It was the late nineties. I remember I was working a closing shift at the college-town resale shop where broke students would stand in line to sell their barely worn jeans in order to make enough cash for that night's swilling session at, depending on one's scene, Fat Tuesday or Long Wong's.
The store was unassuming, situated in a strip mall next to a tattoo shop and a walk-in restaurant where neon-orange chickens spun on a rotisserie and I could eat lunch for $2. Inside, the fluorescent lights illuminated a multitude of racks filled with colorful clothing in varying sizes and obscure music would blast over the speakers -- Bryan always picked rockabilly, Jason played death metal as loud as he could get away with and gave everyone a headache, Mina opted for the more crowd-pleasing Top 40, and when given the chance, I'd get to play the EPs of the rock bands I attempted to manage in my free time.
It was a place where society's fringe crowd spent all hours perusing the racks, like you would a record store, scoping out the options and hoping to score a unique find. The vintage corner in all its electric polyester glory was my absolute favorite section of all. Dressing the part of a resale employee was the best part of the job. As you sorted through heap after heap, you got to shop and get first pick of the hundreds of pieces that would rotate through the doors on a daily basis. I liked to mix and match classic pieces with funky, bohemian flare and some days, I'd walk in looking like an extra from Mad Men. It was exhausting, creative work simply getting ready for a shift, but I loved working resale because I enjoyed putting outfits together and spending half of my measly paycheck on unique pieces I had culled over the years.
I had only recently become a "Buyer I" which basically meant that I got paid 20 cents more an hour than the "Floor Crew" and I had earned the "privilege" of digging through garbage bags of people's discarded clothing searching for pieces we could sell back to them. During my years as a Buyer, I found a 30-year-old bag of weed in the pocket of a pair of vintage jeans, and a beloved heirloom that brought the seller to tears upon discovery; one fellow Buyer once even discovered a hypodermic needle, blessedly capped, in the pocket of a bomber jacket. I questioned all manner of stains, held wool sweaters to my ear for the shrink test, and studied a plethora of Levi's tags in the never-ending quest for the Big E.
Sometimes, the job was gross. When people sell clothes for cash, you either get the absolute dregs of their wardrobe, or you get the ones who painstakingly parse through their closets and try to find the most bang for their buck. Nine out of ten times, it was the former. Because we had to examine items closely, I had to touch some seriously funktastic shit. This was around the time I first made friends with my buddy, Purell, who would make another dramatic entrance into my life some 10 years later when I had kids.
As nasty as it could be, the job would pay off big time when an unsuspecting person would walk in with a bag full of "grandma's old clothes." My eyes would sparkle, I'd roll up my sleeves and get to work studying the potential gold mine that awaited my review. Vintage clothing was my kryptonite. I appreciated the quality in which clothing was made in the 40s and 50s, plus the style was usually elegant and timeless. They'd always call me to the buyer's table when vintage clothing showed up. It was my specialty. Sadly, vintage sizing didn't always agree with my body type. Much to my dismay, even when I'd discover a dress or two that were in good condition, the sizes rarely jived with my voluptuousness - the armholes were too small, the waistlines even tinier and the bust measurements were minuscule compared to what I needed. Most of the time, my vintage buying adventures would end at the counter as one of my smaller-boned-yet-less-appreciative coworkers would snatch up the dress or coat that I ached to own myself.
But not this night.
It was a random weeknight around 8pm, about an hour before closing time. I was the only Buyer on the clock and my manager was in the back of the store counting registers with another staff member. An older gentleman walked in the store with a giant box. I greeted him and asked him if he had stuff to sell. He explained that his mother had recently passed and he was cleaning out her house so he could sell it. He'd found three boxes full of neatly wrapped, mothballed "old clothes" of his mother's that she'd stashed in the attic "for who knows how long." I got a sudden burst of energy, quickly explained the buying process, and told the man to go gather his other two boxes so I could take a look.
What awaited me took my breath away. I'm fairly certain I audibly gasped as I pulled out the first of a dozen perfectly preserved vintage dresses. Each one more beautiful and more pristinely cared-for than the last. There was a cream and black, velvet-armed, princess-cut cocktail dress where the vintage zipper soared effortlessly, like a skater on the smoothest of ice. Then there was the nude-colored, strapless, sweetheart dress with layers of crisp tulle and intricately woven with strands of gold thread throughout. The delicate, burnt-chestnut, tea-length chiffon dress didn't have A. Single. Snag. My hopeful heart pounded while my brow creased from the seriousness of this mission.
I pressed on pulling out circle dresses, sheath dresses, pillbox hats, pea coats and swing jackets. Not a stain, wonky button or missing bead in the bunch. Best of all, from the moment I held the first dress to my body to guess an approximate size, I realized that the man's mother must have been my EXACT size. I tried to stay cool and I called my manager from the back to help me with pricing because I knew that I'd be taking as many of these babies home with me as possible, despite the sorry state of my checking account.
After we purchased every item the man brought to the store that night, I set to work choosing which items to buy for my own closet. I couldn't get them all, which pains me to this day, some 20-odd years later. But I did get the three dresses I mentioned before and a gorgeous, leopard print, satin-lined swing coat. When I got home and played dress-up for my now-husband, I squealed in delight as I effortlessly slid the zippers of these antique gowns up my side and found they were basically made for me.
My best discovery of all still awaited me.
As I modeled the leopard coat and swung around my living room for absolute dramatic effect, I slipped my hands into the front pockets and found there was something balled up in the deep corner of the right one. In a feeling I can only describe as that magical zing kids experience on Christmas morning, I pulled out a gorgeous set of black gloves with matching leopard-fur cuffs. I was thrilled by this discovery and greedily opened the coat to find another pocket on the left inside chest. This time the Universe truly outdid itself when It gifted me a pair of silk stockings, turned inside out, wadded up and forgotten in this hidden satin pocket, perhaps during a mischievous night on the town.
It was in that moment that I formed a kinship with a woman I never knew. It's like, somehow, from the grave she sent her son to me with her beloved boxes of attic treasures knowing I would cherish them as she once did. And I feel her with me every time I wear her leopard print coat and slip my hands into the satiny embrace of her pockets.