing to look for is a big E on the red tab that spells out LEVIS. The tab is located on the right rear pocket. This small emblem represents all that is American—work ethic, resilience, and trademarked. Branded so on the ass.

Sometime in the mid-70s, the powers that be decided to convert the “e” from uppercase to lowercase. A slight adjustment that produced a world of collectability. Next, is the red line: actual red thread on thin white edge of the jeans seam. Only visible when cuff is folded, this lifeline to the past runs the length of the outer most seam, from ankle to calf, knee, thigh, and hip. They are meant to draw the eye to what keeps the pants together.

This essay is meant to keep this writer together.

There is also the leather patch on the rear hip. Always brown, it depicts two horses headed in opposite direction, set to pull apart this vary dream. Each pair of genuine Levis are true and tested, guaranteed to withstand the drudgery and strain of life lived. Later versions of this leather label were substituted for thin cardboard to accommodate a tear away tab that offers a stamped redundancy of size and style. True vintage places this leather patch up against a belt loop. There are other tells— stitch patterns, hidden rivets, and stamps on buttons.

I knew I had found them from the start. Heart’s pitter patter as I unfolded the red tab to revel that capitol E. Deep breath when I upturned the cuff. Seven years I had known the code, and here they were—relic hanging from the rack in my local thrift. Testament to knowledge and search. They were blue, deep indigo. Untouched by spin cycle or tumble dry. Splotches of grease on thighs, knees and seat. A yellow price tag stapled beside the fly read, $4.99.

This was what made me hunt. This was my found obsession.

Plucked from the rack, I placed the pinnacle of my pursuit into my shopping cart and returned to the head of the rack. The reseller knows that where there is one there may be many. And so, I scrutinized the line of jeans front to back: two, three, four times over. Then the row of women’s jeans. Heart lifted, I perused the store for over an hour. Constant glances to the swinging rubber doors at the store’s rear. Waiting for my fortune to multiply upon a fresh rack of new used product, set to hit the floor.

The silver haired woman who rang me up at Family Thrift Center likes to take her time. She considers what I’ve found each visit, holding up the shirts, jackets, and jeans for quick inspections. Sometimes she scoffs at the prices, “I know too much,” she says before punching the buttons on the register. I left the greasy Levi’s for last. I wanted them in a separate bag. She didn’t give them a second thought, but I was too giddy.

“Those are special,” I said.

A crooked brow, half smile, and gentle nod said, sure, whatever you say.

“They’re the oldest pair I’ve ever found.”

She looked down at the pants folded neatly, a dark splotch on the rear pocket glowed between us.

“You can get that out,” she said.

“I don’t want to.”

4.99 was punched into the register, and I handed here my $5 off coupon.

“You never know whatcha you’ll find here,” she said with a shrug.

She’s right. It’s always a mystery. That’s what gives people like me the bug. Maybe even hope.

In the parking lot, car doors shut and windows up, I screamed joy. My find folded neatly in its plastic bag on the passenger seat. I dialed my father. No answer. My sister. No answer. This was a moment of self-adulation. See a man gripping the steering wheel. Mouth wrenched open, his yell muted to the outside world. A satisfaction to get him through the day.

It’s easy to forget the hours lost when you calculate the dollars earned. I thought that I could sell stuff and maintain a life that allowed me to write freely, unencumbered by a 9 to 5. I thought all my reselling was setting me up for greater success, but I didn’t realize that success would be something far removed from my writing. I was allowing myself to become a great doer, leaving my mind to run on autopilot while it worked a system.

My life has disappointed me by circumstance and something in the creation of story allows all those circumstances outside of my control new meanings and a chance at understanding. For instance, if my mother had not died when I was twelve, I probably wouldn’t have found myself pursuing creative writing. She would have talked some sense into me.

I haven’t always sold things, but I’ve always collected. First it was baseball cards, basketball cards, a young boy’s trinkets. I lugged them from one house to the next, and finally the apartment. Later, books and records. In the fall of 2003, I made my first venture into online commerce. It was Johnny Cash’s debut album, His Hot and Blue Guitar. Sun Records LP-1220. Auctioned off on eBay for $17.99. A thrill, then ten days later that man in black was dead, and I found myself full of regret. I promised, never to sell again. Held to that maxim for half a decade. But in the spring of 2009, an early morning garage sale found me with a few dollars in my pocket. My slim bank account suggesting I should not be hunting down vinyl but looking for work. In a box tucked into the corner of someone else’s garage I found it—a rare mono pressing of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends. A favorite to this day. Later sold for $148. No one died. I was richer. And so, a new journey began.

I paid for my college living expenses by reselling records. When out of the classroom, I thumbed stacks of wax. Searched for rare titles. My studies veering to the written word, I leased my time to search and sell pieces of other artist’s work while constructing my earliest renditions. When I had bought and sold most of the vinyl in the Mojave, I turned my attention to clothing. It was in every thrift store. Heaps of the stuff.

