I’ve been shopping for props for my solo show (skip to end for obligatory plug). Because the show is based on a personal experience, I was trying to find pieces that match up with those in my memory. As I only had to get two chairs it shouldn’t have taken very long. It did.
The first chair represents my student house in Cricklewood which I moved into in1986 after a year in the Halls of Residence in south London. I lived with three guys, Angus, Steve and Robert who all had proper jobs. I was a student and had lied about being able to afford the rent. My bedroom was the smallest in the house. The fact that Steve had the biggest room was not an influencing factor in me going out/moving in with him. I was more influenced by a litre of wine and him not ganging up on me when we we all played Risk.
The living room of the house was huge and like most rented places, filled with hideous mismatched furniture courtesy of our Pakistani landlord. A dark orange sofa with the kind of swirly pattern that could easily mask vomit stains. Brown curtains covering yellowing net curtains. A plastic ‘wood-look’ bookcase and a round glass table with four matching chairs. The chairs had a shiny chrome base and a grey fabric seat, most of them with burn marks, wine stains or frays around the edges.
I was embarrassingly excited to find a close-to replica for $4 in a thrift store on Friday and while it needs a bit of roughing up for authenticity, it’s what I wanted.
The other chair represents my childhood home, circa 1976. I didn’t want a typical ’70s’ chair, at least not the 1970s. Our house was full of old stuff, the kind of antiquey things people pay a lot for, and probably will once that time shuffles around. I found a wooden hard-backed Victorian style chair for $7. The legs curl out at the bottom like feet. For reference, these are known as Queen Anne legs and are modelled on the poor Monarch who was crippled and later had to have her freak limbs amputated. I also bought a small oriental rug for $3 to put under the chair, giving it a true Middle-England feel. Both pieces have the authentic mold smell.
I’m moderately proud of myself for having bought all three pieces for $14. This was my first proper forray into American thrift stores, which I’m distinguishing from vintage or nearly new stores, and I was quite impressed, especially by the huge Goodwill and Salvation Army ones. In England, charity shops are usually smaller and support a single organisation like Oxfam, Help the Aged or Scope. Scope, for non-Brits, focuses on cerebral palsy and was formerly called the Spastics Society, a name that made bullying very easy and prevalent in most schools. As a child, I dreaded going into charity shops, they were for pikey families and smelled of must and death and the clothes always seemed to be made from crimplene (awful 70s polyester) or tweed. Fortunately my mum never bought me any clothes from a charity shop. Unfortunately, she made me two dresses and a pair of trousers as part of my school uniform and the results were far more humilating to wear. How could they look so different to the picture on the pattern?
Thrift shopping is all quite different now and there’s little stigma in it, especially if you use the word ‘vintage’ to describe the more beaten up stuff. Going into Goodwill is like walking through a department store, all the clothes are on rails neatly divided by type, size and colour and all looking quite clean. I’ve discovered that a lot of these clothes are nearly new or even overstock from proper retailers. I know they can’t all be from house clearances after a tragic death or removed from a body just before cremation. And I’m relatively sure that clothes can’t be haunted or cursed. But even though I’ve seen friends looking fabulous in their $2 vintage bargains, I still can’t bring myself to go rummaging through the rails. It’s not so much for snobby reasons, it’s more my fear that I too might find something I think is fabulous and walk out feeling great, only to hear laughing behind my back and someone yelling:
“nice outfit Margaret. Dr Barnados called and the orphans want their clothes back”
I’m heading off to the first tech rehearsal for my show. I hope my chairs don’t outperform me.
*Hot Dogs at the Eiffel Tower, aka ‘2 chairs and a stage’ opens on Thursday 17th and runs Thurs-Sat 17 to 26 August. 8pm.
The VORTEX, Austin, Texas. Tickets 512 478-5282