Thursday, November 03, 2011

What We Lose, What We Save

My first real job, back in high school, was as a cashier for the discount department store Bradlees. It was a chain, but not a huge one; Bradlees stores covered the Northeast, but that was about it, and it wasn't growing when I worked there. Target and Walmart were still far off on the horizon -- though I wouldn't be surprised to find out that they were regional chains themselves at that point, growing bigger and claiming more territory -- but there were plenty of competitors in New Jersey, from the similarly regional -- and now equally-defunct -- Caldor and Jamesway to the then-major national leader, K-mart.

My default assumptions about retail were formed from working there: that stores are strong only as long as they're growing, and the stagnant ones are dying. Maybe dying slowly, but dying nonetheless. And, of course, the country -- even the world -- is finite, so every chain will hit stagnation before too long, and start dying. And so Jamesway died, which gave Bradlees a little boost. And then, a few years later -- in the late '90s, during that supposedly superheated economy full of dot-com money -- Bradlees ran out of gas itself, and shut down. I was long gone from them at that point -- working as a retail clerk in a low-end store is no way to feed a family -- but my wife managed a Bradlees shoe department almost to the bitter end. Luckily, the shoe department was outsourced, so she worked for a separate company that hadn't yet gone bankrupt -- though it would have it's time, soon enough -- and so she could go out on maternity leave with our first son in early 1998 and just never come back when the chain collapsed later that year.

I think about Bradlees, now and then. Not all that often. But sometimes I'm prompted -- I used to have a tin of box cutters from those days, with razor blades that were still useful, and so I often though of Bradlees when I had to cut up boxes. And, lately, I think about Bradlees when my train approaches Hoboken.

There's some kind of an industrial building, in what's probably Jersey City, up high above the train tracks and off on the other side of the next road. A line of trailers, each one snugged up to a gate in that building, aim their tails at the passing trains, as we slowly make our way through the junctions into the terminal. Some of those trailers move, I think. But the one on the end -- the farthest away from the way in; the one that's been there the longest -- never moves. And it has a big, faded Bradlees logo on its side.

That logo is doubly nostalgic, since it was outdated even when I started working for Bradlees back in 1986 -- the chain had rebranded with '80s colors, dark maroon and white, getting rid of the very '70s brown earth tones of their previous logo. But it's that '70s logo I see every day from my train: a trailer branded not just with a store that's been gone over a decade, but with a look that's been outdated for three.

I've been thinking a lot about unlikely survivals, since the flood that left my basement with six feet of mostly clean water at the end of August. As the waters were rising, I hauled things upstairs: two computers, a TV, the rocking chair I used for both of my infant sons, hundreds of books, videogames and movies from my now-older sons. But much more than that went under those waters; we never expected a flood that bad.

I cleared off the bottom shelf of every bookcase in the basement -- more than a dozen of them -- thinking that, at the very worst, we'd get a foot or so. I was wrong; when we think we can estimate how bad things can get, we're usually badly wrong.

Most of our Christmas ornaments were destroyed, and all of the softer and more electrical Christmas goods. The three totes that held them were up on a shelf about three feet high, but they either floated or were hit by something else floating, and the water got in.

I had about five thousand comics in that basement as well; mostly buried under other boxes and things. I hadn't been in those boxes for five years, at least. But when I got down into the basement, as the pumps were getting the water out and everything else settled into a three-foot deep mess, I saw "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow" float by, and I couldn't look at it.

Two bicycles came out of that mess, were mostly cleaned and oiled, and are now in the shed. I think they're OK, or can be made OK. The bow saw we've used to cut Christmas trees for our two sons' entire lives was propped high up on a wall, and is now only as rusty as it was before the flood. Two different stacks of books, stashed up on top of bookshelves because I didn't really want them but also didn't exactly want to get rid of them, came through just fine, while a rare galley of Robert Jordan's last book -- also on top of a bookcase, right next to one of those piles -- fell into the water.

