Category Archives: yard sales

The Yarn Sale

He who dies with the most toys wins.        Malcolm Forbes

Now everything ‘s a little upside down,  As a matter of fact the wheels have stopped.  What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good, you’ll find out when you reach the top.  You’re on the bottom.
                         Idiot Wind (Blood On The Tracks) Bob Dylan

Existence is bigger, deeper, more profound and meaningful than the following revelation.  Life is like a card game. Early on the strategy is to win all the “pots” and collect all the stray cards possible.  Many years ago a tea set left by a great aunt spurred a fierce family competition.  Decades later the ubiquitous tea set is still rattling around the family.  No longer coveted, it is too fragile and memory-filled to put on eBay, but no one wants to dust and display it.  The hope is to foist it off on an unsuspecting newly married young niece. My generation is realizing extra cards (and sugar bowls) are a burden and count as points against in the big game.

My wife JoAnne is a fiber artist and president of the Southern California Handweavers’ Guild. To suggest she enjoys collecting yarns, silks, linens and fine fabrics is like saying Marco Polo liked to travel.  She has rescued yarn from Miss Havisham-like estates, garage sales of too-busy hobbyists, and countless church basement rummage sales.  We used to joke that she’d been in more churches than Billy Graham.  Our two car garage has always been given over to her passion.   The result has been many beautiful pieces through the years. Along the way she has also mentored and given freely to beginning weavers.

About a month ago she made the decision to divest.  Her goal was to sell 25% of her accumulation.  With the tireless help of her sister, Donna, she turned the garage into a store-for-a-day.  Thanks to Craig’s List and numerous Yahoo groups, word got out that things would be priced to move.  At the opening bell at 9:00 AM the line was thirty people long. The flurry of shoppers continued unabated for three hours before tapering off, followed by a rally in mid-afternoon. The sale left JoAnne and Donna in equal parts exhausted and euphoric.

In the afterglow it looked like orderly locusts had come and spirited off much of forty-plus years of collecting.  I asked JoAnne if she missed the 600 pounds of yarn. “No, I had more than I could possibly weave up in a lifetime.  It was time to let other people enjoy some of it.”

She had the look of someone who had just located the card they needed to complete a winning hand.

The Yarn Sale

Tom H. Cook was not swept up in the whirlwind of cathartic energy enough to part with his Mad magazine collection.  To view previous columns and even comment visit www.sanduponthewaters.net.         

  

My Collections Are Under Attack!

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar            —Sigmund Freud

My collections are under attack by those closest to me. I suspect my editor (JoAnne) is behind the plot. She has been encouraging me to ask friends and family members how they really feel about my stuff.  This is a touchy subject.  I have always taken their feigned indifference for petty jealousy.  Now everywhere I search for an ally I hear the same thing:  A clear differentiation between their feelings for me (lukewarm), and their impression of my “hobby” (stifling, excessive).  I am warned to not take their pointed criticism personally, which is difficult as they are my CDs, books, and old radios.

These inquisitions/interventions give me pause.  Could I possibly be this shallow?  Have I no soul? Didn’t I understand Citizen Kane? Why do I need a non-operational Grundig Majestic radio looming over the family room?   When is the last time I listened to a Tijuana Brass boxed set?  Am I likely to watch Hill Street Blues DVDs, or re-read Jimmy Breslin’s account of Watergate? My friends intones words such as public library, Internet, Netflix, Kindle, and Pandora, all rational solutions.

For decades I have enjoyed collecting media and odd bits of Americana like an autographed picture of Miss Rheingold 1951.  The hunting has been fun, but I have also unknowingly been constructing a two-way Rorschach test.  My insecurities fairly screamed, “Look at all the cool stuff I’ve got… won’t you like me?” If my sparkling wit did not make me friends, perhaps my Hot Tuna album, or my Lone Ranger board game would.  It cuts both ways.  If someone were too unhip to get the joke of a prominently displayed autographed photo of Henry Kissinger, perhaps we were not meant to be friends.

I have reached the age and stage when I do not feel the need to attract new friends.  The message that I am getting from those closest to me is that they care for me despite, not because of my Frankie Avalon albums, and Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox.  They say my stuff is weighing on me and wouldn’t a much smaller collection be more practical and easier to appreciate?  They warn that I am drowning in stuff.

