Franco Shoe Repair, Madison, WI. Photo by Callen Harty.

Franco Shoe Repair, Madison, WI. Photo by Callen Harty.

I have been thinking lately about our disposable world and how virtually everything in it is designed to be used and tossed. Maybe I’m getting old and waxing nostalgic for a simpler time, or maybe for some reason I’m just being particularly sensitive about the issue right now.

I’m sure that a lot of it stems from a simple thing–my reading glasses. I bought a cheap pair at Dollar Tree at South Towne Mall a while back. They were a dollar and apparently worth about that. Within a couple weeks the temple, or arm, had broken. I threw them away and got another pair for a dollar and the same thing happened again. The third time I went to Walgreen’s and bought a $25 pair that I figured would be sturdier and last a little longer. I kept the other pair at home as an emergency backup. It took several months but the same thing happened to the $25 pair. I taped them up and continued to use them because I wasn’t about to keep spending $25 every couple of months when the lenses were perfectly fine and I just needed them for close work on the computer or for reading.

Since taping up the glasses I have probably had at least one person every day make comments such as calling me a dork, asking when I was going to get new glasses, or just generally poking fun at the tape job. I keep wondering why everyone else is so concerned about it. It’s not that I can’t see with them this way, or that it hurts those people in some way. I have been genuinely perplexed by the apparent concern.

It occurred to me that maybe it is a class thing. It’s not that I can’t afford to spend another $25 on a new pair of glasses these days, but I grew up in a lower middle class family with a mother who grew up in the Great Depression. We went without all the fancy new toys and gadgets that neighbors and friends had. We had enough, but we didn’t have a lot and we didn’t really waste much of anything in our home. We ate what was on our plates and had leftovers. We wore hand-me-down clothes and because I was the youngest in my family, with a mother who was the youngest in a family of nine, some of my cousins were old enough that I got hand-me-downs that were hand-me-downs and would sometimes wear clothes that were already a generation old by the time they came down to me. We fixed things rather than threw them away.

When I was a boy there were two shoe repair shops in my little hometown of just over a thousand people and we used to give them business. I think there may be one left in Madison and I doubt they do a great business. These days when a heel breaks the shoes are tossed by most people and a new pair is purchased. Sometimes that happens before there is any significant wear or tear; the shoe is simply out of fashion and needs to be replaced. My mother had a couple tins (salvaged from Christmas gifts of candy or cookies) in which she stored buttons to replace lost ones. She sewed patches on pants and shirts. These days the clothes are thrown away the moment one little thread starts to show and then new pants or shoes are brought home. Mom saved ribbons from wrapped gifts and used them again in following years. Don’t get me wrong. She wasn’t a hoarder, but she did do her best to hold onto useful items rather than throwing them away. When it finally came time to get rid of things she thought of those who might have even less and would offer to give the hand-me-downs one more generation’s worth of service.

We don’t think that way anymore. Now a huge number of products are designed to last a short time and to be disposable. If someone buys a lighter that can be refilled that lighter is only sold once and can be refilled hundreds of times before finally wearing out. But a disposable lighter, with butane already inside a plastic tank, can only be used so many times and then has to be replaced, and it doesn’t matter what condition it’s in when the fuel runs out. It is a boon for the corporations that manufacture them because it creates a steady demand. We have disposable lighters, shavers, cameras, and more and somehow as a society we have been convinced that those who try to keep landfills from filling up faster and who may try to avoid spending more money by taping up glasses or using old-fashioned razors are dorks, cheapskates, or just plain look stupid. We’re not encouraged to repair, but to replace. I can’t remember the last time I saw a patch on a pair of pants.

The real problem with the disposable attitude is that it extends beyond products into the realm of human interaction. Employees are no longer employees, workers, or part of the company’s “family”. They are nothing but “human resources”. There is an implication that the employees are as disposable as dirty plastic diapers. Their value to the company is as a resource and once the resource has been used up it is expendable. With a disposable attitude permeating our culture then everything runs the risk of being valueless and disposable as well, including relationships. If there is anything that should be repaired and saved rather than tossed aside too lightly it is the relationships we have with our families and friends. When it comes down to it those are the things that really matter in this life. On our deathbeds it won’t really matter what kinds of clothes we wore or products we used. It won’t matter if my glasses are taped. What will matter is how much love was in my life. Hopefully it will be a lot and the nice thing about love is that it can be replenished; the more that is given the more there is to give and the more that is given back. If only our manufacturers could figure that out we’d all be in a lot better shape.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on Amazon.com (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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1 Response to Disposable

  1. marcea0k says:

    Callen, I cannot tell you how much I value this post. Like you I have reading glasses for tiny print and computer work. I got a pair at a cheap version of a dollar store in Phillip’s WI. I wore them and then the right bow fell off. I veered slightly from your method of repair, I didn’t use tape I used superglue. It worked great, except I could no longer close that one bow, so I couldn’t put them in a case. So I decided I’d leave this pair at work, and got a second cheap pair for home. And to my mind this trend has gone far beyond replacing something that is no longer in pristine condition. I was having a conversation in my office with a guy in his mid-20s about getting his PS4 and how his PS3 games won’t work on the newer version, meaning he has to repurchase his favorites and discard the older ones. Sadly always needing the ‘latest and greatest’ has supplanted any notion of thrift (or as it was known in my family – ‘making do’).

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