Unclaimed Baggage

Unclaimed Baggage


It could be worse. I could be … well … I’ll leave the variety of unsavory addictions off the table and admit that this thrift shopping thing can occasionally get out of hand.  I’d like to present myself as merely frugal, but the trail of thrift stores I’ve left in my wake presents a different picture.  My dream vacation would include my favorite Junior League Shops – Michigan (Birmingham, Grosse Pointe), Pennsylvania (Ardmore, Lancaster, and the Hospital Benefit in Bryn Mawr),  Connecticut (Darien, Westport, Hartford), California (San Francisco, Claremont, Pasadena), New York (Long Island -Roslyn), Illinois (Evanston), Tennessee (Memphis), Maryland (Baltimore), and Texas (Dallas).  I’d need to stop in to see what’s happening at Keezer’s on River Street in Cambridge, slightly pricier than some but a sure thing when it comes to men’s wear.

Side note:  It is cheaper to buy a quality vintage tuxedo (and who doesn’t want a vintage tuxedo?) than to rent one.  At Keezer’s, a used tux (jacket and pants) is about $65.00.  At the Hospice Unique Boutique in Ashland, Oregon (where I volunteer), a Brooks Brothers Tuxedo will set you back about $25.00.  Similarly, touting the bargains at the HUB, a gorgeous bridal gown goes for less that $50.00.

But wait!  There’s more!

Churches (St. Alban’s  and Christ Church in D.C), Hospitals, etc. (Greenwich Hospital Auxiliary in CT, American Cancer Discovery Shops in Sunnyvale and Menlo Park, CA. St. Stephen’s in Armonk, NY), Friends of Pets (Animal Aid in Tulsa), Schools (Town School in San Francisco, Ann Arbor PTO MI) – all operate thrift stores that are NOT consignment shops, NOT junk shops, NOT grimy, stale, and high-priced.

The trick is to find a neighborhood with the right demographic; for me, the right demographic includes well dressed men whose widows clean out closets in one fell swoop.  College towns are great as profs generally dress reasonably well and apparently retire nearby and leave a full closet when they pass into the great mystery.  The St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Shop adjacent to the University of California at Santa Barbara was a gold mine; I would regularly tote home togs from Brooks Brothers, J Press, and Ralph Lauren, never spending more than $5.00 for a shirt or $12.00 for a suit.

All of which leads to the topic of today’s reflection:  The Unclaimed Baggage Store In Scottsboro, Alabama.

Scottsboro is a small city about forty miles from Huntsville, generally not on the beaten path for most tourists, at least until Doyle Owens began driving to airports and picking up unclaimed baggage.  Today the shop occupies more than a city block and welcomes more than a million visitors each year.  I expected to see a lot of umbrellas and rain coats, which were plentiful, and some clothing, and luggage.  I did not expect to see a mountain of electronic devices, from Ipods and headphones to laptops and amplifiers.  One room is filled with sporting goods – skis, snowshoes, skate boards, surf boards, golf clubs, tennis racquets, basketballs, bowling balls, lawn darts, catchers’ masks. The music room is a treasure trove of guitars, French horns, keyboards, drums, maracas, synthesizers, trumpets, oboes, violins, harmonicas, accordions, bagpipes (which worked out well for the guy who bought the tartan kilt in the menswear section) .

There have been some big-deal finds along the way, including a Versace gown, diamond rings, Rolex watches, moose antlers, a suit of armor, and a Vegas showgirl’s outfit.  Once a day, a customer gets to open a suitcase to see what treasures might hide beneath the pajamas and sweat shirts.  Too often, a traveller has failed to claim the bag filled with cheese from the Netherlands or bratwurst from Germany.

It’s exciting, but …

What comes to mind now, at a distance from hubbub in Scottsboro, is the cumulative distress of millions of travellers separated from cherished belongings.  At some time most of us have experienced the frenzy of baggage wars, shoved from our post at the conveyor belt by a heavier, more aggressive passenger.  Some of us have watched bags go by, round after round, hoping that ours will finally appear, only to stand alone as the belt carries a sadly wrapped carton for one more lap.  We wait for days, hoing the airline will call with good news, but, no.

Like the some cherished dreams, our suitcase fails to materialize.  It’s gone; we will never see it again.

As a teacher working on expressive writing with sophomores in high school, I set aside a ready supply of prompts, designed to bounce self-conscious writers into action.  Most called for well crafted essays; a few elicited lists.  The idea was that something on the list might be useful in writing a longer piece, but the list itself could also be an effective narrative, association and elipses suggesting the writer’s sensibility.

“What I Have Lost” usually brought significant pangs of memory:

A baseball glove

My lucky silver dollar


A letter from my father

Belief in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the political system, marriage …. and so on.


It’s a useful exercise, and it works as an antidote to writer’s block.

“Unclaimed Baggage”, however, is a prompt I did not, and do not, toss around lightly.  The two lists travel on the same journey; our stories in some ways are all about what we cling to and what we let go.  I hear a lot about letting go, and the notion appears to play a significant role in approaching confluence with the universe; it’s pretty much what the Buddha advised, and it worked for him.

He knew that the problem was attachment; from what I can tell, it still is.

Here’s the question that arrives with our unclaimed baggage prompt:  What is it exactly that is stuffed in the corner or under the tarp? Why do I continue to make room for it?  What am I hanging on to, and why am I hanging on to it?

So, the questions, it seems, begin the process of claiming.  “Yes, that’s mine, the scruffy one in the corner.”  Once seen,  we can haul it out and make some us of it, or … leave it in the corner, double up the tarp and try to forget all about it…

or, send it to Scottsboro and let someone else take it home.





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