I may be ankle deep but I am certainly not drowning.   All the constructive criticism begins to blur and soon I am in a buzz of friends all nude, they are led by my 3rd grade teacher Mrs. Reese.  Chanting and dancing, they implore me, “Break free!”  “Throw away your crutches!”  “Break free!” (Repeat incessantly).  I have to admit it is catchy and with the drums and the bonfire I find myself caught up in the frenzy.

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer and garage sale habitué.  A current home renovation project is calling into question all that he holds dear.       

Shirt Collection

Most Saturday Mornings

On most Saturday mornings I wander around looking to see what my neighbors wisely or foolishly have put out for sale.  Some weeks it is stained Hello Kitty sheets, a three (formerly four) legged particle board laminate table, a used possum trap, a scratched Tijuana Brass album, a Kelvinator (I don’t know either but it requires 220 current), a collection of vintage margarine tubs, a not that clean stretched out plumbing snake, a Chevy muffler, a pile of enmeshed bamboo blinds, a mostly complete game of Sorry!, and a water-stained collection of Danielle Steel novels.  But some weeks there is nothing but junk!

Every collector has a “great find” story, told with the same gleeful chortle as Bain Capital executives over drinks at the club as they recount outsourcing an orphanage and shipping 900 children to be raised in India. The wily dealer came upon a pair of autographed Elvis socks for a dime and is later besieged with offers in the thousands.  Why he is still driving a rusted out, twenty year old Dodge van is never explained.  My tale is not of stealth, deceit or enormous gain, but rather impulse, regret, acceptance, and inconvenience.

A few months ago at a nearby apartment building I was early enough to witness the beginnings of an interesting looking sale.  A nondescript but pleasant accountant type in his 40s was bringing out boxes of model trains.  I have many weaknesses, but fortunately Lionel trains are not among them.  I asked if he would be bringing anything else out, and he replied that he would be selling his baseball cards.  I believe the term is feigned nonchalance and I am not very good at it.

Soon he began to bring out boxes of neatly organized baseball and football cards.   These were not the valuable Topps cards of my Ted Williams/Stan Musial childhood.  This younger neighbor collected in the 1980s-90s after other companies joined the “hobby” and proceeded to flood the market.  So this is not going to be a gloating, how I got rich story.  In truth, I was ambivalent. The owner of the cards was selling under a stress that I did not yet understand.  He was such a meek, likable guy, I did not want to take advantage of him.  Additionally, there were suddenly more shoppers; the hint of a real bargain can make an already unattractive crowd to turn ugly.

A sensible person might have said, “I’ll take one complete set.”  That would be about 770 cards in pristine condition, in number order, smartly boxed, and easy to carry.  I could look forward to many hours of reminiscing and did I mention the easy to store box?  Instead I heard myself saying, “How much for all of them?”  The now-crowded sale grew quiet.  People clutched their train sets and gasped.  “The crazy guy is going for it,” said one.  “He doesn’t know what these trains are worth,” said another.

In this bush league Las Vegas, I was “the most interesting man at the sale,” going all in with a pair of 7s showing.  Motioning me aside, he lead me behind a four foot tall potted plant.  His lips barely moved as he said quietly, “Look, I have a lot more cards.  We just got married and it’s a small apartment, and she wants my cards and trains gone.”

I was picturing my new best friend’s spouse: also early 40s, glasses, quiet, mousy, cautious, practical.  I imagined the quiet dinner where she summoned her courage and tentatively at first broached the subject of his collections.  She may have suggested that giving up baseball cards and model railroading, pursuits of a solitary man, might be a testament of their commitment to a new life together.  Perhaps she had coquettishly suggested other things they might do…

As if on cue the bride awoke and came out to the sale sputtering, “What are you doing talking to one guy in the corner when people are ready to buy the trains?”  She immediately struck me as someone who had not seen 7:00 AM in many years.   Braless, in very tight jeans, she may have lived forty years, but she had not spent her evenings setting up train switches or studying the Baltimore Orioles roster.  She made Janis Joplin look like a Junior Leaguer.   She had a very large eagle tattoo on her upper chest and many others tats on her forearms.  I believe her sleeveless T-shirt said something about being property of the Hell’s Angels.  Her boots, black leather belt and chains suggested that she was not the software designer I originally imagined.  I felt like asking her about John Belushi, and what it was like partying with Keith Richards.

