dirty secrets and back-to-front commodity fetishism

One seven-inch, purple, translucent, gelatinous, vibrating, dildo. Used.

It’s funny what people donate to thrift stores.

They tend not to come up and hand it to you. It’s usually at the bottom of a black plastic bag of old clothes, or a box of cracked coffee cups. (Extrapolating from my professional experience, old coffee cups outnumber the human race by about five to one.)

They usually drop off the box and leave before you can look inside, so you rarely get to connect a face to the used diapers, or the broken glass, or the dildo. (Real, if not typical, examples.) It’s a back-to-front sort of commodity fetishism. Instead of a commodity’s usual ersatz status—a stand-in for the sum total of social relationships which make a thing valuable or desirable to any given person, as Marx meant the term—in this case a possession stands in for one single truant owner in the eyes of the larger social body. (Or, at least, in the eyes of those of us working in receiving that day.) A sticky little microcosm.

On this occasion, a pair of nondescript girls drove up, dropped off their nondescript cardboard box politely and left. Inside were some chipped coffee cups and a smaller box with a picture of a purple vibrator on it. In my experience, when you work at a thrift store, you can’t judge a box by its label. (Most of the books don’t have covers anymore, otherwise I wouldn’t have to muddle my metaphors). So I looked inside. And because prudishness is only a virtue if you’ve never gone through someone else’s trash, or if you have no sense of humour, I ignored the evidence of its former pursuits and pulled it out to show my coworkers. It still worked… This was probably a mistaken donation. But then again, maybe they thought we could sell it cheaply (in which case they overestimated the market for secondhand sex toys). Instead, we put in fresh batteries and gave it to someone’s housemate as a birthday present. I don’t know what they did with it.


Now it’s two months later, and I’m at a dinner party. The sort of party at which one talks with relish about things that don’t demand a lot of emotional disclosure—the weather and the meaning of life are both equally well-suited topics—with well-tailored people one will never meet again. We’re telling work stories.

Remember, prudishness is, in my opinion, a maladaptive cultural trait, so I take some joy in telling the vibrator story in polite company.

“Guess what someone donated to my work once,” I say. In my glee, I neglect to tell my newer acquaintances I work at a thrift store. A nondescript girl I haven’t been introduced to furrows her brow at me from across the coffee table. I relish the adjectives. Seven-inch. I illustrate with my hands. Purple. The girl across the table seems familiar. Translucent. Gelatinous. Vibrating. And right as I get to Dildo, a horrified sort of recognition crosses her face.

I know where you work,” she blurts out a little too quickly.

And I realise where I’ve seen her before. She shrinks a little into her seat. “‘Cause I’ve, uh, seen you there,” she explains. And no one else in the room seems to acknowledge it, but there’s an embarrassed accord between us. It’s a kind of back-to-front commodity fetish—the possession you don’t want to identify with. But now it has a name and a face.

(This piece was originally written in 2004 after a short stint working in a charity shop in Davis, California. It appeared in Tablet Magazine in December of that year.)


About artnoiserhetoric

So much to say, so little time... Watch this space.
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