Guest Post

Second Hand To Second Hand In Two Generations

“You asked about my impressions about emigrating. Here is my story.  I decided to stay anonymous – unlike your other stories – because the story of a poor upbringing is something to brag about only if you made it out.”

Anonymous guest post. 

Growing up, my mother had a huge drawer full of clothes. This doesn’t mean we were rich – quite the opposite. We were poor, a fact that my mother desperately tried to conceal. Money left to spend on non-essentials, such as clothing, was non-existent in our household, even though I had two public servant parents and I was their only child.
So my mother went out of her way to try and at least look good. Seeing that her life would be never more than that, it is perhaps understandable that she wanted to look good, at least once. Hence the huge closet.

But it wasn’t new clothes she bought. They were all second hand. In fact, there weren’t many fashion stores in the town I grew up. But there were many, many garage stores for second hand clothes, sold by the weight.

So my mother found the cheapest one (where a kilogram of clothes were just 600 forints – that’s two euros at today’s exchange rate, it would be something like 4 euros at today’s prices) and went there religiously, every Monday, when a new batch was opened. And she dragged me with her because I also needed new clothes.

I remember the smell of disinfectant that permeated the small garage where similarly pinched, but more enterprising moms were trying to make a few forints of profits on selling used clothes to one another. Ladies who couldn’t even afford a lipstick from Avon could still dig for a new skirt, which might even be their size – if they’re lucky.
Sadly, however, size wasn’t the only issue.

My mother, for instance, had plenty of these skirts, but neither of them was 100% wearable. One was a proper length, but an obnoxious colour or pattern (this was the mid-90s, after all). The other had a great fabric, but had some outdated frills or glitter on it that made it tiresome to behold. Things were just never completely wearable – but if the size of this one could be coupled with the cut of that, and the fabric of a third one – that would be so beautiful. They spent countless hours fantasizing about looking the way they wanted – just one full outfit.

I think it was addictive. So many close calls and near-misses made them keep digging like a gambler keeps feeding a slot machine, knee-deep in a pile of used clothes that luckier housewives disposed of on Germany and Britain.

I, for my part, couldn’t stop thinking about those luckier housewives, who could afford to throw out a perfectly good pair of shoes. Okay, those shoes were hideous to my eyes, but they bought it themselves once, so they must have liked it. Then they could just buy a new one, before the old one was even worn out. The idea that things may go out of fashion hasn’t occurred to me, because I never saw it happen.

I did what every smart student in my class did: went away for university, then emigrated. First to Germany, then to Britain. My parents kept their public servant jobs – but slowly became even poorer than before. Public service doesn’t mean in Hungary what it means here, in Western Europe. It may be a job for life (it is not), but it is never well-paid. Only for the corrupt ones.

So I kept sending money home, as their only child and savior. I enjoyed at first that I can give back – until I met non-poor people at work who didn’t have to subsidize their working parents as a matter of fact. In fact, their studies were subsidized, their rent throughout uni was paid for by the parents, some didn’t even have to work during their studies. I think it was the rent that made me cry. When I thought of the countless days of worrying whether I can pay rent this month as student, while I should have been studying, when I thought about the shitty jobs I worked, the internships I couldn’t possibly take and didn’t understand how others could because they were unpaid. And then I saw my coworkers, on the same salary today, complaining that they had to spend 30% of their income on rent. Only 30%! When they didn’t send money home. When they even had their rents paid for during studying. I think it made me resentful for no reason.

I was reminded of my mother’s second-hand clothing habit when I visited Budapest in 2010. The majority of storefronts on the busiest streets were, once again, second hand stores. Of course, malls are now the place for shopping and busy streets languish without businesses. But still. Friends I know, teachers, office workers, coddled corporate employees flocked to these places and tried to make it sound chic. There were even upscale second hand boutiques, downtown, where a pre-selected batch of used clothes were sold at a markup. Not from the floor or from endless racks, but from a doll. Those clothes have made full circle and made it in the shop windows again. I don’t wish to be philosophical about it, but it wasn’t right.

My friends who shopped there tried to make it sound like it was their choice – but who doesn’t do that who is stuck in a life? Even my mother said from time to time that we are doing this for the thrill. And she had some thrill. She just never had a complete outfit that didn’t look cheap and wrong.

Those friends who were ‘chic’ in 2010 all became parents by now. And they are just plain poor today. When I last visited all they were discussing is the property mania. They didn’t call it a mania, they were the victims. You could see greed and fear, the characteristic sentiments of a boom in every sentence they spoke. They mused how much they would have earned if they bought a property in 2008 and they mused how much something sells for today. But they still can’t buy. And they do it with constant discussion of the government’s subsidized loan programs. They are dead set on making three children, don’t ever think how many they really want or whether their relationships can handle it. It is a given life goal now, the government dictates their steps. For a pittance, they may or may not by able to apply for, after all. Getting approved (and stay approved) for this loan is devilishly complicated and bureaucratic. The rules are changing every minute and prices grew a lot more than their meager subsidized loan will get them.

And even their children wear used clothes now.

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