Michiana Chronicles: When Only The Best Will Do

May 27, 2021

Credit Brett McNeil

The masks are off, the summer travel season is set to sizzle and consumer spending is back with a capital B, baby!

Unless it’s not, and gas hoarding and inflation-panic are ill, stagflating headwinds. 

Portentiously, we continue tempting the fates, tampering with the labor pool, paying people to stay home and out of the workforce. The Chamber of Commerce would like to remind everyone: Get Back to Work.

It’s weird out there. Especially in a nation where our truest function is not as citizen or human or even human capital but as discretionary spender.

Should I buy or hold? 

I mean, I know I should buy but at what price?

*****

We decided to add some furniture to the house and found ourselves last month at an estate sale in South Bend. Then we signed up for emails and it went from there and we now spend free time Wednesday nights scrolling through photos of other people’s worldly possessions prepped for sale each Friday morning. 

The carefully curated private collections and framed art, the Amish furniture, Stickley furniture, fishing reels, riding lawnmowers, drill presses, Singer sewing machines, throw rugs, china sets, armchairs, brass beds, baby dolls, footstools, Hoosier cabinets and whatever else, once upon a time, made hearts beat faster inside the chests of whomever paid retail for all this stuff. 

It looks so different here at the end of the consumption conveyor belt than at the beginning, these photos never as glossy or well-lit as the catalog, lookbook, or Pinterest pin. I wouldn’t say shabbier -- that’s for garage sales -- but something like less creamy. Less sumptuous. And more stark.

As American consumers we are asked to live in the moment and Buy Now but also to imagine the most precious of our purchases in a legacy or heirloom context: You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation. Some descendent, we are told and perhaps are willing to believe, will treasure this bauble and remember us favorably by it when we are gone.

Maybe they will. 

Or maybe they’ll sell it for cash, unburdening the accretions of a forebear and settling accounts with other heirs seeking theirs. 

When my mom died, we kept some furniture and ended up, against all preconceptions, loving the Waterford crystal. But the irreplaceable treasures were the photos and any scrap of paper with her handwriting on it. 

I sold her mother’s china for nothing and helped carry it to the car.

*****

For $1,300 you can buy a leather duffel bag from Filson in Seattle. It has a “wool felt-lined shoulder strap-pad” and is advertised as heirloom-quality. 

What they mean is that if you can afford a $1,300 duffel bag you are frying bigger fish and what you desire is to distinguish yourself among all the lesser American consumers. A $1,300 duffel bag will look quite excellent in the trunk of a Tesla. It will also look just right in the hand opposite the wrist sporting that Patek as you board a seaplane to Vancouver.

I saw the Filson ad the same day a neighbor came by with her sons leafleting for a local Buy Nothing group they’ve organized in Mishawaka. The kids were rangy and good-looking and all had long hair. It was great. Buy nothing, give the rest away. Hand it off and let someone else run with it -- like a rugby ball working its way up the street and down the lane to evermore.

Sounds super. I wish them good anti-fortune. 

But I’m not Tolstoy and am not, in truth, without certain tastes and material interests or spending habits.

Last summer, we bought a kayak and an old wood-and-canvas canoe, each purchased from lakers near Wolcottville. Both sellers were retired businessmen thinning their Lake Life accoutrements. 
There was an air of melancholy in the transactions. Both sellers had clearly enjoyed the rewards of financial success but were also working hard to divest the spoils -- to cash them out, maybe pass them on -- and the canoe seller asked about our plans for the boat.

It was a searching question. 

I said, “We’re going to paddle it.”

He said, “I sure hope you do.”

Music: "Money" by John Lee Hooker