I admit it…one of my favorite Toronto stores always gets a visit
By Caitlin Kelly
Her name is all the rage, again — the Japanese expert on de-cluttering, Marie Kondo, and her motto: If something you own doesn’t spark joy, toss it!
As someone both frugal and sharing a small-ish apartment with not very many closets, this is an issue of both limited income and limited places to put things. So, typically, we don’t buy a lot of additional stuff and, routinely, take castoffs to local thrift or consignment shops or to Goodwill.
Every time I drop off at Goodwill I’m stunned by the mountains of stuff I see being donated; having lived in Mexico and visited developing countries where even the basics are considered luxuries offers me valuable perspective.
We live in a small town in suburban New York and drive everywhere, including to any store, so most weeks I only buy gas and groceries and a meal out. Maybe a nail polish or a lipstick.
I do look at lots of things on-line, but rarely succumb. I recently bought three — a lot for me! — sweaters on sale from my favorite retailer, a Canadian company called Aritizia. But my shopping sprees are so rare that my credit card company software gets alerted as a result; I use only one credit card, American Express.
I almost never buy “fast fashion”; too cheaply made, not my size or style and, most essential, environmentally ruinous.
In lean times, and even in better ones, I haunt a few favorite consignment shops, both for home goods and clothing and tend to keep things for a long time — still wearing a pair of (designer) Italian monk-straps (then new) bought in 1996.
A classic style, made of top-quality materials well cared for is a great investment as long as it still fits you well; I’m still using a down jacket I scored for $50 in 2004.
And, yes, I love new things and last summer spent (madness!) a mortgage payment on a brand-new, on-sale Tod’s suede handbag. I had just gotten a breast cancer diagnosis and it was my birthday and I said the hell with it! (Our mortgage is not that big.)
I recently read that Americans throw away (!) 81 pounds of clothing a year.
This is insane.
So it’s a challenge, especially as I do treasure lovely things and adore fashion and really love to look stylish. I shop like a Frenchwoman, buying only a few items each season, being very thoughtful about each. I stick to neutrals — black, gray, cream, brown, navy — and add fun with my accessories.
For our home, we buy, similarly, the best quality we can find, and keep using it for decades, like our Wedgwood white daily china and the heavy crystal goblets we bought at an antique show.
I confess to two layers of boxes in the garage about six feet high and a small storage locker, holding a mix of luggage, out-of-season clothing, sports equipment and professional needs like photography lights and books.
To avoid acquiring objects I:
1) buy the most expensive possible, which limits it!
2) regularly toss out anything we’re not using.
3) focus on enjoying experiences — travel, museums, concerts, meals, nature — more than things.
Having lived in New York since 1989, (I live in a town 25 miles north of Manhattan, but have worked there at magazines and a major NYC newspaper, and spent much time there), I’ve experienced the city in so many ways that bear no resemblance to the notions most people gather from film, TV or visits. If you live here for any length of time, and travel the five boroughs — Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens — you begin to understand how complicated a place it is and how diverse.
Far too many tourists arrive here, blunder around midtown bumping into more tourists and spending time and money on amusements just as easily found at home in Ohio or Nevada, then leave, persuaded they’ve “seen” this city. Cross the northern end of Park Avenue, and you travel from multi-million-dollar apartments in grand and elegant buildings to witness stunning poverty within a few feet.
Working as a reporter for the New York Daily News for a year also showed me a totally different city — the readers’ median income then $44,000, which is a very tough amount for a single person, let alone a family, here.
Eleven ways I’ve seen the city:
Aboard the M1 bus driving south down Fifth Avenue. A man in a wheelchair wears the uniform of the poor: thick grey sweatpants, thick grey sweatshirt, a puffer vest for warmth, battered white sneaker. Only one — the bulbous pink stump of his right leg, sticking out of his sweats, remains bare to the wind and cold. The driver patiently attaches wide red straps to four points of the chair to keep him secure. Ten blocks further south, the driver opens the bus’ flat metal ramp for him, and he rolls off and away.
