My cups runneth over

I never had collections—Baseball cards, comics, coins, stamps—never got into that. Until my 20s. In college I started going to thrift stores and suddenly a world of weird collectibles presented itself to me. I started with t-shirts. At first it was concert t-shirts, especially knowingly unhip shirts: Journey, Poison, Rush, the Doobie Brothers.


Soon I realized that thousands of other cool kids were wearing their own vintage version of pop music irony. Shit. An idea I thought was culturally inventive was shared by herds of hipsters around the globe. In youth, the concept of one's own fashion cleverness as singular and unrivaled is an important delusion to shake. But I blindly persevered. It was 1995. T-shirt irony ruled. I had only to find something more arcane.

I bumped into the answer in a Harlem thrift store. A gray t-shirt with Roman lettering: BARNARD. Ah-ha!


The women's colleges: The seven sisters. Not only was it clever (a guy wearing an all-women's college t-shirt!) it scored academic points and it created a fantastic collector's challenge. This was the era prior to E-bay and on-line purchasing. This accumulation would depend on fabulous luck or exciting road trips to the women's colleges. A few weeks later, fortune smiled, and I scored SMITH. Although it didn't fit me that well, the collection was going forward. Then a dry spell came. I was living in LA and it seemed as though seven-sister graduates didn't settle out west that often or give away their college t-shirts. While visiting Bryan and his wife Steph in Boston, I made a special trip to South Hadley, Mass., and paid full price for MT. HOLYOKE. But the font was boring and the tailoring was unflattering. It was the most disappointing shirt of the collection. I vowed that no more shirts could be purchased new, that instead they must be found in thrift stores. So I passed on the easy purchase of Radcliffe. Another dry spell. Then a year later, in Silver Lake, I finally bagged WELLESLEY. That was a special day. I had finally won the trifecta.

The legend of the trinity of women's colleges was something I learned about when I joined Columbia's marching band, the institutional repository of all the old songs, traditions, and tweedy folk-lore. They knew all kinds of weird shit. According to them, there was a snarky old Salinger-era saying that went “Smith women to bed, Wellesley women to wed, Barnard women give best head.” There was great glory back in the day bestowed to those individuals industrious enough to hit that triple. So the story goes. Completing the t-shirt triumvirate, I felt my own kind of distorted nostalgic glory.

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About that time, thanks to Jeremy's influence, I started collecting t-shirts of notoriously crappy sports teams. I found the Clippers, the Browns (pre-trade), and the Indians.


I never did find Bryn Mawr or Vassar or Radcliffe. And the seven sisters ambition was set aside. By the time I left LA, I had lost interest in the collection altogether.

At that point, I bought a house and my thrift store collecting switched to a new fascination: Tools that plug in, but didn't have a true need for electricity to perform their function. Examples? electric scissors, electric carving knives, electric wine openers, and my favorite, the hot dogger.

This gave way to the collection—better called addiction—that I have now. I simply can't stop buying coffee mugs and glasses. It sounds ridiculous, but for the last four or five years, I can't (won't?) go into a thrift store without buying some kind of ceramic or glass container. Our cabinets can't contain them. Rebecca has started boxing them up and storing them in the basement. Bless her.

I have standards of course. If the cups display any form of nudity or graphic sex, they are immediately purchased.


(She used to have clothes, which would disappear with the perspiration of a cold drink, but have now vanished completely due to excessive use.)


(You can guess what happens when you pour hot coffee into this mug.)

Also, if there is any visual reference to pharmaceutical products, I will be drinking coffee out of it within days.


Then, of course, there is just randomness and aesthetic pleasure. I just can't stop.


I have asked friends to take them home. I have put aloe and cactus in them and given them away. As far as weird habits go, it is pretty benign, but they multiply nonetheless. What is it in containers that captures my interest? What does it say about me? I know this much: as I purchase the glass or mug I picture my friends (many of you are reading this right now) drinking from the cup—and that gives me great pleasure. I imagine you visiting and sharing a drunken Saturday evening or nursing a Sunday hangover from one of these vessels. And that fantasy gives me hope and joy. May you all come visit us soon. Your cup is waiting.


12 responses to “My cups runneth over”

  1. Rachel says:

    Great post, Farrell! I, too, have a ruinously large thrifted t-shirt collection, and some prized mugs, including “Sands Hotel” (Vegas, now demolished), “Prozac,” and “Votes For Women!”. So…what’s the next collection going to be?

  2. Wow! That Dooble Brothers shirt . . . wow.

  3. So…what’s the next collection going to be?

    Let’s just hope it doesn’t require stomach pumping

    Lots of memories in those photos. Maybe that’s what the items contain.

  4. Lisa Parrish says:

    Wait a second… Rush is unhip?