Today I keep an office two blocks from my home. Stacks of product line opposite walls. Menagerie of patterned cloth styled to the public’s desire. Here, I employ a man to photograph and measure the goods. The average week sees me grossing $1500 and taking home $500 free and clear. Not bad for 15 hours of work that I enjoy and comes easy to me. If I dove head first into the business, I have no doubt I could quadruple the output in 6 months. In two years I could go from office space to small warehouse, take on two more employees, and expand fully into woman’s clothing and home decor. It is feasible that I could transition into a soft retirement by the age of 50. Maybe buy out one of the local record stores and become brick and mortar establishment. That isn’t my dream. But as I write this, my phone buzzes with new sales: Waikiki Pullover Jacket, 1950s J.C. Higgins Tackle Box, Ralph Lauren Jeans Co. Fleece… In these sales I find the triumph of my eye—validation of my sense of style.

Conventional eBay wisdom states: if one seeks to accomplish the highest returns, his auctions must end on a Sunday. This is why resellers crowd eBay’s virtual auction block at 10 P.M. Central Standard Time every Sunday. A nation rested and hungry for consummation reaches for their mobile device to place bids on rarities that might fulfill a life full of longing. It is the boost to push forward into Monday. The built anticipation of midweek mail. Who doesn’t like receiving a package?

Sometimes I feel like I’m getting over on someone. I like to imagine the affluent as a cow I milk all week long. It’s all about the money. I’m 31, finding financial security for the first time in my life, and coming to realize how unhappy I’ve become because of it.

I listed the Levi’s on a Sunday. Opened the bidding at $300.

The week of the auction found me floating from classroom to classroom. My students updated in the mornings. In the evenings, my peers asked, “So where are they at?” Even professors kept track of the progress. By Tuesday, the action had cracked $400. The occasional buzz in my pocket indicated increases of $15, $20, $50. Going into the weekend the total tickled 500. Comparable jeans had been fetching $350-$550. Some deadstock examples sold at fixed prices of $599. The auction price stalled at $519. Daily phone calls from my father and sister were filled with congratulations. “This is why you do what you do,” they said independently of the other.

I would not judge the sale of these jeans by percentage or markup. I pitted my results against the market. I am competitive in all things—sales, publications, adoration. With 63 eBay buyers watching my auction, I hoped for a last-minute surge. In my home office, I sat at the edge of my cheap, thrifted, swivel chair. The auction page glowed electric on my laptop. The timer trickling seconds away as the final minute approached. Earlier that day, I had told my father that I was happy with the result even if the $519 was the whole of it. I was hedging my bet, massaging my confidence.

They call it ninja-bidding. I imagine buyers tucked away across the globe staring into their computers, their smart phones, high bids typed into the small rectangle below the current price. It’s a game of strategy. One-upmanship in the most literal sense of the word. Rarity requires strategy. Ninja-bidding is it.

Three minutes to go—no movement. Two minutes to go—no movement. One minute—the clock dwindling. At 15 seconds, the action usually starts. Antsy buyers will click the bid button, untrusting of their wireless connection. $5 jump. $15 jump. The clock winding down.

When an auction ends the computer screen automatically refreshes. It’s a deep breath. It can feel like an eternity. And when the reselling gods smile down upon you, the page reassembles itself. Its parts appearing in sequence: the words—Items Sold, the listings title, primary photo, and final sale price. My fists rose like a prize fighter. A week’s held breath released. I fell back into my chair accomplished. A winning bid that read $769 declared me supreme.

Most resellers will tell you that auction results mean nothing until the item is paid for. The experienced seller knows that nothing is final until the buyer states they are satisfied. My Levi’s found a new home in Florida. The buyer, a Disney Company executive. Payment was made early the following morning. He was happy with the purchase. The sale complete. It was over, and I was left to ask, “Now what?”

When I tell people, I sell things on eBay, they want to know what. They want examples. I tell them, “One time, I sold a pair of grease soaked jeans for $769.”

When I accepted my position at UNM, my fiction mentor told me, “You’re headed to the Mecca. You’ll love it.” She wasn’t talking about my new MFA program. She was talking about the Albuquerque thrifting scene. Large old cities marooned in quiet states hold onto their possessions. Poverty demands reuse. A pair of jeans can have many lives in a city like this. The story I offered in my eBay listing, told a tale of a Route 66 relic. It speculated history by way of garage. The oily splotches—testament to a once thriving vein of America’s western mobility. We were dreamers once.

In the months following my big sale, something inside me had gone missing. The Levi’s didn’t fill a hole, they created one. In my local thrift stores, I found other rarities: a union made Budweiser button-up, an Arrow Chevella, a 1930’s flight jacket that set the tone for rebel motorcycle wear as we know it. All of it felt mundane.

I wonder if success is discovery or the willingness to let it go. I tell myself that if I write about the reselling, I will one day find myself only writing. That the reselling will stop. I tell myself that the greater of two passions will win out. I worry that I will be right.

Photo Credit: Blake Burkhart via Creative Commons

About the author

Ruben Rodriguez is a master of all things thrift. He holds an MFA in fiction from Cal State University San Bernardino where he was the fiction editor of Ghost Town. He is the author of a chapbook of experimental prose, We Do What We Want (Orange Monkey Publishing, 2015). His work has been featured in Passages North, The Brooklyn Review, Superstition Review, Forklift Ohio, Potomac Review, Oxford Magazine and elsewhere. He currently resides in Albuquerque, where he teaches and studies at the University of New Mexico. You can find him at rubenstuff.com.

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