Sitting at Swann Galleries on East 25th. Street, waiting to bid on two pieces of art. I arrive, dressed up, excited — to find only a few people sitting in the folding chairs with me. These days, it’s most done by phone and online, so a row of staffers sit awaiting those bids. I buy two pieces, a Dufy engraving and a Vlaminck lithograph, delighted with my score. The highest bid of the day — $100,000 for a Picasso print — comes from a dealer sitting behind me. He might as well have ordered a coffee; for him, just another day at the office.
It’s pouring rain and I’m on my way into Brooklyn, not the cool hipster bits but the long narrow streets, each side lined for long blocks only with minivans — bought to ferry very large families. No cars. Large metal balconies protrude from buildings. Men wearing enormous plastic-covered fur hats, a shtreimel, pristine white spats and black patent slippers walk alone. Women wearing headscarves and thick flesh-toned stockings with seams walk with multiple small children. This is the part of Brooklyn populated mostly by Orthodox Hasidic Jews.
Her hair piled high into her signature pale blond beehive, she enters the narrow, small Madison Avenue restaurant wearing high heels and a suit. A handsome younger man — his crisp white shirt unbuttoned a little too far — follows her, trim in a costly suit. She’s someone every New Yorker knows by sight, and many by reputation — Ivana Trump, the President’s first wife. She looks tired and sad.
The annual orchid show at the New York Botanical Garden
The BQE isn’t short for barbeque — it’s the Bronx-Queens Expressway. From it, standing still in traffic, you at least can enjoy great views of Manhattan, of an enormous cemetery, of wheels-down low-flying jets on final approach heading into Laguardia. Along its edges stand 150-year-old tenements and dozens of new apartments, their windows mere yards from ribbons of traffic, so close you can look into their windows and admire their furniture and lighting. After decades of enduring the rusted, crumbling Kosciuszko Bridge, (built in 1939), a new, shiny version now lights up in purple. An enormous billboard suggests, in very tall red letters, EAT REAL FOOD.
The African-American family sits together in the living room, telling me what’s it’s like to raise their grandchildren after the shooting deaths of their parents. They bring out a blanket, custom-made with the images of the parents woven into it. This is the older, not-hip part of Harlem, a traditionally African-American enclave. As I get up to leave, a rare Caucasian on the street, the grandmother walks me downstairs and to the bus-stop.
It’s a cold rainy day and we’re having brunch at a friend’s home in Bed-Stuy, a gentrifying part of Brooklyn. Nine women gather for mimosas and tofu and — always — a heap of fresh bagels and five kinds of cream cheese. The hosts work in television, one a writer for a hit television series, the other, working in the basement of her 1880s brownstone, is a Foley artist, making sounds for a living.
Keen’s Steakhouse, on West 36th. Street, since 1885; my table is number 54
A bitterly cold winter’s day, and my agent and I are headed into the midtown headquarters of Simon & Schuster to discuss an editor’s interest in buying my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns, already rejected by 25 other publishers, so their interest is a welcome relief. We walk down long hallways lined with framed covers of the many best-sellers they’ve published. Intimidating! We sit around a conference table — five women and one man, (my agent.) After some serious pushback from the editorial director (true? a gambit?) I go alone around the corner to the 21 Club for coffee and profiteroles to celebrate.
There’s that final scene in The Devil Wears Prada, when Andy spots Miranda across the street — it’s on Sixth Avenue at 49th. — a spot that for decades held the Canadian consulate and still the headquarters of Simon & Schuster, which owns Pocket Books, now my first publisher. Standing on that sidewalk in 2004, holding my book’s galleys, feels like the best moment of my life.
The Brooklyn Bridge
Pouring rain. I’m late, lost, annoyed, trying to meet a Bronx DA for an interview. I finally find a parking spot outside the mammoth Bronx Courthouse, and dive in. An elderly woman starts shrieking at me that I’ve stolen her spot. She screams. I scream. Windows start to fling open across the street as she calls for back-up. She gets a tire iron. I can’t leave because her car is blocking my car. I call 911 for help. A cop arrives and speaks to each of us. She leaves, and I finally meet my subject and the photographer, an old friend. They slide into the car, and I burst into tears of relief. The DA takes me to a dive bar for a soothing shot of whisky. It’s not even noon.
