The Game: The Bowerbird Versus the Turtle
A 'thrifty' shopping fiction collaboration, based on a true Australian story
We step inside the tiny little second-hand thrift store. The smell of old lace, moth-balls and musty unwashed garments float through the air. I shoot a stern look at my little sister. Game on.
The rules are simple. We have $20 to spend on the fellow thrifter. We must choose items that resemble the other; items they will love; items that complement their best attributes; items that speak to the soul. And we have thirty minutes to do it in. This will be hard for my little sister, Jacqueline, A.K.A. The Turtle, for she moves at a glacial pace with everything in life; thus the need to cap the game to a mere half-an-hour.
What are the key elements of a good game? Excitement. We have that in droves. Everywhere you turn in a thrift store, you are confronted with something spectacular. Thrift stores are essentially treasure troves to the unknown. They hold the stories, secrets and wonders of other worlds, times and places; essentially the stories of people that are, that were, and that have left their treasure behind. What else makes a good game? Originality. Tick. Not only are the pieces fantastically original, like the time I found a Shakespearean purple pirate’s hat with a gold feather stuck in the rim, but the game we have made within this labyrinth is original in itself. Would you play a similar game in say, a department store, and leave with an equal amount of original pieces? Likely not. Department stores are scarce in army helmets, corsets and dusty old 1950’s rocking chairs. Now, no game would be complete without: Challenge. This is definitely a challenge. For Jacqueline more than me. The turtle will likely spend her time delving into the life and time that is each individual piece. She will mull over the specific intricate details, delving deeply into the world that was, before it entered this new world of thrift. I will be done in twenty minutes, and go buy myself a latte. She’s already started. . . I see her, staring at a hand-painted mug. She had a head start, but that’s OK, she needs it. “Turtle face…” I draw her attention away from the mug. She blinks slowly, almost absently pulling herself out of the ocean that’s painted on the cup. “Time starts now. Go!”
Yes, I move slowly through this world. Very. S l o w - l y. I suppose it might have something to do with the fact I daydream, a lot. It could even be in my genes; I once overheard a man, who was holding up a bus so that his friend running towards us could board, saying to the driver "These Italians... all operate on their own sense of time." What if it's a simple indication that home is calling, the mother country of my ancestors. I ponder this as I stroll casually down the aisle of this thrift store, mindfully eyeing the pieces hanging on the racks as I drift by. Without lifting a finger prior, right there - that must be the one. The pattern caught my eye. Then the colour. A gentle kaleidoscope of an organic plant form, little blue patterns set against a soft white. "So preppy" I say to my sister, Melissa, A.K.A the Bowerbird. "Preppy Le Pew. I feel like I'd look like a preppy school teacher in this. All I'd need now is to don a pair of thin reading glasses. Then I'd look really sharp." I was already wearing my vintage green-striped polo-inspired knit top, which only earlier attracted a comment that I must be on my way to "golf". Oh dear, of all possible sports... You know those moments where someone insults you without even trying, without even meaning to? Still, it's fun to think you can play literally any role you desire in dress-up. Even more so in a thrift store. Are these characters already inside of us? Our eccentric alter-ego? Personally, they pop out to reveal themselves ever-so-slowly. A new character appearing somewhat organically, sustainably behind the backdrop of my athleisure and minimalist uniform. I value comfort. Anything less is just poor design. Comfort in everything, even now in the smallest of details as I play with my Pura Utz beaded strawberry bracelet, so soft and light and not cold but warm against my skin.
It's true, the devil is in the details. It's the intricacies of each object that holds the key to their purpose to exist. I cherish the way it glistens in the sunlight, in direct opposition to its shiny, razzle-dazzle counterpart; the diamond ring. The Bowerbird may never understand. She bobs and weaves and swoops at every moment, at everything; whether it's buying a simple item of clothing only to make its way swiftly back into her tumble-weed of a wardrobe, or deciding without question to go ahead with a much more serious surgery operation (rather than to strengthen the ligaments slowly, as I would have preferred), she lives on the edge. I've always said, we only need to take a leaf out of each other's books, in order to find the right balance. Maybe it's the reason why I tend to only thrift in-store when she's with me. It's that much more enjoyable in good company, even if a turtle and a bowerbird are different, in so many ways. We still find a way to compliment one another's style. After all, isn't that what 'thrifting' is all about?
The Ethics of the Button
It’s a dilemma we have all faced before. Should I tell the lady? Should I not? Should I pretend the button never existed in the first place? Or, if I am really devious, should I ask for a discount, on the already discounted item, for the missing button on this panda onesie?
