It’s not about the hat…

At first glance, this is a story about a hat.

Like many Red Sox fans, I bought a hat to commemorate our world series win in 2004.  I don’t wear hats often, so it mostly lived in the back window of my car, displaying outward.  Over the years it became very faded, but I never tossed it.

The hat ended up in Singapore because it had been residing in a box of stuff I hadn’t had the energy to go through before the move.  As I began to go through boxes that have sat unopened for two years in our office, I came across it.  I decided that it wasn’t something that I needed anymore, so I threw it down the trash chute.

Several days later, I saw the hat again…on the head of one of the women who clean the common areas of our condo.

I will confess that my visceral reaction was to feel uncomfortable-not violated, but as though my privacy had been disturbed.  After what happened with B, I am extremely sensitive about the idea of someone going through my garbage (among other things she had an expired credit card of mine in one of her wallets–which is on me for not shredding it, but it was one of many things she’d removed from the trash and taken into her possession).  I even wondered if I should say something to the building manager.  I didn’t because I didn’t want this auntie to lose her job.  I didn’t actually care about the hat.

This isn’t about the hat.

I am aware of my privilege.  The privileges I have by the accident of birth that is my skin color and my nationality.  The privileges I have because of my academic success and subsequent university degrees.  Most specifically I am aware of my socio-economic privilege, which is related to my husband’s success in a field upon which the market places a high compensatory value.  I understand that I am no better or more deserving than anyone else.    I grew up poor, and my life today is so far away from my wildest dreams that it boggles my mind when I sit down and actually consider it.

Having said that, I have no idea what to do, if anything.

Part of me wants to ask her about the hat.  Apart from it being too faded for me to consider it appropriate to donate, it is a perfectly serviceable hat, and part of me is happy that someone has found value in it.  The flip side is my extreme discomfort that anyone feels the need to go through trash, even clean trash (It was tossed with assorted unecessary paperwork–directions to things we no longer own and nonsense like that).  I wonder what her life is like.

Part of me wants to “help” her, whatever that means.  This is a woman who has been constantly kind to me and my family.  But even saying that sounds so elitist, I can’t stand it.  How arrogant of me to think that she might “need” help.  How much dignity would I rob from her to point out that she got that hat from my trash?

I understand dignity.  I once had a teacher pay for a field trip because I couldn’t afford it in high school, and I remember the shame and relief I felt when she offered.  I didn’t have to be “less” than my classmates.  I remember selling back bonds that my grandparents had bought for college and borrowing money to afford the trip to Washington DC to compete in a national competition after I won a statewide competition in public speaking (and the lack of effort I put into practicing that speech is something I am so ashamed of, today–that I repaid my mom putting in extra hours at work to help pay for the opportunity with a complete lack of respect and regard).  It was so important to me that people not look at me differently because of economic factors.  I didn’t want their pity or “help.”

Maybe I’m overthinking it.  I have owned my share of stuff that I took off a street curb in the US, or freecycled.  Is this really any different than my saying “that’s a perfectly good table–the paint is just chipped” and putting it into my car?  I wasn’t desperately poor–I was doing okay, but I wasn’t going to turn down perfectly good free furniture.  Need it imply anything other than she liked the hat, and it was in a bag of clean trash (that might not even have been tied closed–it could have been in a handled bag that I just put into the dumpster–I don’t recall), so she gave it a new life?

I’m not completely sure what this about, but I do know it’s not about the hat.

What would you do?

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10 Responses to It’s not about the hat…

  1. Robin says:

    Aargh. Just wrote a long reply on my phone and it got eaten. Gonna try to recreate it.

    The gist was that I think you’re spot on with your comparison to curbside trash picking, a practice so common and acceptable in the States that everyone living in a college town knows the best days to do it and which suburban curbs will have the best stuff. (Brookline and Chestnut Hill in early May and early September. Am I right?)

    There’s also an appreciable difference between things like furniture and personal items of clothing — especially those items that are clearly identifiable as yours. You might see someone with a chair that looks like one you threw out, but you can never be entirely sure. Whereas my guess is that there isn’t a plethora of ’04 Sox Champs caps floating around your general neighborhood.

    So, the upshot is that there isn’t really anything to do here except recognize your feelings and learn from the experience. Maybe in the future you toss your more personal items further from home to preserve that general feeling of anonymity.

    • Crystal says:

      I think you make an excellent point.

