A requiem for all the half-broken shoes I probably shouldn’t have thrown out.
Because of the consumer culture I live in and grew up in, I have always viewed damaged or heavily worn clothing items as essentially useless and throwaway. as a result of this, taking a pair of expensive but hole-ridden or torn leather boots to a cobbler or shoe repair shop has literally never occurred to me as something I could do, and something that would save me vast amounts of money, until a salesperson at Alamo Shoes in Andersonville suggested it to me while I was hemming and hawing over a pair of leather waterproof boots.
I was standing over a pair of boots that were both a little pricey and immensely practical. I couldn’t determine for myself whether they would be worth the expense. I hate to spend money, and sometimes my desperation to be thrifty results in me buying cheap crap that breaks more easily that pricier, sturdier alternatives. Sometimes I cheap out so badly that I choose to go without something essential, like a meal or health insurance. This invariably results in me incurring an even greater expense down the road.
This is a real problem, and a real phenomenon among the working class; it’s called over-saving, and it’s probably just as common (or moreso) than being an impoverished spendthrift. When you’re super-super poor, it makes sense to spend every penny come by, because life expenses and debts and bad luck will eat it all up, anyway. When you’re slightly better-off than that, but you know scarcity, it makes sense to over-work and over-save money, often at the long-term expense of one’s health or financial well-being.
It’s hard to feel comfortable investing in something of great value if you feel as though your financial situation is always on the precipice of becoming dire. And if your financial situation actually *is* dire, well, then it’s impossible to spend wisely. Over-spending and over-saving are two sides of the same coin, both born out of financial instability, and fomented by a lack of education in these matters.
Turns out, if you have a decent pair of (leather, suede, or vegan leather) boots or shoes, you can save literal hundreds of dollars by going to a cobbler or shoe repair shop and having them re-heeled, re-soled, re-zippered, or patched. some significant structural repairs cost as little as $10. Once you buy a good pair of boots or shoes, I learned, you can spend 5 or 10 years simply tweaking them and fixing them, never throwing them out. Like Wittgenstein’s broom, you replace the whole structure of the shoe piecemeal, one element at a time, until the amalgamation of sole, shaft, zipper, lace, and heel before you is not the shoe it originally was at the time of purchase, but retains its same function and appearance.
Of course it’s cheaper and wiser and better to replace the leaky sole than it is to pitch the whole thing and buy it all over again. Of course. I should have known, but I never did. When something broke I threw it out, or suffered with it until I could afford to replace it. And only now at 27 years old am I realizing you don’t have to do that.
And now i’m thinking back to the pair of sturdy waterproof black leather Merrill boots that I threw out due to a burst zipper something like three years ago
And the $60 snow boots i threw out due to a water leak a year later.
And the fact that for the past two winters i’ve bought pair after pair of $20 rain boots, wearing each pair until they were destroyed by the approximately 150 miles i walk each month. I probably went through 4 or 5 sets since last December.
And I realize that I’ve wasted tons of precious materials in this process of pitching and replacing, including significant reams of leather and suede taken from murdered animals, as well as hundreds of dollars, and thereby contributed to a teeming mound of waste created by consumers just like me.
All because the fact that objects can and should be repaired by trained artisans literally never crossed my mind.
Because we don’t live in a culture where that happens very often.
But I (and most people in my age and income bracket) have learned to throw out everything from holey socks to leaky boots to unstable furniture, not mindful of the fact that all of those things would have been painstakingly fixed by hand just a few decades ago.
And it’s only due to economic contrivances that it makes more sense, at this point in time, to throw out many square inches of undamaged fabric and replace it than it does to sit down and darn a small hole in a sock.
Darning a sock takes time. It’s tedious work. We all have better things to do. In terms of human work hours, replacing the sock is almost certainly more logical. This is a sin for which no individual can be blamed.
So we throw things out. I especially. I don’t buy a lot, but I love keeping my living quarters spare and Spartan. For years, as an impulsive over-saver and self-denier, I would force myself to throw out an item of clothing for each new piece that I bought. So, too, with damaged books, computers, phones, and furniture. If it was nonfunctional, its whole was deemed useless, disposable, wasteful to keep. If I could not avoid the evils of mass consumption, I could at least appear to be low maintenance by keeping my living space clean.
And now I can picture the vast island of trash I have created over the course of my lifetime, even as a person who does not buy a lot.
And I wonder how much of that sodden, floating detritus could have still been used at the time that I dispatched with it.
I know that as long as I’ve been living in the city, my discarded boots and socks and dresses have often been claimed by members of our massive homeless population. I remember pitching a bag of damaged cardigans and hole-ridden leggings and finding them strewn around the alley behind my apartment the next morning, the choices items removed and probably put to use. Similarly, I’ve seen the many rusted-out pickup trucks that circle the neighborhoods, emptying dumpsters of metal scrap and spare bed frames. I can’t resent any of that; in fact I’m thankful for it.
But the waste goes so much deeper. There are things I threw out that were not only useful to someone, but which could have remained useful to me, if not for small flaws that I ought to have repaired. And if I had repaired those things, I could have avoided pouring useless money into replacing those items wholesale. The money that I saved could have gone to better use, and some of it would have literally ended up in those same homeless people’s hands. To spend $40 replacing entirely a pair of boots that could have been patched for $10 is a failure of the market, a useless extravagance, a bleeding of funds that helps no one deserving of help.
And it’s easy to feel guilty, thinking about it now, but only in an utterly vague and disembodied way. I can think of the accumulated waste floating out in the ocean, but I can’t see it. I can guess at the money that’s been pissed into the wind, but I can’t know how it would have been put to use if I still had it. And since throwing all those things away was, for the most part, a logical consequence of the particular type of consumer culture I currently live in, I can’t actually feel all that bad. And I certainly can’t judge anybody else who did the same things.
Which is to say, all of this also makes me think in more aggregate terms, about all the crap that everyone in this country has wasted, without thinking about it, and without even realizing that something being mildly broken isn’t synonymous with it being trash. And how, for every boot or coat or chair I could have had repaired, there are tons of bags and boxes and charging cords and crusts of bread that also were mildly used, and also struck me as “broken”, but which weren’t useless either, not completely, not that I would have realized it.