Ruth and Arnold

You never know what you're going to come across in a thrift store in Florida. That's because so many people move there every year to run out the clock, so to speak.

Ruth and Arnold, September 1954
They've made it to retirement. They load their furniture and their favorite possessions into a van in Stamford or Albany or Montclair or Scranton. Things like their favorite vinyl Dave Brubeck and Jackie Gleason albums they've been carrying around since they graduated from Villanova in 1961. The silverware from B. Altman in White Plains that they received as a wedding gift. The camera equipment and slide projector they've had since that first big raise. The slightly vulgar but somehow irresistable porcelain hillbilly frog they found in a roadside tourist trap during a memorable vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains one summer.

Everything into the van, and we'll see you in Vero Beach or Fort Myers or Sarasota or Stuart.

The golden years pass, and then, of course, the inevitable happens, and the adult kids come down to sort through their parents' belongings. Some of the obviously valuable stuff they keep, along with a few things for sentiment's sake. But the rest--who wants 40-year-old technology, or chipped tchotchke, or VHS videos? But we can't just throw it away, it belonged to mom and dad. What the hell do we do with it?

And that's where Florida's thrift stores come into the picture--stores that support worthy causes such as the Salvation Army, Goodwill, local PTAs and churches. Every day, carloads of stuff are unloaded at hundreds of thrift stores in the Sunshine State. Some of it comes through the front door during regular business hours and is welcomed. A lot of it just shows up in the dead of night, left in the alley by "donors" who don't want to be told that their stuff isn't wanted.

That's how I came across a small slice of the lives of Ruth and Arnold.

Ruth and Arnold, October 1954

I loved poking around thrift stores when we lived in Florida in the '90s. Never knew what I'd find. There always was the possibility, however remote, that I might uncover a dusty, ridiculously undervalued treasure. But what really drew me to the thrift stores was that browsing through them was like visiting an uncurated museum. And then there often was cheap stuff I could use.

I was taking a lot of photos in those days, using a Nikon 35 mm camera and shooting mostly slide film in the days before digital cameras were commonplace. I was always looking for storage containers for my slides. One day--I think it was at a store in Stuart--I found a metal slide storage case for a couple bucks. I took it home and discovered that there were 10 slides in the case. They were unusual, framed in metal. They showed a 40-ish couple, identified by small labels on the slides as Ruth and Arnold.

The labels also said the slides had been shot during the late summer and early fall of 1954. The locations of the photos weren't given, but they had a definite urban northeastern town-and-country vibe.

Ruth and Arnold at the shore, 1954
Arnold was an attractive man with a Tony Soprano-like physique. He was a snappy dresser who seemed to me to project an attitude of competence and no-nonsense.

Arnold clearly was very successful at whatever he did for a living. Maybe he was a lawyer. Or a broker. Or maybe he was a "Mad Man" who worked for an advertising agency on Madison Avenue. However he earned his daily bread, in October 1954 he was photographed proudly propped on his elbow, leaning on a sleek, low-slung 1954 Ford Thunderbird. The license tag on the car was issued in Essex County, New Jersey, which I assume is where Ruth and Arnold lived.

Arnold leaning on a 1954 Ford Thunderbird
Ruth during the shore outing

When Ruth wore heels, she was a couple inches taller than Arnold. The photos show a stylish woman with finishing-school poise. Arnold bought her a mink jacket that she wore on an outing to the seashore, presumably when the weather was starting to turn cooler. She and Arnold are photographed together on a boardwalk. During that same outing, they posed for separate photos in the courtyard of a large building, perhaps a hotel. Arnold looks sharp in a topcoat and fedora. Ruth is wearing the mink and the same shoes as she wears in the boardwalk photo.

My favorite photo is the one at the top of this post. It shows Ruth and Arnold in what I assume is their living room. There's a vase of flowers on a sidetable. Ruth is seated, smiling at the photographer, who, judging from the angle of the shot, is crouching a few feet away. Arnold, natty in a bowtie and sports jacket, is looking down at his wife with a beaming smile on his face. He's standing erect, heels together, arms at his sides, like an ex-soldier standing at attention. He's clearly a happy man.

