Secondhand Rosy

Kristine Heykants

THE SINGLE GLASS door to Diggers is set into a side wall of a long, plain warehouse just off Highway 280 at Como. Through this unprepossessing portal waits a busy scene; dozens of people cull through a sea of cast-off gear while numerous languages mingle in an echoey hum. All the merchandise here has come down the length of the consumer food chain, finally abandoned to Goodwill Industries. What has not sold at Goodwill's metro-area stores arrives in disarrayed truckloads at Diggers for a last chance at redemption.

Or so it seems. It turns out that Diggers is actually a point of reorganization. From here the stuff is redistributed, moving back out into the world with new momentum.

Stretching in lines down the middle of the warehouse sit cardboard bins, 4-foot squares full of tossed and brightly colored clothes. Book bins gather along one of the white walls; shoes and furniture share a corner; and at the back wall a half-dozen long and low display tables hold drifted piles of "housewares," a large and all-inclusive category. Everywhere the floor is littered with spillage, bras and books and shirts and puzzle pieces.

The clientele (most of whom refuse to stop calling this place Diggers even though it was recently renamed G-too) represents a medley of cultures: Hispanic, white, African, Asian, African American. Some work the bins, some stand or sit waiting for new ones to be brought out.

Stuff sells mostly by weight at Diggers: a dollar a pound for clothes, 25 cents a pound for shoes and housewares (books are seven cents each, furniture two bucks an item). Most of the patrons are regulars who work the warehouse the day through, singly, in pairs, and in groups. They are buying to resell--some locally, some overseas. Their work moves at a slow and social pace, except when, every 10 minutes or so, a new bin is trundled out by a worker using a lift. Then a near frenzy ensues. The regulars closely tail the worker and swarm around the bin once it's set down.

"It's kind of an obsession," says Terry, a voluble man in his 30s who knows all the regulars and moves easily between the different groups. "You start coming, and then you just keep on. You never know what you're going to find." He spots a bin approaching and rushes away. The competition around new bins is fierce; arguments occasionally erupt, but mostly people compromise and negotiate.

This time Terry comes out of the fray with a bike helmet on his head. "Sometimes you need protective gear," he says, smiling.

Up front, just outside the door to the "staging area," a handful of people stand chatting in Spanish, waiting for the next bin. They're working together, led by Alba, a friendly young woman in oval glasses and lipstick. "We're here almost every day," she says. "I've been coming for three years, and let me tell you, there's no other place like this, not even in other cities. This is a good place, very nice people. We get along with the other regulars, and the workers are reasonable, flexible."

A woman sitting beside her says something in Spanish, something that sounds sarcastic, but Alba just laughs. "We buy school buses, all around Minnesota, and then we fill them up with the clothes and shoes and electronics we buy here. Every three weeks we drive the buses, usually about six at a time, down to Honduras--that's where we're from. We take a lot of toys and give them out along the way in Mexico and Guatemala. When we stop in towns the children run up to us, they know us, and we give them stuffed animals, little toys. You know they don't have much, they're very poor."

A new bin of clothes comes out from the back and the Honduran men follow it, but Alba keeps talking. "We donate about half the stuff in Honduras, the rest my mother takes care of. She lives in San Pedro Sula--a beautiful city. She has people who take it to flea markets or sell it outside the gates of the maquilas to the workers. But we make most our money selling the buses--my brother takes care of that, while we fly right back up to Minnesota and start again."

One of the Honduran men returns with a handful of bras. He holds one across his chest. "For my girlfriend," he quips. Everyone laughs. Just then an older woman with gray hair wanders past close.

Her name is Iris, and she's the most veteran of the regulars. "My husband and I come here five days, 40 hours a week, buy about 300 pounds a week. And we sell at a flea market on weekends. Not that I need the money... but we have a lot of friends here. When you get older it's harder to find things to occupy you, you know, and this is a friendly place to come. And you get hooked, you're addicted. It's a prize for us."

She pauses and looks around. "I've been coming here for five years. And I made my first visit to the Como Goodwill in 1945, just after moving up from Iowa. I was 5, and my mother bought me my first dress."

"Iris is everyone's mom, sort of the queen of the place," explains Julie, another of the regulars. Julie works as a decorator at the Como store, but makes a stop at Diggers each day. "You know, people come in here and at first they think, 'Oh, they're all a bunch of vultures.' But really there's pretty good spiritual flow. Yes, there's some tension, but we're getting along with the Hondurans pretty well now. And that'll happen with the Africans too, I think."

The "Africans," as everyone else refers to them, occupy the shoe corner of the warehouse. "We send the shoes to our country by ship and sell them wholesale," explains Abraham, a soft-spoken man from Liberia. "The clothes here are too expensive. It's not worth paying the shipping and duty charges. But with shoes there is money to be made." He spots a shoe bin coming and lunges away. Even before the bin is set down, the Liberian and Honduran men are in it up to their waists, quickly scrabbling through the jumble of shoes, passing pairs to their seconds who wait behind.

Shoes inspire the roughest competition, scaring off most of the elderly regulars. But one old woman squeezes in with the others, carefully dodging flying elbows.

In a few minutes the rush is over, the good shoes claimed. The successful gather up their piles and the others drift off to wait for the next bin.

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