Suzan Still: I’m a material girl

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Material goods have gotten so cheap, they’ve become burdensome.

—Jennifer Hyman, co-founder of Rent the Runway

I recently read an article by Joel Stein in Time magazine about the so-called “sharing economy.” It was hilarious, as his pieces aways are, but also thought provoking. It deals with businesses like Uber, Lending Club, Airbnb and Yerdle, all of which cut out large corporations or middlemen and give freelancers a shot at economic independence. The above quoted Jennifer Hyman goes on to say that proud ownership of a big closetful of shoes, “would be considered kind of yucky today.” One should rent high fashion garb rather than owning it, apparently.

I beg to differ with Ms. Hyman. My closetful of shoes is not yucky! It’s a trove with strata dating back to the 1960s. The chief representative from that era is a pair of orange leather pumps with yellow snake heels for which, while a student at Berkeley, I starved myself on French bread and small, withered potatoes costing five cents a pound for an entire month in order to afford them. So important are they to my sense of history that I lent them to Calypso Searcy, to wear in the opening scene of my novel Fiesta of Smoke, which I suppose may represent a kind of sharing. Nothing I could rent from Rent the Runway could possibly have the same clout or resonance.

I admit that household items can be burdensome, especially on cleaning day. Yet I can’t imagine living without them. They represent a different kind of sharing economy, one that accumulates rather than disseminates.

Consider, for instance, the rose-covered draperies over the French doors in my study. Originally, they hung in the home of cartoonist Milton Caniff, of Steve Canyon fame, during the late forties or early fifties. Then Caniff’s wife Bunny shipped them to her sister Peggy Leever, in California. I first encountered them as a child, hanging in the bedroom of Peggy and her husband Basil, who was the Justice of the Peace of our little Gold Rush town of Columbia. When Peggy and Basil retired to Palm Springs, my mother inherited the drapes. She used one set to cover the inside wall of her garage because she didn’t like the look of the sheetrock. When my parents died, I discovered the matching set, the one now hanging in my study, in a trunk. The lining is stained and tattered, but the drapery material is still bright and beautiful. Now where in the new sharing economy would I find anything, cheap or expensive, to equal them, with their intimate history of fame, friends, and family?

My house is bulging with things of this sort, as heavy with aesthetic value or personal history as they are with monetary worth. There’s the pewter coffeepot once owned by my great-grandfather who died of tuberculosis in Andersonville Prison during the Civil War. A beaded medicine bag from the Indiana tribe that adopted my grandfather early in the twentieth century. My mother’s collection of hand-painted Minton and Limoges demitasses. My father’s carving knife that I never use because I don’t want to dull the perfect edge he put on a blade worn to only an inch in length from a lifetime of whittling. There’s a turquoise-glazed roman oil lamp, raised from the bottom of the Mediterranean sea by a diver friend, that has a tiny barnacle attached to its cup. A long, hanging scroll of Chinese calligraphy that I cannot read. A carved wooden bear brought to me from the Ukraine by a friend who had gone there to participate in war games. My father’s WW II dog tags. My mother’s pinking shears. The tiny figure of a Dutch boy that glows in the dark and is probably radioactive, dug from his pocket and given to me by an old man in the park when I was five.

The list is nearly endless, and the combined collection is not “yucky.” In fact, some items are worthy of immortalization, like the above-mentioned orange shoes, or a mismatched cup and saucer of gold-embellished Paris porcelain from the Empire period. I brought the original home from Languedoc last spring and then lent it to Calypso for her home in the last chapter of Well In Time. The new sharing economy may be fine for cheap goods that are readily replaced, but some things—and I suspect we all have them—are irreplaceable. They root us to our family and our past in a true economy of sharing and continued utility. They uplift with their beauty, soothe with their worn and familiar presence, and vessel our memories and imaginations. Very likely they are the last things we would share with strangers, no matter what the economy. They are as intimate as underwear, as personal as an ID, and as precious as can be. Is it yucky to amass them and hold them dear? I think not. They are sharing themselves with us, and that’s quite enough to ask of them, no matter how the economic winds are blowing.


 Well In Time

Suzan Still is the author of several novels, including her latest Well in Time.

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On February 19, 2015
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