Sifting through almost ninety years of my grandfather-in-law’s stuff just sucks. On multiple levels. In an effort to weave a path through lives still in motion, things become pretty cut-and-dry, and more quickly than I’d like to admit, a keep pile, sell pile, and trash pile form. Multiple mounds ebb and flow seamlessly, in constant competition with one another while they grow in disproportionate shares. Every artifact is there, present and accounted for, if not fully appreciated for a sticker price that can no longer be collected on demand.
One man’s treasure is another man’s trash, like the wooden bowl with a permanent, oily sheen that’s tagged for Good Will. Even though it held a homemade Italian salad every Friday for fifty years, because spaghetti night was Gumps’ favorite of the week, valuables must be sifted, prioritized, and turned into chattel. Tschokies are tagged at a dollar each because they don’t match anyone’s décor. The truth is, no one else in the family is into cluttery collections, or understands the international appeal of the Lladro-like figurines that lined every dresser and shelf.
If you’ve been in the position of having to troll through a loved one’s possessions, you know that determining the “value” of the mementos left behind not only feels wrong, it is. But life sometimes becomes commoditized, drilling down to a series of lists to be checked off and eventually thrown away.
I’m not going to mine a trove of memories too deeply right now, because I’ve been sad for two weeks, and at the moment, I’d rather smile. Instead, I’m gonna tell you why you shouldn’t put me in charge of anything you cherish or might want to keep. As sentimental as I may sound, my actions tell a different story. It’s not what you say that matters; it’s what you do.
I’m a classic discarder, the anti-hoarder, an OCD Gemini who cleans the kitchen counter and sweeps the floor about nine times a day, with or without Necessary and Proper Cause. I’ll pick up your glass and put it in the dishwasher before you’ve gotten halfway through your drink, and you’d better nail down or hide anything I consider to be superfluous, because I’ll toss it through the air and into the trash before you have the chance to remember that it was ever yours.
This is especially true with anything containing the words “stocking” and “stuffer,” and if it was purchased at Dollar General? Forget it. It never existed as far as you know.
So I found myself in an interesting position yesterday, suddenly a person of great influence and power. I was tasked with the responsibility of negotiating prices at Gumps’ estate sale, and while others in the family were actually trying to make money, my goal was a little more mild: to get anything inside the house out.
If you’re gonna take the time to argue over why a box of sandpaper should be $0.50 instead of a dollar, you can have it. Seriously. Take it, because I’ve got better things to do than give you the thrill of your life when I settle at $0.65. In fact, since I’m in such a generous mood, why don’t you add the dining room set and a Mandarin-to-English dictionary while you’re at it? You’re a big guy, perfectly capable of strapping a four hundred pound organ on your back, right? So go for it. It’ll look great next to that new table and chairs you’re lugging home to set up in your backyard alongside the washer and dryer that don’t work and your collection of blown-out tires.
But in my haste to discard waste yesterday, I was little trigger-happy with a couple of things that deserved a second thought. I’m listing them below so that when you have to spend a warm, sunny day selling the relics of someone you wish was still around, you’ll be a little more judicious than me.
Even though the Craig’s List ad says the doors open at 10:00 a.m., there’s a contingency of scavengers who get to a garage sale at least an hour ahead of the start, and sometimes camp out the night before (just kidding…I hope). I imagine this occurs because at a certain age, the sleep that’s beginning to elude me simply disappears, and rather than watch an endless, glassy-eyed loop of Lawrence Welk reruns, it’s a lot more fun to get out of the Barcalounger and haggle with me.
So when an ancient dude walked up with a box full of old spray paint, I thought I’d hit the mother lode. Not only was it useless junk, but hazardous waste that I couldn’t put out by the curb. Double score! If he’d been the clairvoyant zombie that keeps popping up in every book I read lately, he’d understand that I would have paid him to take that stuff off my hands. Instead I got a crumpled $10.00 bill. Sweet!
I was feeling pretty good about myself until a nice lady tapped me on the shoulder and told me the real value of what I let ricochet out of the tool shed. Apparently, there’s an ensemble of successful graffiti artists, mostly residing in Malibu or Park Avenue co-ops and not anywhere close to the river in a tent, who will pay just about anything for certain paint colors that have been retired. Like, to the tune of $1,000 a can. As I internally high-fived myself, about a dozen of them walked out the door, on my watch, and under the appraisal of my self-satisfied eye. Oops.
A little more on my guard (or so I thought), I immediately ran into another kind person who found a box of toys we hadn’t had the chance to sift through. We managed to pull a vintage G.I. Joe off the top just ahead of the sale, but hadn’t yet foraged into the depths of broken Lincoln Logs, pick-up sticks, and dirt. He rummaged around, and at the bottom found some old Barbies with mismatched clothes and really bad hair. He mentioned that his granddaughters loved to play with dolls, he missed them dreadfully because they lived out of town, and that he’d take them off my hands for $1.00 each. I found this sentiment to be endearing, since I have two little girls of my own. Plus, he was old, and even though the coot with the spray paint pulled one over on me, I have a soft spot for elderly people who smell like Vicks vapor rub and mentho-lyptus all rolled into one.
Had I made it past remedial math in college, I would have realized that at about eighty, his granddaughters would be like, twenty years old today. Playing with dolls when you’re almost legal is creepy, but I was so touched by his desire to look out for his sweet girls (and excited to get rid of more junk), that I would have happily let him take the whole box off my hands for free.
These are the Barbies I deal with on a daily basis at home:
This is the one he was most interested in at the sale:
Notice any similarities? Right. They’re all scary as hell.
Luckily, the same kind, genius-lady who knew what a fortune we lost in paint was hovering nearby, and stopped him in his tracks. Not only was he trying to get out the door with the previously pictured 1962 Bubblecut Redhead Barbie with extra-large bangs, he had Yachtsman Ken #789 buried at the bottom of his stash, who was totally spiffed up and packaged in mint condition as he smiled winningly from the confines of his box. You could just tell that Ken was dying to go sailing with the mega-millionaire graffiti artist who buys four-figure cans of half-used spray paint on a whim, and probably, in a strange twist of fetish-fate, loves to play with overpriced vintage dolls.
The old codger’s offer immediately went from $5.00 to $100.00, my savvy mother-in-law said no, he turned a ghastly shade of do not resuscitate, and quietly slithered away. As it turns out, Barbie, Ken, their friends Skooter and Skipper, and all of the mismatched clothes are worth thousands of dollars. Don’t come lurking around my house in search of them as they await their eBay fate, though, because they’re nowhere near my house.
Everyone in the family is onto me now, and next weekend? I’m in charge of the free coffee and donuts, and that’s about it.