Fabric of Our Lives, Part 2


Our Daily Correspondent

Karl Herbsthoffer, Junge Dame im Boudoir, 1829.

Last Friday I wrote about an encounter with the platinum card­–carrying elite. But this is a two-part story, you see. For many years later, long after that glimpse into the lives of the rarefied, I found myself at the local flea market.

This is a sort of addiction in my family: even when houses are being sold and divested or apartments are bursting at their meager seams or neighbors have called the city to complain about the sheds on our property (depending on the generation), we are incapable of curbing our need for “bargains.” We brake for thrift shops; we brake hard for furniture on the curb; we scour the local papers for tag, yard, or garage sales. 

Afterward, we like to rush home, evaluate our new find, and crow about the amount of money we’ve saved on this “collectible” we’ve rescued. “Well, our edition is a little more damaged,” my mom might say of a rare book after a few minutes’ research on Or, when in doubt, “Can you imagine what this would sell for in a Manhattan antiques store?” A lot, we all smugly agree.

So there I was, at the flea market. I’d had a good day, a good haul—a pink glass ashtray with a molded terrier in the center; a hand towel embroidered with a friend’s initial—and I was making my final round when I decided to poke through a suitcase full of old linens at a particularly crummy stall. There was a mix of not-very-old tchotchkes and some square-toed 1980s pumps and a small supply of cheap jewelry. The woman kept up an urgent monologue on the merits and provenance of the various wares. She was sure to mention her willingness to “do better” on the price. 

My fingers touched fine cotton voile, starched stiff. It was a boudoir pillow sham. 

“That’s old,” the woman said quickly. “It’s good quality.”

I knew it was. I knew, specifically, that it retailed for more than three hundred dollars and that the print had been designed for the Duchess of Windsor. I knew it was an emissary from a different world—a world that smelled like freesia. I paid five bucks for it. 

This was by far the biggest coup of my scavenging career. I should have been thrilled; a part of me was. But when I got home and removed the miniature pillowcase from my tote bag, when I laid it on the bed and looked at it, I did not feel the magic I’d expected. If I was honest with myself, it was … sort of dowdy. But the fine fabric! I scolded myself. The hand-rolled edges! This would retail for three hundred and fifty dollars! And somewhere a tiny part of me asked, So what?

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.