Rags, Buttons and Aluminum Foil
Closing ThoughtsOpinion

Rags, Buttons and Aluminum Foil

Memories of people who didn’t know the word ‘recycle,’ and weren’t part of a movement.

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.

Long ago, when I was in high school, my friend Carol and I befriended Joseph, a cute Hungarian immigrant who worked with the maintenance crew. One day, we spotted him relaxing in the courtyard, and we joined him. Carol took a handful of tissues out of her purse to wipe the bench before we sat down.

“Americans!” Joseph exclaimed. “You’re so wasteful!” He pulled a handkerchief from his backpack and cleaned the seat for us. “I’ll wash this and use it again,” he stated. “You kids love to buy stuff that you can throw away. I don’t.”

Joseph’s outburst shocked us. “We though you liked us,” I whined.

“I like you a lot,” Joseph smiled. “I just don’t understand you.”

When I got engaged, the most useful gift from my bridal shower was a gigantic box of rags. I loved all the beautiful presents, but my practical and thrifty mother and Aunt Shirley surprised me with a gift I used for decades.

The kitchen of our first New York apartment had an under-sink leaky pipe. The building’s “super” finally got tired of tinkering and decided to replace it. Naturally, a flood ensued. “Quick, get towels!” Mr. Flamini commanded. My new towels? Who was he kidding? Soon the water was totally absorbed by remnants of flannel nightgowns, stained dish towels and old underwear.

As I watched my father’s discolored undershirts in action, I admired the practical penny-pinching of family members who grew up during The Great Depression. As he gathered his tools, Mr. Flamini, a man of few words, offered these: “Good girl!” Clearly, he appreciated someone half his age who owned rags and knew how to use them.

Another family gift was a trio of glass gefilte fish jars filled with buttons. When old garments were turned into rags or cut up for doll clothes, my grandmother and mother carefully removed the buttons of every size, material and color. Many of them are examples of mid-20th century whimsy and exuberance. I have done a lot of sewing over the years, and I haven’t yet purchased a button.

My mother considered disposables to be wasteful and a sign of sloth. Therefore, caring for and washing real dishes was part of proper kitchen management and self-respect. Upon their return from a trip to Chicago, my parents phoned to tell us they were home safely. In those days, expensive long-distance calls from St. Louis to New York were brief.

“What are Roz and Lou like?” I asked.

“Smart. Funny. Good cooks. We had supper with them.”

“Did they go to a lot of trouble?”

“We ate on paper plates. Then they threw them away and gave us clean ones for dessert. What a waste!”

I wish my mother had met Steve, for whom the phrase “single-use” perfectly described one of the circles of his personal hell.

Steve was a math teacher in the Manhattan school where I taught English. Three of the staff kept kosher: school counselor Rena, Steve and I. For lunch, we often sat together in the faculty workroom and ate food we brought from home.

Steve had a sandwich every day, meticulously wrapped in aluminum foil. After lunch, he rinsed the foil and folded it. He brought the foil home after school for use the following day and was proud that he extended the life of each piece to a full week. Rena and I were not fans of his parsimony, but we learned to respect it because reusing the foil, and everything else possible, was part of his family’s master plan. “We’re saving money for a house on Staten Island,” he reminded us, whenever we joked about his frugality.

I heard that Steve’s family did eventually buy a house. I don’t know if reusing aluminum foil added much to their nest egg, and one might call it obsessive, but I admire his consistent rejection of wastefulness.

Recycling is now widespread. It’s essential. Sometimes it’s mandatory. I can’t help getting nostalgic pleasure knowing that my box of rags and jars of buttons, Joseph’s handkerchief and Steve’s aluminum foil were way ahead of the curve, before it was a curve.

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