The button equation is simple. I know I broke it. I actually knew it would not fit in the first place. I knew as soon as I saw it on the rack. It would fit a size 8, I am at least 3 sizes too big. But the outfit enticed me, and when you truly fall in love, you will do almost anything to make it work (true to life, not just thrift-shop clothing.) Now I face this predicament. It's too late to not acknowledge the button. I popped it off, it hit the ground at my feet. Nobody saw me break it, so did I really break it? That philosophical question comes to mind: ‘If a tree falls in the woods and nobody’s around to hear, does it make a sound?’. But I am around, I did hear it fall. In fact, I saw it. In fact, I did it.
Then again, nobody seemed to love this item when it came into this store, not enough to keep it to themselves, anyway. It is a discarded piece; a lost story, threaded waste left for anybody to recapture for their own pleasure and purpose. If its rightful owner cared not for it, why should I care for its bones (buttons)?
But I do care. Enough to pick the button up off the floor, place it in my pocket, for a date later on that I will restore. Everything here needs a little restoration, even me and my questionable ethics. The ethics of the broken button. A button I shall pretend did not exist on the garment at all.
No matter how I defend it, I know deep within myself, I am only trying to justify the unjustifiable. But such ethics go way deeper than this, broken little button. For example, I wonder who made this garment? Was it sourced from child labour in Vietnam? Did the child printing the pandas on this fabric have a love for pandas; does it make them sad to know as they print for Western consumerism, pandas are slowly becoming extinct? Will we one day only ever see pandas on television shows, on old garments such as these? Was the leather bag I bought last week at the local op-shop derived from a real, once alive, cow’s skin? Should I even be in here; should thrift stores be reserved for the less fortunate? What about the person that decided to give up this onesie. Did she wear it before going on a date she ghosted? (ghosting both the date and the onesie shortly after). Or was she violently ill in it, did she sleep in it for days on end, choking and vomiting into a bucket, near missing the bile upon the miniature panda prints? Did she steal it from her sister, taking it to this thrift store, just to watch with disturbed pleasure as her sister scrambled frantically around the house searching for her favourite pyjamas? Did the owner love it, intensely for a day, an hour, a few minutes, and toss it aside when she was done, like an old newspaper or carton of milk that’s gone bad? Like Marla Singer's character (played by Helena Bonham Carter) in Fight Club states: "I got this dress at a thrift store for one dollar. It's a bridesmaid's dress. Someone loved it intensely for one day, and then tossed it. Like a Christmas tree. So special. Then, bam, it's on the side of the road."
Almost all the costumes worn by Helena were found from a mix of places, as Fight Club's costume designer, Michael Kaplan tells us: “Some were made to order, some found in second hand and vintage stores and ‘reinvented’ and ‘distressed’. Nothing was new." Nothing was new. Even a multi-award-winning story needed nothing more than some thrift store clothes to make the costumes work on film. And work they did. They enthralled us, captured us, intrigued us into the curious, intense, complicated nature that was 'the dark tourist', Marla Singer.
But I am not Marla Singer, nor Michael Kaplan. I will not find any answers today, not me, and even the elusive Marla does not hold the answers to such ethical-designer-impacted-fast-fashion-mass-production-broken-button-related questions. These are questions the turtle would prefer to analyse. I will simply restore, re-love, re-live this garment. The turtle will ponder its past, even its death. The bowerbird will give it a new future, it will bring it back to life.
It glitters, it sparkles! The bowerbird has found its treasure. I fly towards the garment rack, it looks like Christmas and Mardi Gras have exploded all over the store. My sister shakes her head “You are such a bowerbird” she says, "You take no time to really look at anything, you simply eye out whatever catches the light. In your mind, if it sparkles, it's good." I ignore the turtle, and proceed forward to gather; like a mother cradling her young, I swoop; I scoop; I grab what I can carry, and if I can carry no more, I can plonk some of it onto the turtles back. It will be a sloooow move to the cashier, but what are little sisters for?
Often found in Northern Australia, bowerbirds are known for collecting treasure to make their nests. They typically look for the shiniest, most remarkable objects, usually objects that catch the sunlight, objects that shine, glitter, shimmer. They are particularly attracted to blues and silvers. These special little birds live in rainforests, eucalyptus; acacia forests and shrublands. There is no place I would rather be than a rainforest (besides a second-hand store) and like the bird itself, I hunt for op-shop treasures that shine. Unlike my turtle-like sister, I waste no time; fast means more treasure, and more treasure means a bigger, better nest.