Charlotte Bronte’s clothing, a show at the Morgan Museum
“Who speaks French?” the city editor shouts across the newsroom, the length of a city block. I do, and am sent to the Hotel Edison near Times Square for a stake-out, which means a gaggle of competing reporters and photographers stand or sit in the 90-degree heat for hour after hour after hour awaiting the Quebec tourists — one of whom was stabbed (not badly) — we’re supposed to speak to and photograph. I sneak into the hotel with an intern and the New York Times’ stringer jumps into the elevator with us. He really needs a shower. “Wherever you’re going, I’m going.” We flee to the women’s room. The intern finds the tourists’ room and I sneak upstairs to tuck a note beneath their door. A security guard finds me, shouting that he’ll call the cops, and throws me out.
As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. — Wikipedia
The term is most often used to describe a specific way to repair broken pottery, often Japanese. I think it fits life as well.
By a certain point — for some, their teens, others their 50s or 70s — you’ve quite likely been dropped hard a few times against something unyielding. By this, I mean metaphorically and (I hope!) not the result of assault or physical abuse.
We’re not delicate porcelain or exquisite Ming pottery, but we are all fragile and all end up, inevitably, crazed; a word with two definitions, the second meaning spider-webby fine cracks.
In a culture increasingly devoted — paradoxically — to the rustic, artisanal and authentic and the social media offerings of glossy perfection, the notion of being broken and repaired, let alone stronger, more beautiful and more valuable for having been broken, perhaps repeatedly, seems radical and bizarre.
I’m into it.
Volumes have been written of late praising grit and resilience, as if — at the end of months or years or decades of being gritty and resilient — we aren’t exhausted and scarred. Maybe wiser. Maybe sadder.
I love early porcelain and china, and use several 18th. century pieces as butter dishes…stupidly undervalued. I want to enjoy them while I can. Unlike Japanese work, with its elegant crack-filling lines of gold, they’re stapled together (!), like recent brain surgery patients.
I don’t love these objects any the less for their war wounds, but am so grateful these little emissaries from the past are still with us….that having graced someone’s table in 1789 or 1832, they’re still here for us to use and share.
I feel this way about people.
The ones I most admire aren’t the shiny folk, all smooth and slippery, glittery, preening and unscathed, but the ragged and weary survivors of physical, mental, professional, emotional and financial struggle — depending on their age and background, possibly all of these — who somehow remain graceful and fun, able to laugh and savor what’s left of their lives.
It’s what I do when I’m angry, bored or stressed — and boy, does the apartment look great!
Silverplate polished, windows washed, rugs vacuumed, counters scrubbed, stove-top gleaming…
But this is also a time in my life, long overdue, of cleaning house in the rest of my life:
Ditching worn-out friendships
Time to lose people with whom I have little in common now beyond some shared history but little joy and pleasure in their company — and likely, theirs in mine. I’ve allowed too many unsatisfying relationships to masquerade as friendship. And my cancer diagnosis and treatment, inevitably, quickly thinned the herd of people I once considered friends, but who couldn’t spare a minute for a call, email, card or visit. Here’s a powerful essay on the subject from Thought Catalog.
Seeking newer, better clients for my skills
That might mean negotiating for more money or less onerous demands from the people I choose to work with. It will definitely mean dropping those who drive me nuts with their disorganization while being more selective upfront about to whom I sell my labor.
Setting tighter boundaries around my time, attention and energy
Yes, I’ll still dick around on Twitter and Insta, (one of the joys of self-employment is the need to remain visible on social media, as well as interesting and credible.) But spending more time reading books, visiting museums, galleries and shows will serve me much better than sitting alone in the apartment to save money. That which brings joy and inspiration — yes! That which enervates and sparks envy, begone!
Tossing out stained, worn-out clothing, shoes, towels, linens and all other items I just don’t like, never use and want gone!
I recently took a stack of good, thick (unused) towels to our local dog shelter, which they use to keep the animals warm and dry. I’ve clung for too many years to too many items for fear I won’t be able to afford to replace them. Fear is not a great place to live.
Upgrading the quality of what I buy, see, eat and experience
The obvious cliche of getting older — (and a scary diagnosis) — is valuing what we have and making sure to savor the best of what we can afford. Cheaping out and defaulting, always, to frugality has helped me to save a significant amount for retirement — but it’s come at the cost of constant self-denial and deprivation. Enough!