They say if you want to learn about a culture, sift through its garbage. But in lieu of digging through dumpsters, a visit to the outlet mall is pretty revealing, too.
Prime Outlets, in Edinburgh, Ind., is a sprawling concrete fortress of shops about 45 minutes outside Indianapolis. The stores here fall into two categories. The names familiar from normal malls—the Gap, Eddie Bauer, Nike—feature items whose potential consumer demand simply hasn't met the manufacturer's supply. I am saddened to discover that almost all the individual 'N Sync merchandise gathering dust at the Claire's Accessories outlet features my fantasy pizza boy, Joey "Fat One" Fatone.
But it's the other type of vendor that truly bums me out, the ones stocked with nothing but items that were clearly a bad idea from the start. At the ominously named Toy Liquidators, the shelves buckle under the weight of doomed movie and TV tie-ins. I never thought I'd feel pity for a Disney character, but seeing all those abandoned little green men from Toy Story 2 in the stuffed animals aisle brings a tear to my eye. As for the knucklehead who dreamt up The Dr. Laura Game, I hope he or she is out of a job.
Fortunately, my Prime Outlets expedition is brief. Mom only wanted to come out to buy a pair of replacement blades for her rechargeable grass clippers at the Black & Decker outlet. The real reason for our visit to Indiana involves cultural anthropology of a different stripe. We've come to see my 106-year-old great-aunt, Frata.
Aunt Frata is a woman of formidable will and strong opinions. Despite the insufferable late-July humidity, Mom dresses in long pants throughout our three-day visit; Frata says adults who wear shorts are ridiculous. When she turned 100, my great-aunt informed the family that if anyone alerted that jackass Willard Scott on Today to her existence, they'd suffer her wrath. Six-and-a-half years later, that strength of character seems to be the thing keeping her alive. Would that she'd eaten yogurt or drank grapefruit juice or smoked cigars every day, so we could try and finagle a big-bucks sponsorship deal for the old gal, but alas, that's not the case.
Although Mom says Frata's lucidity comes in and out like a radio signal these days, I'm secretly hoping she'll be clear-headed enough to recount stories I've only heard secondhand—about driving cross-country by herself shortly after World War II (when women didn't do such things), or working as the secretary to the mayor of Indianapolis, or possibly even remembering her first husband ("the great love of her life," Mom explains sadly), who died of tuberculosis in his 30s.
But Frata isn't up for reminiscing, as it turns out. In fact, she isn't up for much at all. The feisty woman I remember from childhood now resembles a shrunken-apple doll; her tiny frame looks skeletal even beneath the blankets. When she's awake, my mother takes her out for short trips in the wheelchair or helps her eat lunch. But most of the time, Aunt Frata naps. Mom occupies herself straightening Frata's clothes or making sure everything is in order with the staff at the facility where my great-aunt now lives, but I am dismissed. So I spend the bulk of my visit to Indiana the way I often do everywhere else in the world: combing through bins of used vinyl at thrift and record stores.
Normally, guilt plagues my conscience when I spend too much time or money hunting for old wax. But on this occasion, I feel I have a higher calling. I am too late to preserve Aunt Frata's stories, but I am still a historian. By poring over albums that have sat neglected for years and sharing my findings via prose or DJ sets, I provide others glimpses of a world they may have forgotten or never even known, where things that they never dreamt of are possible. Fantastic things like Cher making 1969's all-but-forgotten 3614 Jackson Highway (the address of the famous Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, where the album was recorded), featuring her astonishingly soulful version of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," which I find dirt cheap during my Indiana "research." Sometimes sifting through the trash turns up startling surprises.
Maybe when Aunt Frata leaves this mortal coil, I'll play that version of "For What It's Worth" in her honor, since she not only helped me find it but appreciate the value in that act, too. Then again, if shorts on adults are deemed offensive, Cher probably isn't high on my great-aunt's Approved list either. And given her track record, I wouldn't put it past Frata to make me feel her wrath even from beyond the grave.