When my teenage son Alyosha was small, I took great pleasure in buying clothes for him, not least because in my Maine hometown we have a wonderful thrift store that made it easy. It is overflowing with racks and piles of cheap, practical, and sometimes funky clothing.
This inauspicious, nonprofit enterprise is located in an old, clapboard, ramshackle building on a side street. Whenever I ascend its narrow wooden staircase, the squeak of the warped treads sounds in synchrony with the beat of my heart as my anticipation grows. I fairly quiver with expectation, for I know that, more often than not, there be treasure ahead.
One of the benefits of being a family of modest means in a town with a fair share of affluence is that our thrift store is the recipient of mind-boggling largess: clothing that is not only classy but frequently almost new. I still recall outfitting my then-seven-year-old from head to toe - creating a new boy, as it were - for six or seven dollars and change.
As my son grew, he gradually decided that it was thoroughly uncool to shop in a thrift store. This became a source of great contention between us. One day, when he was 11, we were excavating our way through a dense rack of children's duds when a still-crisp Levi's jacket billowed forth.
"This is beautiful!" I exclaimed as I swept the thing from its hanger. "And just your size!"
My son crossed his arms. "I hate denim," he declared.
My heart sank. This was a $50 jacket selling for - gulp - $2.95.
"Alyosha," I said as I bundled the thing up. "Whether you wear it or not, I'm buying this because it's a shame not to."
He never wore the jacket, and to this day it sits in my 15-year-old's closet as a token of what might have been.
Thus began a downward slide that I was powerless to stem. It really hit home the day my son diverted me to the nearest designer clothing store, pointing out a pair of sweat pants that was his heart's desire of the moment.
I stared forlornly at the garment, agonizing over an outlay of $30 when I knew the exact same thing - sans Gap label - could be had in the musty confines of our thrift store for a buck fifty.
My son got the sweats - as a Christmas gift - but I sensed that an era of thrift-shop togetherness was swiftly coming to an end.
By way of compensation, the more my son yearned for designer clothing the more I frequented the thrift shop. One day I bought a collared shirt, a windbreaker, and a pair of cords there.
When Alyosha arrived home from school I was arrayed in my newly acquired second-hand finery.
"Look!" I announced as I struck a pose worthy of Calvin Klein. "Shirt, pants, and jacket - all for five bucks!"
He looked me over. "Dad," he said, "my friends were talking today, and they think you're cool."
"Oh, Alyosha," I melted, touched by his willingness to convey what must have been a difficult message. Then came his coda: "But that's because they don't know."
There ensued a period of two or three years when my son wouldn't go to the thrift shop with me.
Nevertheless, I'd go there on Saturday mornings to elbow among the other hoi polloi looking for a bargain. As for my son's clothing, I largely relied on relatives and special occasions to grace his more sophisticated sartorial tastes.
But it also began to dawn upon me that my enthusiasm for the thrift shop had a down side, in that it was making a sort of thrift-shop chauvinist pig out of me: I was unwilling to consider that others - namely, my son - might be responding to their own perceptions of what looked good and where it should come from.
I caught this insight just about the time Alyosha was beginning high school - where fitting in and looking good are of paramount importance. And so, one day, I did the thing I thought I'd never do.
"Alyosha," I offered out of the blue, "let's go to the mall and see if there' s anything you need in the way of clothing."
My son's eyes flew open. "You' re kidding," he said.
I looked at his wrinkled Gap shirt, at his American Eagle jeans barely clinging to his hips, the cuffs shredded underfoot.
Swallowing hard, I confirmed the offer.
We bought a sweatshirt and sneakers that day, and the pain of buying new clothing was not as acute as I had anticipated. But there was also a payback, one that I couldn't have foreseen. On the way home Alyosha asked if we could go to the thrift store.
"My boy!" I exclaimed while managing to keep both hands on the steering wheel.
"I mean," he said, "there's no reason we can' t go there sometimes."
This, then, was his way of saying thanks, and showing me that a small investment of understanding can often yield a healthy return of compromise.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society