As with any addiction, there came a time when the bargain-shopping pleasure turned to pain. Every closet, shelf, and drawer in the house was overflowing with valuable stuff that was never used. I don’t wear the designer clothing because I live in sweatpants. I don’t use the crystal salt cellars because I rarely entertain. I don’t have the time: I’m much too busy buying crystal salt cellars. After a family intervention, I agreed to go cold turkey. I wouldn’t give up treasure hunting, but I would turn my compulsion into a business. I started selling my goodies: some on eBay, some to resale shops, some to private dealers.
It was fun to have a little cottage industry but, like all entrepreneurs, I dreamed of The Big Score: the costume person from a film studio who would be My Main Buyer. This person would appreciate my exquisite taste and, since they were paying with someone else’s dime, would never haggle over the cost. I would sit in the audience and think, “That’s my Escada blazer! That’s my Weiss necklace!”
And so it came to pass. Twice a year we have a huge yard sale at rock bottom prices to unload the surplus goods. At my last sale, a young woman named Laura S. showed up and announced that she was doing wardrobe for a Dreamworks movie. Just like in my fantasy, Laura gushed over my fabulous taste, and phoned her assistant to check the sizes of various actors. She bought Anna Sui and Vivienne Tam and Armani. She bought a Coach bag and some vintage jewelry. She was in a hurry to get back to the set, so I took a check for $400. She promised to come over every month to check out my inventory. My dream had come true: I was in business with Steven Spielberg!
The check bounced. It wasn’t just an oversight: the account had been closed for several months. I called Dreamworks and asked for Laura S. No such person. “Are you sure? She’s doing wardrobe on Santa Clause 3.” No, that film was not Dreamworks, it was Disney. I called Disney and learned that the movie had wrapped three months ago. Laura S. was a total fraud. The assistant she talked to was probably a dial tone. Laura played on my greed, my vanity, and my pathetic eagerness to be a professional shopper for the movies.
My miracle had turned into a “be careful what you wish for” fable. It served me right, because as a secular cynic, I ought to know that miracles do not happen: just random events that usually end badly. I was, of course, furious, but I was also fascinated by the psychopathology at work here. If you’re a skilled con artist, why steal used goods from yard sales? Whatever happened to professional standards? Even criminals should aim high.
I started leaving phone messages for Laura, sometimes several in one day. No reply, of course. We drove to the address on the check. No such person, of course. For many months to come, I was obsessed with revenge fantasies. I thought of all the things I would say and do to Laura S. if I ever ran into her: how I would make a loud scene in public and force her to pay me back.
And so it came to pass. I walked into a lingerie shop not far from home, and there, writing out a check on the same phony checkbook, was Laura S.! Just like I had imagined, I yelled to the owner, “Don’t take that check! She’s a con artist!” Laura looked up and said, just as sweet as could be, “Oh, I’m so glad I found you! I’ve been looking all over for you! I owe you money!” Yeah, right.
My fantasy script called for me to escort her to a nearby ATM machine, which I did. As she handed me the cash, she said, “I know you don’t believe me, but I’m really not a bad person.” “Laura, everything you told me was a lie.” “No, I’m exactly what I said. I’m a film studio executive.” Poor dear: if she had only put her mind to it, she probably could have been: she had all the qualifications.
Here’s a cheery postscript: I did, eventually, start selling my vintage fashion to TV, film, and theatre productions, designers, stylists, costume houses and fashion corporations who use vintage as inspiration. Ah…revenge is indeed sweet!
(This article was originally published in The New York Times.)