I've still got those curious slides of Ruth and Arnold, stashed somewhere in storage with the piles of other junk that I hauled out of Florida thrift stores and lugged back to North Carolina--the Jackie Gleason vinyl albums I got for a quarter each in Vero Beach, the 1950s-vintage slide projecter (still works!) that I paid $10 for somewhere on US 1 near Melbourne, the bizzare mug with a flip-top lid that's a plastic head of St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith that I think I found in Fort Pierce for a buck or two.

Someday they're going to be going through my stuff, and they're going to wonder why I have these ancient slides labeled "Ruth and Arnold." The answer is, I don't know, they just looked interesting.


So (At Last) We're Back . . .

So after a layoff that was a lot longer than I intended, Drye Goods is back with a new look, coming to you from a new city.

We're now in Wilmington, recently chosen as North Carolina's favorite city in an online survey. The blog's slick new look was designed by our slick young nephew Mike Morrow, a recent UVa grad who's now working in Washington, D.C. We have fond memories of Mike as a nine-year-old kid doing standup comedy on the porch of a vacation rental at Sunset Beach some years ago. Now he's an ambitious, multi-talented young man with a bright future. He's out to make his mark on the world as an entrepreneur. We think he'll soon reach that goal.

I don't know how scientific the survey was that designated Wilmington the state's favorite city, but it's always been high on my list of cities where I'd like to live. For starters, it's a seaport, and seaports seem to me to always be more interesting than most inland cities.

As a seaport, Wilmington has had the world coming and going since 1739--walking its streets and hoisting mugs in its saloons, pursuing hopes and coping with disappointments, chasing the future and running from the past, raising families and burying the dead. During those 278 years, the cultures, cuisines, languages and habits of the world have been deposited here, and while all those influences may not be apparent to the naked eye, they're all part of the city's character, all part of its social archaeology, its ambience.
Wilmington's downtown waterfront on the Cape Fear
River. (Photo from Seagate Boating website)

There are some beautiful neighborhoods--so very Southern--with graceful, lovely old homes on streets lined with oaks dripping Spanish moss. Some of the houses, of course, were built with slave labor. Wilmington has had a few moments of infamy during its long history. And it's not without some modern problems. While the city has the allure of being a seaport and a gateway to the world, it also has a problem common to seaports--drug trafficking.

So it's not a gated community where the bad is shut out. It has beauty and blemishes, charm and ugliness.

We're in a good neighborhood with good neighbors, not far from downtown. And the downtown is lively--in fact I haven't lived in a town with a downtown like this since the old days in Chapel Hill back in the '80s. Front Street is lined with restaurants, art galleries, coffee shops, bookstores. There are restaurants that specialize in the old-style Southern cooking I grew up with, and others offering trendy haute cuisine. The grocery stores run the gamut from Food Lion to the more exotic (and expensive) Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. There are two colleges providing plenty of young, tattooed, pierced and dreadlocked hipsters for the street scene.

There are museums, including the Cape Fear Museum, which features an exhibit about the early days of Wilmington's most famous native son, basketball superstar Michael Jordan. There's also a remnant of the movie industry that was thriving here until the newly conservative state legislature revoked their tax breaks and sent most of the producers and technicians scurrying off to Atlanta, which welcomed them with open arms. Our friends in Raleigh never really explained why they were eager to hand out tax breaks for just about everybody except the movie studios.

I'm getting settled into my Marvin Spencer-designed office, converted from a garage. I'm sharing it with two cats. We get on each other's nerves sometimes and I think they still expect to be going back to Plymouth any day now. But for the most part we've learned to co-exist.

New city, new life, new (sort of) blog. I promise at least a few updates every month. So we're back in business. Stop by again soon.