Instead I held my tongue as she stormed off.  I watched him for reaction.  All I saw was love.  “Whatever she wants,” he shrugged.  He again asked if I wanted all the cards.  I assured him I did and we agreed on a price of $70.00.  As i loaded the 60,000 baseball cards into my car, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever love someone that much.

Only kidding, JoAnne.

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer.  His collection, discretely covered by a tablecloth, occupies a corner of the living room.

 

 

 

 

I Have Always Been an Acquirer

I have always been an acquirer.  An acquirer is a collector, without a plan.  It is only recently that I have begun to question the origin of this habit, and more importantly realize the exhaustive counter productive energy I have devoted to this activity.  A true collector, whether it is of Rembrandts or bottle caps has developed a “file philosophy”, a guide that helps them set limits and define what they value, making it easier to separate these items from the sea of pretenders.

I have never been able to resist people that seem to like me, literature on a cause that I should be more knowledgeable about, or 25-cent books on the discard shelves at the library that always I meant to read like, U. Thant, The Batter From Burma.  I never questioned the premise that if stuff is good, more stuff is better.

As a random chaotic thinker, I have always viewed the world as a rather length scavenger hunt, or an Indiana Jones movie.  A mysteriously produced gas receipt from a home I sold ten years ago may turn the tide of an IRS audit.  An airline ticket and luggage claim would prove to a Grand Jury that I could not possibly be behind the latest coup in Paraguay.  Scary as it seems, I actually think like this.  When in doubt save it, it may come in handy in establishing an alibi, although I have not done anything illegal or even interesting.  The problem is that if the situation ever arose it would be easier and considerably less painful to go to the gas chamber rather that dig through an attic and basement filled with old records that might exonerate me.

The serious reasons for becoming an acquirer are probably buried in self esteem issues (see SAND…HLP May, 1992), suffice it to say that having a lot of stuff on a low budget might have been a scrawny kid from Pennsauken’s way to fit in.  There have actually been times when having an extensive Frankie Valli album collection has been socially helpful, but in retrospect it may not have been that necessary.  I no longer feel the need to hade behind possessions.

The habit of picking up brochures, and getting on mailing lists has been a difficult one to break because the goal is moderation not abstinence.  Crime and pollution aside, there are other reasons to consider small town life.  Perhaps people in remote areas have a better perspective on the Arts.  The Amish for example wear only black but display a wonderful color sense in their quilts and other hand craft.  In Pine Scruff Falls, Minnesota (population 338) Maynard Ferguson plays at the consolidated regional high school every four years.  Everyone goes, next subject.

The fact that I am fifteen minutes from six galleries, twelve live theater spaces, and a coffeehouse run by Jungian biker still does not get me out of my comfortable chair on most nights.  My compromise is to keep believing that I would attend these happenings if I remain on the mailing list and have sufficient notice.  Part of me wants to believe that I really am a “player” in the culture scene.  Even if I do not plan to attend the John Greenleaf Whitter lecture series, JGW:  Was he Two Women?, perhaps I could at least pick up the information for a friend.  The result is that my life is continually cluttered with missed opportunities and good intentions.

I could not care less that the Jolly Martin Performance Company based in Wheaton, Illinois is doing a nine show run at the Homely Oak Theatre in Spring Lake Park of Guy De Maupassant’s The Necklace.  That it is in Finnish, with Burl Ives’ niece (fresh out of Hazelden) playing all of the female roles is not a lure.  Yet I accept the brochure and stack it up in my pile of things I feel guilty about not doing.  Granted the above example is less tempting than a host of other worthwhile projects that I have also not attended, but I feel a secret joy weeks later when I realize that because of my procrastination I have managed to miss all nine performances and that, alas it is now permissible to discard the handsome four color brochure.