One shelf of one bookcase -- starting in the middle of Charles Stross hardcovers, and running about twenty-five books -- was the only thing entirely spared. Dozens of other shelves -- all of my graphic novels, manga, and whatever else you call books with juxtaposed words and pictures; all my hardcovers deeper in the alphabet than C.S. Lewis; all my trade paperbacks; my few mass-market paperbacks; two big bookcases of classics I kept adding to, and rarely read from, including a nearly-complete set of Anthony Trollope I was going to get back to any year now; and all of my unread books that weren't sent by publishers or bought in the last six months -- were either engulfed by the waters directly or dragged down by falling bookshelves.

When the waters drained, there was a rumpled surface of wet book-pulp, two feet above the ruined carpet, throughout that basement: it had all become dirty, wet, slippery trash, and had to be laboriously hauled out just to be thrown away. Not a single one of those books, or the shelves they sat on, had the slightest hope.

All of my recent CDs -- still in piles on the fronts of shelves on one of those bookcases -- scattered throughout that mess, and were mostly lost. I gathered what I could, but giant messes aren't conducive to careful excavating; they need to be shoveled out of the way before the smell and mold and rot get a foothold. Older CDs -- collected in plastic drawer-boxes, mostly stuck under a table -- were easier to find, and were stacked in the backyard. I spent two days shucking wet CD cases, throwing away the books and digipacks and plastic and washing the CDs in tubs of bleachy, soapy water. One of those drawer-boxes disappeared entirely, I think -- there were mounds of garbage in the front and back yards, giant masses of formerly useful stuff, and those could engulf anything -- but another survived entirely unscathed, having somehow floated free, and stayed above water the entire time. So I now have about 40 CDs that still have their cases -- the most miscellaneous of my boxes, of course -- and hundreds half-organized in a few hastily-bought binders.

Our tax returns and other financial stuff were in ziplocked bags in upper cabinets, five feet off the ground. The water got in; they were just more garbage.

I had a big metal desk -- had had it since the late '80s at my mother's house -- full of paper and trinkets, maps and cables, leather blank books that I'd probably never use and humorous bumper stickers I might one day put on a car. All of that was destroyed; the desk removed by the same trash-hauling firm that got our washer, dryer, and refrigerator. (They couldn't get the couch; that was on the other side of the basement, and a ton or so of wet books had to be removed to even get to it.)

And so on. There was a lot of stuff in that basement -- some of it things only used for a short time each year (like our fourth air conditioner, or snow pants), some of it warehoused and half-forgotten (like those comics, and the magazines in boxes next to them), some of it used every day (like the food in that fridge), some of it picked over and looked at and moved about now and then (like all of my books), and a lot of it was things that we only realize we lost bit by bit, day by day, as we look for it and realize.

We have this conversation every day: "Have you seen that thing?" "Oh, it was in the basement."

It was in the basement. That's all that needs to be said. There's hardly anything in the basement now. We know where it all went.

But my family is still here, and we're rebuilding. Eventually -- if my wife doesn't stop me bodily, or we don't move before then -- I'll probably have five thousand books in that basement again. And, if the waters come again, we should be better prepared. But things still get destroyed, all of the time. Everything has an end; every person or house or book or trinket, no matter how much anyone loves and cherishes it, will eventually be gone. But sometimes you can get a good run before that.

So I think about that Bradlees trailer, still serving someone all these years later. And I hope it can hold on, and keep being useful, for as long as possible. Because, if it can do that, maybe there's a chance for me as well.


RobB said...

Very nice write-up Andrew. Odd how some statements can carry such a weight with people and for others, they are simply words. I'm glad to know things are continuing on the uptick for the flood recovery.

I, too, remember Bradlees. There was a Bradlees only a couple of miles from my house (which is now, coincidentally a Target) where I would get a lot of my Matchbox cars.

Rutila said...

This post was so poignant. While I don't remember Bradlees, I chuckled at Caldor's mention. I once took a date to Middle Village and explained that the mall across the street from a cemetery used to have a Caldor. He never heard of the store and thought the name sounded like it belonged in Middle Earth.

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