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City Desk

Usable Past

by Richard Brookhiser

I first started buying other people’s pasts when I wore second-hand clothes. Wide silk ties, tweed pants heavy as iron, cabana sets made “for the Stars of Hollywood” — I scoured retro shops, some briskly selling out the contents of old warehouses as if they were new, others offering dank items on bent wire hangers. I stopped looking once the styles being resurrected were those I remembered; I had heard the Mamas and the Papas, I didn’t want to look like them.

That left the scavenger in me with street fairs — the equivalent, my wife exclaimed delightedly, of looking through other people’s closets. You found useful things, but closets, and the tops of kitchen cabinets, and the floors under beds, whence street fairs draw their stock, also tend to collect superannuated things: yogurt makers, fondue pots, books by Herman Wouk and Erica Jong.

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