Another fun fact about the bower: Once the male builds its fantastical nest out of... basically junk, the female will come to see whether it is up to her standard or not. If it is not a castle fit for a queen, she will destroy it, leaving the male bowerbird homeless, needing to start the gather and courting process all over again. Humans are similar in nature. We gather; we aim to find the most impressive outfit, have the most opulent home, live a life that can be insta-posted and a fine mate to share it all with. Not I, though. I gather trash, because in every piece I see its true worth. One man's junk-yard is another man's treasure trove.
However, too much hunting and gathering can lead to a frightful mess. And so, I, the over-achieving bower, often wind up swimming in a heap of random objects and mountains of second-hand clothes. You only need to look at my nest (pictured below) to see just how out of hand it can get. Remember that show, 'Hoarders'? This is kind of like that.
I know it's wrong, and a little unbalanced to take so much from these little vintage, second-hand, thrifty-type stores, to the point my bedroom looks like a rubbish tip. I have fallen deeply into the haze of consumerism. But there is nothing more satisfying than landing my claws into a sparkling gold bracelet, or trying on a sweet little baby-pink pom-pom beanie that I could wear to a fancy affair (but probably won't. More than likely, such items will sit in my hoarder's nest, collecting dust.) Nonetheless, I search, I scramble, I scrummage around, in search of the pieces that will make me feel a profound sense of absolute delight. It is this I both love and dislike about myself. But you must take the bad in with the good, and be proud of who you are, even if who you are is a hoarder wearing a ridiculous hat. #BowerLyf.
I look around for Jacqueline. The turtle is gone, vanished into her shell, or even further into the vortex of the thrift-store than I have ever been. I bet she went to her go-to, the book emporium. It's a little vintage book store just a door down. It's not specifically stated in the rules, but we can digress into other stores for this game. I leave my treasure in a pile on the floor, venturing out to find her.
The book emporium has been around for over twenty years. It's owned by a lovely elderly man, who has an absolute love for books; he has made books his whole life. I give him a nod and a smile, he nods and smiles back.
"She's in the back, Mel", he smiles and returns to reading his 'Alice in Wonderland', first edition.
"Thanks, Georgio. I knew she'd be here."
I step on, my head bobbing around, searching for the little turtle, but nowhere is she to be found.
Sigh... I see a mass of books piled in the corner. And underneath them all, a little turtle. She seems to have knocked herself silly; she is buried under some of the world's most prevalent writers: Dickens, Dostoevsky, Orwell, R.R. Martin.
"Are you alright? What did you do?", I reach out my hand to help her up.
The turtle shakes her head, removing the Patrick Rothfuss book from her face. Ironic, really, to have been whacked in the head with a horror writer's tale. She has obviously pulled it from the shelf, and caused a book avalanche (by the way, she doesn't need any more books. This is just another one she would add to her ever-growing collection, collected but not read. And she calls me the bowerbird.) She seems a little dizzy. I hope she isn't concussed. But that's all part of the fun. Jacqueline has stumbled upon some incredible vintage books. Notably, Thorne Smith's Skin and Bones is one of her favourites, and she clenches it close to her chest.
"Just to be clear, I don't want a book," I tell her.
"You get what you get, and you don't get upset." The turtle is being a little cocky now. She moves slowly through the isles, graceful, steady.
The Soldier and the Wedding Dress
Objects carry memory. They are incredibly personal, especially when that object has been lived in or with, used, given a history, given a purpose. A brush is just a brush, but once we use it, it becomes our hairbrush. Without use, the object is simply that: an object. It seems to be a strange symptom of our society, that we collect on a continuous cycle, often barely using, like miss turtle face with her mountains of unread, neglected books. On this occasion, though, an old woman dressed all in black walks into the vintage clothing store. She holds two hangers in her wrinkled little palm, and on each hanger: two garments, obviously well-kept and very much loved. One of them, a soldier's uniform from wartime. The other, her wedding dress, likely from the 1940s. The dress is conservative; with a flapper's flair. Silver beaded and delicate tassels swish from the hem. The Bowerbird is instantly intrigued, after all, there is sparkle in the air.
The turtle gives a sweet look towards the old lady. The pair lock eyes for a moment; the turtle understands, completely. She relates to the woman's sorrow, her pain, her nostalgia. And while the bowerbird sees opportunity; a pretty old trinket for the taking, the turtle sees so, so much more.
The old woman came into the store with her late husband's old war uniform. A celebrated veteran, and her childhood sweetheart. The woman has lost the only man she ever truly cared about, which makes parting with her wedding dress and his uniform and medals that much more difficult.
