Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sale of the Century


We sold off a bit our family history the other week, but there was plenty left over at the end of the day.

My sister and I held a part of a garage sale outside our house in an attempt to clear out the closets and raise some money for some home improvement.

I’ve walked by scores of these things in my life: someone takes all their stuff from the attic or basement and hopes for the best.

But this is the first time I ever sat on the other side of the table. And I hope it’s the last.

I mean, it wasn’t so terrible; we actually met some very nice people. But we gave up a Saturday and wound up with a grand total of $53.

Still, as my late father used to say, that’s $53 dollars we didn’t have before.

We sat there, surrounded by old clothes, knick-knacks, and other such stuff that we’ve found in the course of our clean-up.

Earlier in the week we had gone around the neighborhood putting up fliers announcing the sale and I posted a notice on Craigslist, complete with an image of a treasure chest bursting with booty—the pirate kind, not the other kind of booty.

I called the event the “Last Chance” garage sale, reminding people that winter was coming and that they better hustle if they want to get in on the bargains.

It’s strange putting your family’s property up for sale. You watch people rifle the clothes rack and you want to tell them, “hey, that belonged to my mother; show a little respect, huh?”

But I recall the times I’ve gone to these sales and handled the items so casually because they meant nothing to me.

Are we being too money-hungry? Would our parents be angry if they knew we were doing this? Hell, it’s not the vital stuff; it’s just things that we’ll either throw out or give away when we sell the place. I’d like to think they’d applaud our initiative.

My sister showed a natural skill for selling. As soon as a potential customer got
close, she’d approach them and ask “are you looking for anything in particular
today?”

I took a more laisse-fare approach, not wanting to scare off the customers—or be forced to haggle.

I confess I was dreading this day, convinced I’d be buffaloed into giving away the store by some smooth-talking flea market veteran. But, while I did give up one item a little too quickly, I made it through the day without being ripped off.

One of our first customers was a Hispanic man who was looking for some clothes. My sister asked he wanted some toys for his family, but he told us they were back in Mexico.

He bought a pair of gym pants and a jacket with “Brooklyn” emblazoned on the front that had belonged to the lowlife former tenants of ours.

I’m sure this man was working here illegally, so I felt good that he had some decent clothes for the winter. I don’t envy him being so far from loved ones.

Later it occurred to me that I had found a sweatshirt with a hood upstairs and washed it with the intent of keeping it for myself. It was only later that I discovered the zipper was broken.

I wish now I had given that sweatshirt to the Mexican guy--on the house. He could have gotten the zipper fixed and the sweatshirt would have paired well with the jacket.

Another lady bought a stuffed bear on a leash that belonged to my sister. She told us that she was going to give it to her sister, who, as a child, had dangled a similar stuffed bear out the window of her father’s car.

You know what happened next, don’t you? The chain broke and the bear tumbled onto the highway, never to be seen again.

One woman bought my Grand Canyon guide book. I had gone there in 1998 and I didn’t need the book anymore—the memory of that trip is permanently etched in my brain.

Still, it’s strange, watching someone walk away with your property. Only it’s not your property anymore, it’s someone else’s. And that’s what it’ll be like when we sell the house.

My Back Pages

A man with some kind of Eastern European accent was interested in records. We have a lot of old albums, but I didn’t want to put them out because I want an expert to take a look at them first. I’d be pretty angry if I handed over a classic LP for a buck fifty.

There was a story just recently about a woman who found a painting lying in the trash four years ago that could now could fetch up to $1 million at auction.

But I went into my room and took some records out of my closet. As I went out into the daylight I saw a recording of the Sherlock Holmes’ story The Adventures of the Speckled Band read by Basil Rathbone.

My mother had bought this and other such records for us when we were kids. My brother and I used to listen to The Adventures of Sinbad, Treasure Island, The Castaways, and stories by Edgar Allen Poe.

This was long before DVD players and I-pods and we enjoyed the hell out of them.

Like the old time radio dramas, these records made you use your imagination to create the pictures that were being described to you. And since we were all big fans of the Sherlock Holmes movies, we loved the records.

And now some stranger was putting his grubby little hands all over that childhood gift from my mother.

I sat there stewing, praying he wouldn’t chose that record, all of the others in the pile, because if he did, I’d have to sell it to him and I’d watch him walk down the street with that piece of my mother’s memory tucked under his arm, and I’d either have a nervous breakdown or chase him the block with ball peen hammer.

It was time for action, not hand wringing.

“Excuse me,” I said, pointing to the Rathbone record. “There’s been a mistake. That one’s not for sale.”

The guy handed it over without any complaint and he wound up buying some album of songs we had gotten as a freebie. That was a close one, Watson.

Then there was this very lovely woman who bought many of my mom’s art supplies.

My mom was into ceramics and other artsy-craftsy stuff and this woman, who was a teacher, bought some brushes and other items for her class. It was nice to see my mom’s stuff going on to a new generation.

And then this woman—I’ve since forgotten her name—happened to open one of the craft books, flip through the pages, and out fell a color photo that must have been at least 35 years old.

It’s a picture of me—God, what happened to all that hair?—my then-best friend and his older sister. We’re all kneeling in front of their Christmas tree, my friend with his arm linked through his sister’s while I’m holding her right hand.

I’m wearing a scarf with the Midas logo—the Midas muffler, get it?—a gift from my friend’s other sister, who ran a Midas shop with her husband.

The picture takes me back to a place where I don’t want to be. I was the second-banana then, the best friend, the one who made the jokes, but was never respected, never taken seriously.

And what’s worse is that my friend’s sister died a short time later—from pneumonia, I believe.

She was a very small, sweet woman, and Christ, I don’t think she made it to 40 years old. I guess my friend and I weren’t holding on to her tightly enough.

She and her husband had lived in Danbury, Conn., and my friend and I had visited them one summer for a few days. The next time I went back there it would in the winter for her funeral.

I remember the wake, when my friend’s mother reached into her daughter’s coffin and started speaking to her, as if she could hear, as if she would come back to life and get out the casket.

Apparently my mother had held on to this photo and then forgot about it. While I’m glad we didn’t give it away, I kind of wish I hadn’t seen it. It's now in the pages of another book.

My sister had to leave late in the day and a short time later a couple parked their car in front of our house and started looking at our goods.

“Are you looking for anything in particular today?” I asked, getting into the salesman routine.

The woman picked a blouse that had belonged to my mother, but the price tag was still on it, so she never wore it.

We might have bought it for her when she was sick, hoping she would one day be well enough to wear it. Only that day never came.

I was supposed to start the bidding at 5 bucks, but I blurted out three for some reason.

“Would you take two?” the woman asked.

It was late, I was tired, and I had screwed up. I suspected this couple relied on the lateness of the day to get a break in the prices.

After six hours of sitting outside, you just want to get this stuff out of your life. So I went for two bucks.

We closed up a little while later and we won’t do this again until the spring.

One of our neighbors asked me later that evening, “are you ready for E-bay yet, darling?”

Yeah, I think I am.

I was going to my gym in Park Slope yesterday and I saw people holding a garage sale outside their house.

The stuff looked like junk mostly, but then my family’s items must have looked the same way to other people. I hope this people flipped through the books they wanted to sell to make sure they wouldn’t lose any valuable photos.

I checked out the DVD’s, but I didn’t see anything I liked, so I kept walking.

“Hello!” a voice called out. I turned and saw a woman walking toward me.

“Are you looking for anything special?” she asked.

“No, thank you,” I said, and kept walking.

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