By Christine V. Lao
EVERY MORNING, BEFORE rolling up the security grill, Eloisa Henares, a woman of substantial heft but otherwise fairly attractive, lights a couple of joss sticks and jams them into an ash-filled bowl by the cashier’s counter. As the first wisps of fine smoke curl upward, she closes her eyes, and waits until the scent of faux sandalwood rises above the stale, musty-sour odor of decay and the lingering smell of mothballs. Though every item has been washed, sanitized, and ironed—Eloy makes sure of this, she is a professional—pre-loved garments can never smell new. Most patrons can’t even tell that Eloy’s stocks are pre-loved: Holes have been patched; ripped seams, mended; missing buttons replaced. Occasionally, a canny customer brings a sleeve to her nose, smells the old beneath the smoke, and makes a face. “It’s vintage,” Eloy then volunteers, from her perch by the counter. If the mark lingers (though her body turns toward the door), Eloy says, “That’s the smell of love,” and smiles. Charmed, the other smiles back. They all do.
When Eloy opens shop, the reek of old garments rises from the sidewalk and slaps her face in greeting. “Good morning to you too,” Eloy mutters. It is early, and only the vendors without a city permit are milling about, surveying each other’s piles of fabric like seasoned scavengers. They ignore her, as usual, unconcerned by the permanence of her puesto—one of the few registered enterprises in the heart of an otherwise unregulated district—having had its start as the neighborhood modista’s work area, long before the ukay-ukay vendors had moved into the district.
In her early days at the store, Eloy had attempted to make friends, but quickly realized that the sidewalk is a mere way-station, and the faces that strike her as familiar, only similar in the manner that a brand new T-shirt on a shelf at the city mall’s department store is similar to the others of its kind lying beneath it, or on top of it, each crisply folded and encased in plastic.
Eloy knows a thing or two about these shirts, fresh off the factory line. They’re all she allows herself to wear when she tends the store. It is easier to transact with a stranger, but only if that stranger appears sufficiently familiar, sufficiently non-threatening, sufficiently reasonable, a particular type. With jeans and flip-flops, a white cotton shirt suggests: Laid-back vintage store owner behind the cashier’s counter—but that’s the jeans and sandals talking; the white shirt says nothing.
A white shirt fresh off the factory line is sufficiently quiet, if not mute, and so allows Eloy to quickly model the merchandise, without having to disrobe completely—to play the part of a helpful friend, if a client lacks such a friend. Beneath a pink notch-collar jacket with three-quarter sleeves and matching skirt, a white T-shirt says: Cheerful executive assistant happy in her cubicle. With a gold satin skirt and suede sandals embellished with coral beads: Woman stepping out of the cubicle for a supposedly casual dinner with the boss. If fat Eloy in her white T-shirt can look like a secretary with a pleasing personality in this jacket and in that skirt, why, imagine the wonders the same ensemble can do for you.
No one asks the white shirt what it wants. No one even asks what it can do. And so when the white shirt finally speaks (as all the pre-loved inevitably do), it says: No one sees me. No one knows I am here.
When this happens, Eloy makes a fire out of the pile of leaves in her back yard and burns the shirt. Now there is nothing to see. There is nothing left here. •