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Plastic Americana 

Wednesday, Nov 1 2000
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Illustration by Mike Lee
Nash and I went to a swap meet or a fair or a bake sale or something at the Orange County fairgrounds. It was the last summer before Reagan. We’d just graduated from high school and were in the midst of some kind of a road trip to San Diego when one of us talked the other into the detour somewhere not far from Orange Coast or Golden West or Cheerful Bright Orange Ocean View College.

Let’s blame Nash. It was more in his nature to be so adventurous in such gloomy terrain. Plus, it was Nash’s pale-yellow 1977 Subaru 4WD wagon (“Buster”) controlling our geographic destinies, and no one dared drive Buster — or any car with a name — but Nash.

At the . . . swap meet, hundreds of extremely white yet extremely tan people in baseball caps and sunglasses chortled and haggled and moseyed among long rickety tables, the kind of tables often found at not only swap meets but fairs and bake sales, which accounts for some of the confusion. Miles and miles of brown enamel legs and wood-grain vinyl tops, and all around the ground was decorated thickly with cigarette butts (mostly Winston and Marlboro; some Kent, some King Size Kool), paper and plastic cups, soda-pop cans and beer bottles and bootprints, just like you’ve seen in your Orange County Chamber of Commerce promotional pamphlets. And on the tables and on blankets on the ground: firearms, stolen stereo equipment from the chubby cheerful white guys you always see parked at 7-Elevens (“Hey man! Need some speakers?”), stolen three-piece suits to match the tables, miles of tapes by Foreigner and Styx, and a threatening array of T-shirts: Kill ’Em All Let God Sort ’Em Out, Semper Fi, Marines (red, white and blue), Marines (camouflage), Don’t Question Authority, I’ll Give Up My Gun When They Pry It From My Cold Dead Hands, Mustache Rides 25¢, Hang Loose, Angels, Rams, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, This Is Reagan Country and Barry Manilow Rules. All the standard swap-meet treats.

Beside a table stacked neatly with white paper and cups of ballpoint pens, one white woman in a cowboy hat showed Nash and me her official Sears, Roebuck and Co. credentials and invited us to fill out some forms: applications for Sears credit cards. For our labor, she was prepared to offer us, absolutely free, a pale-yellow, almost beige pitcher and four matching tumblers made of the kind of soft ’n’ chewy plastic that never quite loses the petroleum smell. Just a notch above the stuff used for Burger King–Disneyland cross-promotional megakeg cups: plastic that makes whatever touches it significantly worse.

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So Nash and I filled out the forms. Nash almost always went by Dave: Dave Nash. Close friends sometimes called him David Lewis Nash, because, in America, after you find out your friends’ middle names, you want to occasionally remind them that you know that name, and thus further define your friendship. Nash was either Dave Nash or David Lewis Nash or David L. Nash; never Dave Lewis Nash or Dave L. Nash. I, too, went only by Dave, or David A., or David Alan — never Dave Alan or Dave A. In America, David Shulmans are assigned one of the following middle names: Barry, Michael, Jay, Bruce, Andrew, Steven, Jeffrey, Alan, Stuart, Sheldon, Sherwin, Nathan, Steven, Eric, Jonathan, Marc, Mark or Skippy.

Not yet 18, I had no credit history, no qualifications and no use for a Sears credit card. But I needed some crappy plastic pieces of shit to fill with beer in my impending dormitory. So since I was only in it for the door prize, I decided, for the first and last time in my life, and for no good reason at all, to list my name on the form as Dave A. Shulman. It had a Southern ring to it, I felt, like maybe the token Jew in north Alabama. Made me feel more at one with the swap meet.

So we filled out our forms, thanked the white woman and her cowboy hat, took our plastic crap and left. Six to eight weeks later, I received, on the same day, two sealed envelopes. One was from Sears, Roebuck and Co. and contained a one-page form letter: something along the lines of “We regret to inform you that you do not qualify for a Sears credit card at this time, but we hope you enjoyed the white woman with the cowboy hat.” The second envelope was also from Sears, and also contained a one-page form letter. This one said things like “Congratulations!” and “Welcome!” and so on, and attached to it was a Sears credit card embossed with Dave A. Shulman.

I kept the Dave A. card, and over the ensuing decades renewed it and even used it three or four times. A DieHard battery. A socket wrench. A six-pack of tube socks. A hose. But the chewy pitcher and tumblers were far from free: To this day (and I must’ve moved at least 30 times), I still receive Dave A. junk mail from the companies and subcompanies who bought or rented my profile from Sears. Every week or two, a vile Dave A. credit-card offer, a Dave A. catalog, Dave A. coupons. Little Dave A. reminders that, in America, the swap meet never ends.

* * *

Other than a DieHard battery, some tube socks, etc., I haven’t had much use for Sears. A hundred years ago, however, Sears, Roebuck and Co. would’ve been an important part of life. In 1888, founders Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck’s first mail-order catalog offered mostly jewelry and silverware. Through the last decade of the 19th century, Sears’ annual catalog, known colloquially as “The Farmer’s Bible,” expanded to meet the demands of rural America for affordable amenities hitherto reserved for the wealthy — or at any rate, the urban: clothing, bicycles, sewing machines, kitchenware, groceries, firearms and narcotics. Everything a decent God-fearin’ citizen might need, ever. Including houses. Hundreds of Sears, Roebuck and Co. mail-order homes that would shame the drywall pup tents of Kauffman & Broad remain standing today, and the Downers Grove, Illinois, Visitors Bureau has an online tour of 27 of them, originally priced from $146.25 to $5,140. Photos, blueprints, maps.

If you have time, drive up to Vale, Oregon, and book a room in the 1900 Sears and Roebuck Home Bed and Breakfast Inn, on the Oregon Trail, for $50 to $85 nightly; weekly rates available, too. Choose from Megan’s Room/Porch Room, Tonya’s Room, Lisa’s Room . . . or rent the whole place at once. (“Hunters welcome, bird-cleaning room . . .”)

It may well have been “America’s Most Unique Swapmeet,” the Orange County Market Place Swap Meet fair in Costa Mesa, where Sears and Dave Nash and I gathered. Visit the world’s most unique-est Web site for vending information on this important Southern California attraction, which draws close to 2 million Daves each year. If, after a thorough browse, you’re still not ready to confront this apex of Western civilization, read Tel Phil Enterprises’ “Teller Philosophy.”

Citizens for Fair Credit Card Terms (CFCCT) is a nonprofit consumer-credit organization created to prevent teenagers from owning plastic pitchers.

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