There’s a scene in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin that doesn’t shed much light on sex but offers a prescient glimpse into the future of commerce. Catherine Keener’s character sells things on eBay but keeps the merchandise for show in an actual store. Jonah Hill wants to buy the pair of glittery boots with goldfish on the bottom that he is holding in his hands, but Keener tells him he can only buy them via eBay.
This was way back in 2005, when an eBay seller’s unwillingness to take a potential customer’s cash seemed funny. It was also a time when a lot of the items sold on eBay were curios and collectibles rather than things that would restock your medicine cabinet.
But the world has changed. Not only do 90 percent of Americans shop for things online rather than in actual stores, actual stores have adopted policies of not accepting cash. This summer the New York City Council is expected to vote on a bill to ban stores from denying consumers the option of paying cash for goods and services. Cashless stores are thought to discriminate against those who don’t have bank accounts or credit cards. Some fear that cashless commerce simply greases the wheels for New York’s becoming exclusively for the haves.
I’ve thought a lot recently about the cashless question because when I moved to Manhattan in 2012 I was there—cashless, I mean. Not in the transactional format sense but in the absence-of-capital sense. I was a middle-aged person attempting to get through the upheaval of an expensive move, a dubious job that I expected to lose and did, and an earlier financial setback—all without racking up debt.
New York City is filled with people who don’t have money, who are struggling on meager wages with children to feed. The professional classes with a conscience realize this, but the pull of the 1% on our internal moral relativism meters upsets the calibration. We can see with our own eyes and from the sheer volume and income scale of our would-be peers the sufficient-but-not-too-showy lifestyles we think we deserve.
It would have been different for me if I’d already been living reasonably well in New York and needed to impose a period of austerity. But moving “in” to Manhattan but not really “in” to the local economy has made me a different kind of resident.
There’s a sea change that gives you vertigo when you first step on a city sidewalk as resident and not tourist. Going into any store in Manhattan was dropping an unknown amount of cash. The hiked-up prices for things like ibuprofen at the corner Duane Reade could not be assuaged at the occasional mom-and-pop, which needs to charge that same premium to cover sky-high rents.
I brought my coffee in a thermos, my lunch every day. I never got in a cab unless someone was paying. When I bought things in brick-and-mortar it was Trader Joe’s and Target in the Bronx. Everything else in the world came from eBay.
It’s enlightening to survey the evolution of this 24-year-old brand. In the 1990s you might bid competitively on a rare vintage phonograph from an antiquarian in Liège; in the 2000s it was Jonah Hill’s glittery boots that you wouldn’t necessarily have to bid on. By the 2010s there was a definite down-market drift. A good deal on a truckload of mismatched Pampers or reclaimed barnwood is not outside the norm.
Cat food, buttons, vacuum cleaner bags, 3/8th-inch nails, shoe insoles, reversible window fan, tester Shiseido lipsticks (without tags but definitely unused!). The boxes left for me in the lobby represented all the insides of the places in New York I didn’t go. eBay—with sometimes free shipping and no tax outside the state—was my elsewhere. I marveled at people’s resourceful Frankenstein methods of packaging from cut-apart boxes and the bizarre things they used to keep stuff from sliding around (like a cracked apart Styrofoam beer chest). Often the parcels looked sloppy alongside my neighbors’ pretty boxes from Blue Apron and Fresh Direct, which I always imagined holding any number of exquisitely wrapped Asian pears.
When the seller accepted offers, I always made one, but I never offered anything lower than the Macy’s One-Day Sale discount of 25%. Sustainability-wise, I suppose it was bad having things mailed from all parts of the country. But I saw this merch as overstock from our byzantine capitalist system that wasn’t lining the pockets of Overstock. com or Amazon but real live people who taped up boxes themselves.
Although I was here in the city because I wanted to be here, my disconnect from the storefront economy made me feel less than corporeal, unable to penetrate the surface like one of the bureaucratic-functionary angels in Wings of Desire. Sometimes I felt I was violating an ordinance—as if I, as citizen, needed to make a minimum number of daily transactions to maintain residency or owed something akin to an inactivity fee on a savings account.
But then I would think of Emerson: “We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.” I stuck to my surface art of austerity with what you’d call devotion, not even walking into an open door and coming out with a 99-cent slice. I found it amusing to be unintentionally adhering to one of the greatest hits from the Gospel of John: be in this world but not of it.
Crowded into the A every morning, I’d wonder how many of those around me were similarly only skimming the surface of a cold and heartless economy, living the false pretenses of an elsewhere existence as consumers. People used to vacation in New York specifically to buy things to bring home to Toledo. Now people who live here buy things from Toledo that they can’t afford to buy on 15 miles of Broadway.
After getting over the cash-flow crisis and returning to quasi-middle-class solvency, I have continued to buy inexpensively on eBay—even things I once gave away. Like a set of carved-in-India rosewood trivets (round and square) that I gave to the Goodwill after my mother died. First I felt overwhelmed with multitudes of knickknacks, then with regret. But thanks to eBay, I found solace and trivets with the same designs in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
And Murfreesboro is an important reason I can’t shed the eBay habit. I can’t explain why, but most of the things I buy come from Red States—in areas I imagine being uprooted by hurricanes every other year. The sellers are consistently considerate and utterly reasonable. Odds are that the nice lady in Mississippi who added the cursive note and an impromptu drawing of her peach-faced lovebirds voted for Donald Trump. But that did not deter her from treating a resident of Blue State Ground Zero with exemplary kindness even though I was unlikely to buy another old mixing bowl from her. When I am filled with rage and wonder “Who are these people who support Trump no matter what he does?” I think of someone who carefully wraps an item that I need in a cracked-apart Styrofoam beer chest.
And now that eBay is collecting New York State sales tax regardless of where a resident buys from, I know that my wayward purchasing is benefiting where I live in some capacity. I can still find spiritual community with both my cash-strapped but cash-paying neighbors—many of them immigrants of color—and the Red State sellers willing to strike a deal. You could call it the American way, or you could call it just being broke. §