Only earlier the turtle had spotted a pink silk Carla Zampatti blouse, which she said triggered an immediate feeling of loss of yet another human life. The Italian designer recently passed, in quite a dramatic fashion (falling down the steps at the Sydney Opera House.) It was strange to think that, once a person passes on, fragments of them are left behind in the earthly realm, like breadcrumbs. Objects carry a certain presence and energy with unbeknownst effects on their new owner. I wonder if they even hold some negativity in them? Would it be wise, for example, to take from Tutankhamun's tomb, or remove a rock from the Colosseum? Would we carry the curses that are said to live within such items? In this case, however, the turtle believes the old woman is making a mistake. So the turtle speaks up.
"Keep them. You love them. You love their memory. Those clothes hold too much value. It hurts, I know it hurts to remember somebody you love. But without memory, we live an absent life." Oh turtle, so profound sometimes. I hate when she does that... sappy-ness. She's just taken two fantastical pieces off the drawing board. I feel like it should be against the rules.
The old woman smiles, patting down the shiny dress and straightening the badge on the uniform. She appreciates the young girl's honesty, kindness and understanding, and it seems as if she will bring the items back to their rightful home. The bowerbird swoops in; the shiny beads and the shimmering badge are simply too glorious to ignore. The turtle slowly turns her neck towards her big sister.
"Don't you even dare think about it. This one is off-limits".
The bowerbird lets out a disgruntled squawk, and hops away, perching quietly onto a little wooden chair in the corner, defeated. Turtle: One, Bower: Zero.
The End Game
Bower's back is sore. Her spine cracks as she holds a mountain of clothes, jewellery, shoes and books; several ornamental trinkets; a silver tissue box; an old 1950's telephone (it doesn't work) a board game with missing pieces. A singing jewellery box, a stringless banjo, a set of random keys and photo frames with black and white prints from another era. In a split second, just as she is about to dump her nest onto the store-keepers bench, she collapses, the clanking of vintage pieces hitting the floor beneath her. The turtle has been watching, and smiles, a cheeky little grin.
"I'm not sure why you thought all of that would end up being worth $20. Look at you, you can't even carry it all!", says my little sister.
I roll my eyes, bending down to gather and scoop. I guess I'm losing this round. But the game is not over until it's over.
Turtle face drops the items she wants to purchase carefully onto the bench. A couple of books, a ceramic bowl, and a little brass ornamental sheep. She hands the lady $16 in cash. Clearly, none of these items are for me.
"Ha! Those are all things you like. None of that suits me at all. So you don't win this game, little sis." I grin in delight.
The little turtle turns her face towards mine. A sweet little smile creeps across her lips. "You are right, these items aren't for you. I really do believe it's super hard to shop for someone else in a thrift store. It's such a personal experience, genuinely unique. In the end, we always wind up buying pieces we love, that speak to our own true self. But that does not diminish the joy I get from rummaging with you, big sis. We thrift, we gift, we enjoy the experience."
"Me too, it's all about having fun. It's the journey, not the game itself. Still... it's fun to win, now and then. I guess neither of us won the thrift shop game this time around."
The turtle shoots me a cheeky grin. She pulls off her backpack, an old green one she bought from an antique store a while back. It only makes her resemble a turtle even more so. What has she got in there...I wonder.
Turtle face unzips the old tattered bag. She carefully pulls out a large book, she bought from the book emporium before she became trapped under the book-avalanche. What a cheeky little turtle, hiding that purchase for all this time!
"Here you go," she says, "And you see, right there, on the back shows the price. It cost $20. It's just one item, but I think you'll love it. Quality, not quantity, big sis."
I turn it over, it did cost $20. I turn it over again, and read aloud its title:
THE BOWERBIRD: GATHERER OF RANDOM, INANIMATE OBJECTS.
I giggle. I told Jacqueline specifically I did not want a book. I made fun of her for being s-l-o-w during this entire spectacle. I guess slow and steady often does win the race.
The fact of the matter is this: This ridiculous bowerbird book resembles me. This is a piece of literature I will grow to love. It is a book that complements my best (and worst) attributes. And what's more, my dear little sister reached my soul. The clever little turtle won.
Video sourced from YouTube, Images sourced from Google, and our own personal shopping experiences.
Youth Justice Worker, Teacher. Writing a memoir. From beautiful Australia, with Italian heritage. Much love to you all and to all that send me tips and love for whatever wierd stuff comes out of my head, it is very much appreciated. xx Mel