Thursday, January 14, 2010


I don't know why the memory came back to me so strongly this morning, must have been something in the sunlight through the trees, but all at once I remembered that huge box of lace-- first a little background.

Back in 1971, after I'd simply walked out on my fast-track NY office career to travel around the world, free of the chains of salary, the first 'job' I had, when at last I'd wandered my way to the west coast, was as a scavenger in the Berkeley landfill. That's right, I was a recycling pioneer. Big business nowadays. I'd go a few times a week to the landfill, take what I scavenged (you name it) and try to sell it at the huge flea market they used to have every Sunday at the Alameda drive-in.

Being so fresh from a standard-educated non-scavenging lifestyle, I was at first puzzled about what to scavenge, what would sell, what would get the highest price with the least potential for breakage and loss, and of course the least effort (scavenging for a living teaches you the basics of marketing VERY quickly).

One day, as I was cruising the stuff that was about to be thrown into the pit and plowed out into San Francisco Bay forever, I came upon a box of lace, just a big cardboard box holding about a cubic meter of lace (for those of you who haven't handled lace in extremely large volumes, that is a lot of lace)-- doilies, collars, cuffs, yokes and whatnot, some of it ivoried with age, but all still sturdy and all finely detailed work.

Where such a quantity of handmade lace came from I have no more idea now than I did then. As a male at that age and of those times I knew as much about lace as I knew about the mating habits of the giant squid. To me, lace was pretty nearly as old-fashioned as you could get and still be alive; it was what grandmothers pinned to the backs of chairs from the days when men wore macassar in their hair (told you it was old-fashioned). But something told me it might just be worth a few dollars to maybe some elderly ladies.

It wasn't heavy (I'd quickly given up trying to sell old TVs) and wouldn't break if I dropped it, so I salvaged the box and at the flea market that Sunday I just dumped the whole thing right out there on the ground, a mountain of lace (you don't see many of those anymore) and within five minutes there were women of all ages crawling all over me with one hand full of lace and the other full of bills of varying denominations, in itself an unforgettable moment in the life of any man.

Few indeed are the lucky fellows who have sold a cubic meter of exquisite tattings hand over fist to a mob of lace-hungry women. Things are somewhat different now that I no longer have a mountain of lace, but I learned a lot about lace (and about women) as a result of that experience.

Not long ago in one of those exclusive-type antique shops here in Japan I saw featured in the front window a small piece of lesser quality lace, pinned out upon velvet to display the fineness of the work, selling for close to 1000 dollars. They don't make lace like mine anymore. There was probably a million dollars worth of lace in that box at today's prices, lace that had been painstakingly crafted long before by elderly immigrant ladies with centuries of European lace-making knowledge in their hands.

The way, way less than a million dollars I made from that box got me to Japan, where this morning the lace came back to me as it does sometimes, though the older I get, the less the money part of it looms and the more the lace itself stands out, and with it a growing pride in the fact that I saved all that delicately wrought beauty from destruction, sent it on through time to other lives and eyes, where all that art and all it meant will not be lost.

That was one of this morning's gifts to me.


hanameizan said...

What a magnificent story that has brightened up a dull Thursday morning behind a computer screen.

Where could that box have come from ...

Tabor said...

I remember a few years back women displaying handmade lace at the county fair. Some gals (maybe men) still do this. But for most of us it was long ago.

Unknown said...

I recently came across your blog it is eloquent and I enjoy it very much. I wonder if you could have found a box of Huguenot lace? Best wishes from Gemma in the UK

Anonymous said...

Good to listen.I regularly read your blog.Lace has its own attraction.

Anonymous said...

Your story reminds me of Old San Juan years ago, where I bought hand embroidered bureau scarves, from the women who made them, on the street for pennies. I still treasure them, while remembering the old women's needle-scarred hands, and worn, tired faces. It is an art, as it tatting, I have never managed to master thanks to a full time job and the lack of peace of mind it takes to craft such works of perfection.

I envy your 'now' way of life and wish I had had enough to put away to lve the way I would have it now. Unfortunately was not meant to be, I therefore live that life sought vicariously through your blog, and let the peace overwhelm me, when the memories you invoke overcome me.

Thank you for a wonderful blog.


Robert Brady said...

Welcome, Joni, and thank you for the lift of your kind words.