Walking into a Realtor’s open house with friends out of idle curiosity, I have always been the one to take the literature even though the home is selling for twice the GNP of Micronesia.  Six months later I still have it, because I was intending to mail it to a friend because the roof line in the picture is similar to the renovation they have been doing to their home.  So I have found myself accumulating things that I now I will never use, but are also of dubious value to others.

My professional life is equally muddled.  I am constantly receiving notice of limited enrollment workshops that would help me crisis manage, teach me to both delegate and accept more responsibility, get me out of a dead end job, solve my current problems in halt of the time, acquaint me with the new technology, or ease me into a stress free retirement a lot sooner that my chosen path.  They hint strongly that my current level of expertise in probably the equivalent of a physician sing leeches, and that if I want to help my clients, the organization, and avoid getting sued, I better get to the Ramada Inn in Brooklyn Center next Thursday and bring $135.00.  How can I blithely throw these opportunities away?  Obviously I can not, so I save them, both at work and at home they stack up.  If I went to even a tiny fraction of the inservices offered I would be fired for dereliction of duty.

My vow is to collect only what I am able to use, and cease to be indiscriminate acquirer of well intended things that do not fit my needs.  I am still a sentimentalist, but I feel less inclined to clutter my life with playbills and scorecards of past events that I have attended.  I have been guilty of mistaking form for substance and grasping at tangibles to validate my experience.  I have been reluctant to exclude opinions, fearing that I would narrow myself, forgetting that sometimes we are better defined by what we are not.  The adage, “if you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there,” contains well worn truth.  My goal is to return from a relevant “night on the town” with a full heart and an empty hand.

Tom H. Cook is a local mystic.  He is continually amazed by how little of the Sunday Tribune is actually necessary. 

 

 

Great Finds

On most Saturday mornings I wander around looking to see what my neighbors wisely or foolishly have put out for sale.  Some weeks it is stained Hello Kitty sheets, a three (formerly four) legged particle board laminate table, a used possum trap, a scratched Tijuana Brass album, a Kelvinator (I don’t know either but it requires 220 current), a collection of vintage margarine tubs, a not that clean stretched out plumbing snake, a Chevy muffler, a pile of enmeshed bamboo blinds, a mostly complete game of Sorry!, and a water-stained collection of Danielle Steel novels.  But some weeks there is nothing but junk!

Every collector has a “great find” story, told with the same gleeful chortle as Bain Capital executives over drinks at the club as they recount outsourcing an orphanage and shipping 900 children to be raised in India. The wily dealer came upon a pair of autographed Elvis socks for a dime and is later besieged with offers in the thousands.  Why he is still driving a rusted out, twenty year old Dodge van is never explained.  My tale is not of stealth, deceit or enormous gain, but rather impulse, regret, acceptance, and inconvenience.

A few months ago at a nearby apartment building I was early enough to witness the beginnings of an interesting looking sale.  A nondescript but pleasant accountant type in his 40s was bringing out boxes of model trains.  I have many weaknesses, but fortunately Lionel trains are not among them.  I asked if he would be bringing anything else out, and he replied that he would be selling his baseball cards.  I believe the term is feigned nonchalance and I am not very good at it.

Soon he began to bring out boxes of neatly organized baseball and football cards.   These were not the valuable Topps cards of my Ted Williams/Stan Musial childhood.  This younger neighbor collected in the 1980s-90s after other companies joined the “hobby” and proceeded to flood the market.  So this is not going to be a gloating, how I got rich story.  In truth, I was ambivalent. The owner of the cards was selling under a stress that I did not yet understand.  He was such a meek, likable guy, I did not want to take advantage of him.  Additionally, there were suddenly more shoppers; the hint of a real bargain can make an already unattractive crowd to turn ugly.

A sensible person might have said, “I’ll take one complete set.”  That would be about 770 cards in pristine condition, in number order, smartly boxed, and easy to carry.  I could look forward to many hours of reminiscing and did I mention the easy to store box?  Instead I heard myself saying, “How much for all of them?”  The now-crowded sale grew quiet.  People clutched their train sets and gasped.  “The crazy guy is going for it,” said one.  “He doesn’t know what these trains are worth,” said another.