  5. Scott Godfrey says:

    ’90s Irony, and its quest, led many of us down dark roads. I found myself collecting “Desert Storm” tees; there were thousands to be had in thrift stores all over the country. It seems that every group, school, club, and secret-society produced their own “kick Iraq’s ass!” shirts. Of course, it’s sad how un-ironic (or maybe too ironic) these poly/cotton time capsules have become. Over the years and with moves from city to city I’ve kept only one. Like a teen afraid to give up any shred of found pornography, I keep it neatly folded in the bottom of my drawer. The image is a silhouette of an American tank taking aim at the silhouette of a man sitting on a camel. The text: “God bless our troops.”

  6. Stephanie Wells says:

    And speaking of the formerly hilariously ironic becoming woefully un-ironic with time, my all-time favorite of Scott’s t-shirt collection (“God Bless Our Troops” and his infamous CATS sweatshirt notwithstanding) USED to be the pale baby-blue one with the scripty font reading “Lordy, Lordy, ___________ is Forty,” with the blank filled in by pastel-rainbow-striped bubble letters spelling “Diane.” As early-thirties San Francisco hipsters, we thought this was about the funniest and saddest thing of all time. But you know what? Traffic willing, we all turn forty, and when the unthinkable happened to me this year, Scott presented me with a T-shirt reading, you guessed it, “Lordy, Lordy, Steph is Forty.” He ironed on the letters himself, but despite this touching gesture, it just didn’t seem so hilarious anymore. Even the ironically cutesie puppies-and-kittens shirts we used to wear also make me a little nervous now, as if at my advanced age, someone might take them seriously and think I’m really one of those “ladies” who stocks up on scrapbooking stuff and iron-ons for my puffy-painted sweatshirts at the craft store. When is one too old for irony? It’s a terrifying question . . .

  7. Dave says:

    There’s a nice little piece in the recent n+1 by a guy who was raised a redneck. Now, even with at least two graduate degrees, he won’t wear trucker hats or giant belt buckles — for him, there’s the danger they won’t be taken ironically. His wife made him throw out a pack of A-type undershirts he bought; she was afraid of what someone might think if they saw him wearing a wifebeater.

  8. Farrell Lines says:

    Rachel: thanks, and i look forward to seeing a sample of your ruinous t-shirt collection when we visit chicager later this spring. as for my next collection, i just don’t know. it’s hard to predict these things. vinyl? vintage chidren’s toys? wristwatches?

    Lane: you would like the back of the doobies shirt, too. not only does it have tour dates, but it has a big picture of america with the concert cities represented with stars. why don’t indie bands take up that tradition?

    Bryan: yes, memories. i agree. when you lived in philly for that summer we got the brunette carrying the umbrella. you are one of the few who knew her before her clothes came off.

    Lisa: No, fear not. rush is once again hip. before they become unhip again. oh, the cruel cycle.

    Scott: That is a great story. i want to see that shirt–if your willing to share your pornography. the t-shirt as a way of reading an era’s political/social history would make an intersting coffee table book someday. your shirt would deserves its own special page.

    Stephanie: god you and scott share a wicked sense of humor. I also want to see that shirt. and you wearing it. standing in front of your mini van. holding your cats. i like the way you put it: “when is one too old for irony?” is fashion irony another luxury of youth? i think it just might be. on the other extreme, not old age, but children also seem to rust the shine of irony. i can imagine that it wont be but a couple more years when the joyous humor of copulating bunnies and naked ladies on dishware become sources of embarrassment and horor when our little william and his friends start to ask questions. irony is such a wierd thing.

    Dave: it’s funny, i was going to say something about how good you looked dressed up in your big belt buckles and trucker hats, then i thought how ridiculous. you would never wear that shit. there are certain people i know who have never succumbed to fashion irony. i can’t think of you or jeremy ever wearing something i might call ironic. am i wrong?

  9. ssw says:

    oh, don’t understimate dave–it may have been a fleeting moment (his super-ego kicking into high gear right after) but for one beautiful night, dave sported a moustache, a cowboy shirt and hat, and some bad-ass shades–the man was hot! Country motorbike cop. starsky and hutch. mmm.

  10. Rachel says:


    Let’s just say that four hula girl t-shirts is probably three (perhaps four) too many. I look forward to seeing you and showing you the T-shirt Closet Of Shame.

  11. Shar says:

    I have a prized 1980s mug — a birthday gift given and received without irony: END U.S. AGRESSION IN NICARAGUA NOW! It’s appropriately decorated with hands that become doves. Of course the message was valid, but more importantly it expresses the 80s in the UK so well…we believed that buying a $2 mug and drinking endless cups of tea out of it would move us closer to political justice in the world. That and all those marches.

    I had a delightful t-shirt moment this morning. One of the museum carpenters who is in the middle of building an exhibition dropped into a meeting with a sponsor wearing a t-shirt, which cheekily announced “I like girls who like girls.” As we started cracking up, he turned to the sponsor and declared “I’m the museum’s colorful character.”

  12. jay stuart says:

    yo, farrell, how come i never got a mug…?