      It makes me wonder if I’d feel different if she weren’t an employee of my building, which just underlined the priveleges that I’m already uncomfortable with.

  2. Stephanie Rogers says:

    IMO (and at the risk of sounding like a finger-wagging mother), you’re over-thinking it. No matter what the status, the old adage rings true: “One (wo)man’s trash is another (wo)man’s treasure.” However, that pang of violated territory is understandable. I just recently disposed of a few huge bags of old clothing in a designated area close to my apartment, so I fully expect to go through that shock to the system any time now!

    Short version: Yes, some of us need help more than others, and yes, it sucks to have to admit that. But calling attention to it sucks even WORSE. Just lock on to the knowledge that you (and your hat) filled a need for the new recipient, and leave it at that.

    • Crystal says:

      I appreciate being told when I’m over-thinking stuff. As you know, I’m extremely guilty of that on a regular basis 🙂

  3. bookjunkie says:

    I think I would just let it go and not approach her, but I really found this post very thoughtful and I am glad you wrote it. I think in a Singapore context she might feel embarrassed – a kind of lose face? But I also understand your feelings of discomfort. But on the other hand I may be wrong and she might like to have your second hand stuff that you don’t need and want to give away. Yeah I am confused…not sure what to do. (not much help huh?)

    It’s a similar thought process we all go through in some way. Self doubt, guilt etc. It just shows that you care though. I think it’s a good thing.There are people who wouldn’t give even a thought about others the way you do.

    • Crystal says:

      I absolutely didn’t want to create a situation where she lost face.

      It’s really hard to know how to read the situation. Like I said, I’ve proudly owned many a thing I’ve taken off the sidewalk. She wears it every day, so I guess she does like it, and that makes me happy that she likes it.

  4. mamabook says:

    No it isn’t about the hat. It is about so much more. And I while I have not led the same life I so relate. This morning we have the cleaner coming – that alone sets off 1000 thoughts in my head about privilege (and gratitude and guilt).
    So much to think about in this post.

    • Crystal says:

      Privilege and gratitude and guilt…absolutely. Our cleaner had to miss one of her two days last week with the Christian holidays, and when she came today I practically wept with gratitude. (And yes, feel a little guilty/acutely aware of my privilege).

  5. Dawn says:

    I would never have thrown away the hat, so I can’t exactly relate! Total pack rat here. Anything with any possibility of sentimental value, even if it’s a playbill or ticket stub from some random show I saw, I keep forever. Drives my husband nuts! In fact, since I never throw anything away, if I saw that someone else had something of mine, and was pretty sure they got it from the trash, said husband would have a talking-to coming to him.

    I *have*, however, put used furniture/dishware/etc. out on the curb, expecting it to get “adopted.” If I later found it, I’d think it was super-cool to meet the person that had adopted it, and I’d feel a connection with them, like a subsequent owner of a house I once lived in.

    In this case, since it was a Red Sox hat, you could imagine a very romantic story about the woman who found it. Perhaps she has never been outside of Singapore, but now that she’s adopted the hat, she can tell someone that she’s been to the States – to a Red Sox game. Doesn’t matter that the story’s a lie; she may tell it often enough that she begins to believe it, and though she’s never actually traveled, it’s almost as if she did. It’s more than a hat to her; it’s a life experience, a memory, something exotic from far away. It’s a conversation starter. It is far more valuable to her than it ever would have been to you. And so there is nothing to feel but good about the fact that you could be part of an exchange that made all parties better off; you got rid of something you considered junk, and she gained something special to her.

    I, for one, believe that money isn’t the only valuable thing in the world, and in fact, may be one of the least valuable. I’m sure that woman has experiences that you’ll never have, that you’d find intriguing and enriching. You don’t need to be rich or educated or well-traveled in order to be happy, and whatever sentimental objects you surround yourself with because they help make you happy, would probably be considered junk by some and treasure by others (hopefully including you). Just considering someone else’s junk treasure doesn’t make you any worse or better than they are (in fact, one might imagine someone who throws away something they found in their attic which is then picked up by a rich, eccentric collector of similar goods).

    • Crystal says:

      Ravi is an equally bad pack rat. It took a long argument to get him to agree to get rid of a book that was missing many of the pages and a cover. Sigh.

      She does really seem to love the hat–she’s worn it every day. I really like your comment about how the hat could mean so much more to her. A friend of mine once brought me a souvenir statue of Athena from Greece and it meant so so much to me. (I was heartbroken when it was broken accidentally).

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