Friday, February 11, 2011

They don't make 'em like they used to.

I was nine years old when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back and, like most kids, what happened in that movie was a source of speculation and anxiety for the next three years. What's gonna happen to Han Solo? Is Darth Vader really Luke's father? These were deep and vexing questions. But the one that nagged at me the most was this: How's Luke gonna be a Jedi without a lightsaber?

As you'll recall, Luke gets his fighting hand lopped off in that climactic battle. Off it goes, saber and all, into the big screaming vaccuum-cleaner void underneath Cloud City. The hand's no big deal. It's sci-fi; they'll build you a new one. They have the technology. But a lightsaber? Where are you gonna get another one of those? The Jedi are extinct; you can't just walk into the Jedi Supply Store and get another one. That was the last one. They just don't make 'em anymore.

I'm not a materialistic person in the usual sense. I don't want a big house and a ten-thousand-dollar stereo and a garage full of sports cars. But I'm not serene enough, evolved enough or masochistic enough to embrace a fully minimalist lifestyle.

I used to. For years I lived out of a backpack and a duffle bag, sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor or on friends' sofas, a stripped-down hobohemian unburdened by material possessions, utility agreements or a fixed address.

But what feels fun and free when you're 25 is much less so when you're pushing forty. You want some stability in your life. Your back hurts and so you need a bed, a proper desk and chair, not a thermarest and a laptop. You want cooking utensils and a place where your mail can find you. The Buddha reminds us that everything is temporary but we don't have to like it.

A few years ago I started gathering the accoutrements of a settled, mature existence--mainly furniture and clothes. I'm a professional adult who works in an office and so it's appropriate that I look the part. From the outset, the goal was to buy quality stuff that I wouldn't have to replace in six months; stuff that would cost more up front, but that would be well-made enough to last for decades, to age gracefully, to accumulate a lifetime's patina of personal history and meaning.

If I thought I could persuade you I was some kind of environmental saint, I might say this is because I resent the idea of a throwaway society, where resources are used up forever to make a thing that will have to be replaced next year. But this would only be half true. The other half is that I'm a cheapskate and I really, really, REALLY hate having to pay money for something and then, almost immediately, have to pay again. Goddammit!

If you want to be that kind of cheap, though, you have to be prepared to spend a whack of money, at least up front. You get what you pay for.

Unfortunately, what I'm finding is that quality goods are exceedingly hard to come by, no matter how much you are willing to pay. The old saw is false: You don't get what you pay for. You pay for what you hope to get, but you probably don't get it.

Last summer I went out and bought a navy blazer with the full intention of never buying another one. I bought a very reputable, high-quality brand in a classic cut and spent about six hundred dollars on it. It fit very well.

Now, this winter I put on a bit of weight. Not much; about ten pounds. But enough that I needed to get that jacket let out a bit so it would fit comfortably. So I took it to my tailor, who opened it up and informed me that the manufacturer hadn't left any material on the inside of the seam. (Historically, tailors and clothing manufacturers left enough material that you could let a garment out by up to an inch and a half--which you're going to have to do if you intend to keep something into middle age.)

So he couldn't do anything with it. He was as annoyed as I was; the manufacturer had saved about twenty cents' worth of material, but at the expense of creating a $600 jacket that becomes unwearable if you eat a box of donuts.

I've had comparable experiences with shoes, furniture--well, I was going to run off a whole list of all the things I've tried to buy quality and gotten junk, but there haven't been that many categories. For eight years I've kept buying clothes, shoes and furniture in the hope that I'll finally be getting something worth the trouble, and keep having to replace it for one reason or another. The hamster wheel of trying to get a pair of dress shoes that lasts more than a year has eaten much of my disposable income.

The point is this: It is increasingly starting to seem as though quality goods cannot reliably be had, no matter how much you're willing to spend.

This is deeply distressing. I don't want my civilization to be in decline. I think about the last days of the Roman Empire and imagine people walking around, looking at these magnificent marble buildings built by their grandparents, and saying "Hmm, it's funny.... they don't make 'em like that anymore. I wonder why?"

I have had to resort to buying antique furniture and vintage clothes. The difference in quality is obvious and overwhelming; I'm talking about department-store jackets from 1950 that are twice as good as anything you could buy today. All right, perhaps there is a survival bias at work here. Maybe there was always this much crap in the system, but all the crap has since been sloughed off to landfills and only the quality stuff is left.

I don't know. What I do know is that when I do find something in a vintage shop that fits me, or a piece of furniture in an antique shop, I feel an overwhelming need to buy it because I will probably never find another item that good. The "vintage horizon", that consumer K-T boundary before which things were made well and after which the fast-turnover junk economy took over, is receding fast. Items from Before become increasingly rare, lost to entropy or quality nuts like me who know the score. Things as prosaic as a good-quality jacket become priceless relics, not to be had at any price, except when fate smiles upon you and entrusts you with an heirloom like a grandfather on his deathbed.


  1. i saw a film about tolstoy tonight. much of it apparently based on diaries of everyone in his sphere of influence.

    in one scene, tolstoy meets a young secretary, and invites him to sit, on, "the sofa I was born on".

    He is 82 years of age when he says this. just wanted to contribute that.

    and don't get me started on recent leather jackets versus the unbreakable models my father owned before i was even born. seriously, my living skin is more scarred than my 40+ year old leather. can't say the same for the 1 year old leather which is fraying.

  2. Oh, the stories I can tell about the insiders view of production. How we cheapen down a good product because it will save us 3 cents on production. Cap one costs us 1.75 a unit and we sell it for $9 wholesale. Cap two costs us 1.65 a unit and we sell it for $9 wholesale. Even though the quality of cap one is vastly superior- there is no way the beancounters will let us go with that choice. Not to mention how we use white as much as possible on every type of garment, including the insides of shoes, because most people will replace their shoes as soon as they look dirty.