• September 13, 2019 |

    secondhand summer

    making a new self out of old stuff

    article by , illustrated by

    My mom and I stared at the blotch spanning across the knee of the pants, an orange sun rising in the middle of black-and-white gingham fabric. The flared bottoms were supposed to render me a 70s dancing daydream in the midst of a sweaty 2019 dorm-room party—or so I envisioned. 

    “It looks like she kneeled in spaghetti,” my mom said finally.

    If that were the case, at least these stranger’s pants had paid their due to my Italian heritage. But at the time, this did not comfort me whatsoever. I was an expert in Depop by then, and when a seller claimed the item was in perfect condition, it was supposed to be just that—no enormous orange stains.

    I had been cheated. Lied to. Left with nowhere to turn but a direct message, a process that made me break out in hives—much like when an adult suggests I should simply “tell the waiter my order is wrong.” Despite many years of arguing with my high-school classmates or telling off my eighth-grade teacher when he dress-coded me (what makes you think I’m still mad about that?), I hate negotiating when something came out not quite right. 

    Besides, such could be the case with an app that lets you buy stuff from total strangers. Depop allows you to sell anything in your closet that you don’t want or that belongs to an old self—not to say I’m ever selling my One Direction shirts—right out of your bedroom. It’s convenient and fun and environmentally friendly, shunning corporations that rely on unethical labor practices and dump their unsold products into landfills. Instead, you can rip them off by getting their shirts for 10 bucks from a 15-year-old kid who will subsequently spend it on a Hydroflask or their 53rd Brandy Melville tank top.

    However, I have never found Depop to be anything other than an utter wonderland of vintage gems. It’s where I got my beloved “Hot 70s Science Teacher Dress,” a miracle of weird purple geometric patterns that look vaguely bacteria-like, along with my “Fruit-Themed Slot Machine Sweater,” which smelled of cigarette smoke but made me happy nonetheless, and my “80s Sitcom Dreamy Older Brother Sweater,” which kept me cozy on my way to get my first Baja’s burrito of the semester after winter break. These all fell into my hands from sellers far and wide, signaled by the same satisfying clunk of my mailbox lid that closed over the “Unusually Chic Farmhand’s Button-down” my heart so much desired.

    By midsummer, my Depop preference had blossomed into a full-blown obsession. There were soon enough floral dresses in my closet to make a meadow, each new installment in my patterned dress saga earning a judgemental eyebrow raise from my sister. I spent many a warm July night imploring some person in Philadelphia or Ashland or Queens to divulge their height. (It’s not weird. I needed to know if what looked like a breezy, villa-dwelling, Florentine woman’s sundress on them would look like a glorified rain poncho on my 5’5” self). Interactions with total strangers became a staple in my life, little fragments of their worlds multiplying in my room like the bacteria pattern on that dress (nothing wrong with looking like a sexy amoeba, I say). 

    And with them came their stories—this is what I love even more than the self-expression or the eco-consciousness or the thrift that Depop allows. I love stories more than anything in the world. And online thrifting was simply people-watching, just without arms filling the sleeves. People selling their ex’s band T-shirts or sweatshirts for schools they didn’t get into, people just trying to pay for college or their cat’s vet bills. Dropping little one-liners in their captions about having worn this when they fell in love, threw a surprise party, or ran away to another country to rent a small apartment and sit on a fire escape and dream. “only reason I’m not keeping it is because i wore it on valentine’s day with my ex haha.” “i had a rlly special night good memories in this dress and I wish the same for whoever buys it.” The stitches, little hyphens of memories in the seams, the what-ifs and the ever-afters.

    When that item is in your hands, the story becomes yours to tell—a new beginning waiting in the confines of a bubble mailer. That was the kind of reclaimed magic I needed this past summer. My first year of college made me more of a stranger to myself than any scamming, pants-selling teenager in Oregon was, and I needed to know that it was possible to rediscover, to retell, to be something brand new even with the whole past behind me. 

    And so I set out sifting through the virtual racks to find, well, me. In Depop terms, I listed an “In Search Of” for myself. It wasn’t easy, and involved a lot of soul-searching. There was a dash of transcendental meditation (and more than a dash of extinguishing my skepticism about it), a bit of contemplating my purpose on rural Michigan dirt roads and buying a self-help book I never read (which was then used as a paperweight for angsty Taylor Swiftian poetry). I spent a solid amount of time in Florence trying to replace the creaky abandoned houses of my old feelings with archaic Italian cathedrals. But with time—and a willingness to give different selves a shot in the dressing room—the dichotomy of new-old in my life eventually came to mirror the one draped over my clothes hangers. I was moving on from an old self and all of the things that held me down, but also stumbling upon the things I forgot about myself

    As I waded through Depop pages of forged Nike shoes and blouses full of holes not visible in the picture (buy it, they said; it adds “charm,” they said) to stumble across an “Ugly, Tourist Dad Shirt—But Make It a Dress,” I remembered that I like to dress loud, to wear vibrant colors and funky dresses. That I’m not shy, and I love the sound of an orchestra tuning and cardinal birds and the way the sun looks bleary through Michigan trees. That I have places I want to go and stories I want to tell. 

    Every forgotten fact a vintage gem that had been waiting for me on the horizon like a spaghetti-sauce sunrise. 

    So when I packaged up my own pair of pants—also black and white, but sans orange stain—that someone had bought from me in August, that’s what a stranger in California was getting. I had kissed someone in the half-melted heart of March, stuffed my face with Blue State bagels in an essay-induced panic, and danced in my dusty dorm room by myself, all in these pants. I’ll never know what happens to them next.

    I hope whoever wears them makes it a good story.