A Market for, Well, Almost Everything

The big blue-and-white trucks roll up and disgorge their cargo: A tobacco-colored vinyl lounger, a rickety croquet set, pink hair rollers, a copy of "Atlas Shrugged," a 45-rpm Shaun Cassidy record.

It's a typical day at Goodwill central out on San Fernando Road, a few miles north of downtown.

Mauricio Hernandez patrols the loading dock. It's his job to see that the day's bounty--the discards of an average of 200 households--are sorted, priced and sent on their way to some of the 26 Goodwill thrift stores throughout the county.

"The show starts here," he says, as the trucks' treasures are dumped into big metal bins and wheeled to sorting tables. Clothing (8,000-10,000 items today) goes onto one conveyor belt, "hard goods"--lamps, hair dryers, pots and pans--onto another.

The gas-powered weed eater will probably find a new home, as will the bear-paw slippers and even the bottle of Grecian Formula.

But a teddy bear sans stuffing sits on a belt that feeds directly to a dumpster. Even Goodwill can't find a home for every discard. (About 15% is genuine trash.)

"We've had people call us and ask us to haul away their yard leaves," Hernandez says. And, "we're not going to pull up your crumbling carpet and take it away."

Don't offer a refrigerator that doesn't run, chemicals or car parts. But, if you wish to give your car, drive it down and you'll get a lift home.

Goodwill of Southern California depends on the kindness of strangers. Sale of donated items raises $12 million of its $15-million annual budget.

And, strangers depend on the kindness of Goodwill.

Now and then, Hernandez says, he'll get a frantic call: "My God, I gave you the wrong dress . . . " At Goodwill, a diligent search will ensue.

He dug through dozens of bags and boxes to find an old shirt. Seems the donor had stashed her Christmas fund of $700 in the

zipper pocket. She got it back. Driver's licenses and other documents are routinely returned.

Badly damaged clothing is baled for sale as rags. Apparel returned unsold after five weeks in a store will be bought by brokers and shipped to poor nations, where high fashion is not a major concern.

If you don't find mink or Meissen among the T-shirts, souvenir jiggers and chipped fondue pots, well, that's because the real treasures have been set aside for a big mid-October sale at Goodwill central. (And lest you think Goodwill staffers snap up the really good stuff before you get a go at it, like you, they must wait until it hits the stores.)

Occasionally, serendipities do slip through the hands of the trained pricers. Recently, Goodwill spokesman Rholan Wong spotted a Rolex watch in a jumble of Seikos and Timexes. "It was going to be sold for $9.95."

On the fourth floor of the cavernous building, in the denim wing, recycled Guess jeans are tagged $10. Nearby, a man is "hangering" clothing and a trio of workers sifts through a huge heap of shoes, seeking mates. One floor below, sofa beds are being stripped and reupholstered.

The idea here is on-the-job training for the disabled and others in need of rehabilitation or down on their luck. Even the cafeteria is a classroom for food-service workers. Others will learn to use a computer, operate a forklift, repair a bike. Some workers will stay here for 30 years, but the goal is to lose the best ones.

Donations are down a bit. Because of hard times, Hernandez says, "People are hanging onto their belongings a little longer."

Still, when it comes to castoffs, bank on the bizarre. A marijuana plant that came in was discreetly disposed of. And at least once there was a snake in the grass.

A few years back, staffer Mary Cochran recalls, a seven-foot boa, "bigger around than a softball," was found in a truck, snoozing in the folds of a hide-a-bed.

"We petted that snake until he straightened out and started coming out. Then I took his head and held it while someone petted the tail. We were afraid to pull on him and maybe make him angry."

Unable to locate the owner despite a telephone blitz to that day's donors, Goodwill summoned the SPCA. Ultimately, snake and rightful owner were united.

The snake, by the way, was not a donation. It's thought that it had crawled into a box of items put out for pickup and, en route downtown, had found a more comfortable spot.


Weary Wallflowers at the Dance of Life

Think one person can't make a difference?

Let cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien state her case: "Think about one stalled car in 8 o'clock traffic."

Arrien, a Northern Californian who spoke recently in Santa Monica, laments that so many people squander their creative energies finding ways to stay out of life. These she defines as "the living dead."

She observes, "We are a nation that has more pets and stuffed animals than any other nation in the world," with a lot of deferred loving going into them "and not into each other."

But Arrien, is cautiously optimistic, citing signs that more people are starting to "walk the mystic path with practical feet"--making the connection between their inner and outer worlds, getting in touch with both.

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