In this bush league Las Vegas, I was “the most interesting man at the sale,” going all in with a pair of 7s showing.  Motioning me aside, he lead me behind a four foot tall potted plant.  His lips barely moved as he said quietly, “Look, I have a lot more cards.  We just got married and it’s a small apartment, and she wants my cards and trains gone.”

I was picturing my new best friend’s spouse: also early 40s, glasses, quiet, mousy, cautious, practical.  I imagined the quiet dinner where she summoned her courage and tentatively at first broached the subject of his collections.  She may have suggested that giving up baseball cards and model railroading, pursuits of a solitary man, might be a testament of their commitment to a new life together.  Perhaps she had coquettishly suggested other things they might do…

As if on cue the bride awoke and came out to the sale sputtering, “What are you doing talking to one guy in the corner when people are ready to buy the trains?”  She immediately struck me as someone who had not seen 7:00 AM in many years.   Braless, in very tight jeans, she may have lived forty years, but she had not spent her evenings setting up train switches or studying the Baltimore Orioles roster.  She made Janis Joplin look like a Junior Leaguer.   She had a very large eagle tattoo on her upper chest and many others tats on her forearms.  I believe her sleeveless T-shirt said something about being property of the Hell’s Angels.  Her boots, black leather belt and chains suggested that she was not the software designer I originally imagined.  I felt like asking her about John Belushi, and what it was like partying with Keith Richards.

Instead I held my tongue as she stormed off.  I watched him for reaction.  All I saw was love.  “Whatever she wants,” he shrugged.  He again asked if I wanted all the cards.  I assured him I did and we agreed on a price of $70.00.  As i loaded the 60,000 baseball cards into my car, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever love someone that much.

Only kidding, JoAnne.

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer.  His collection, discretely covered by a tablecloth, occupies a corner of the living room.

 

 

 

 

House Finish Man Die

You must never stop building the house.  If you continue to build you will live forever.  But if you stop, then you will die too.                                –The Boston Medium

 

It was on the advice of her psychic that Sarah Winchester contacted The Boston Medium. Winchester had lost both her young daughter and husband.  The medium suggested that the souls of those killed by her husband’s rifles were angry and that she seek a way to appease them. Rather than establish a relief fund or a charity for the victims’ families she abandoned the comforts of New Haven, Connecticut in 1844.  Armed (no pun intended) with a mere $20,500,000 and half ownership in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, the plucky if delusional widow moved west to San Jose, California.

The mansion she built is renowned for its size and utter lack of a master building plan.  Begun on her arrival, it has approximately 160 rooms (ample quarters for the spirits of the dead), 10,000 window panes, 40 bedrooms, 47 fireplaces and doors and stairways that lead nowhere.  A paint job required 20,500 gallons of paint and could never be finished because the early work would need re-doing before the last portion could be completed.  Crews needed to work around the clock to forestall Mrs. Winchester’s death.  The second ballroom was under construction when the aged and arthritic matron passed away in 1922.

I do not believe I have the same quest for immortality.  I have not even added a bird feeder in the seven years I have been in California or adopted an exercise regime that will extend my life, but I have no other explanation for my growing collections.  Like Mrs. Winchester, I can not see dying before I have read all of the books that line my walls.  I have hundreds of CDs, many that I have yet to listen to because the cover art does not look as good as the twelve I play for all occasions.  Still I plan to enjoy each and every one of them someday.

I am currently 306 podcasts or one week and 37 hours of non-stop This American Life and The Dan Patrick Show behind on my iPod, with more being downloaded everyday.  I will listen to them.  My DVR is set to record everything from old Bob Newhart episodes to Countdown with Keith Olbermann.  I watch just enough to keep the recorder at 90 % of capacity, but not overflowing. I rarely play any of my 500+ DVDs that I plan to watch, as the Netflix shipments cut into my available viewing time.

At this point you may be thinking Sure, he has a lot of books, music, and videos, but he has not crossed that all important line that separates the collector/hobbyist from the obsessive pack rat.  You are probably thinking nothing of the sort and I am being easy on myself. But if that were the extent of my “collections” I could rationalize it as a remnant of misplaced 1960s reverence for the media.

What catapults me over the line and into a world of delusion is my shirt collection.  I am ready to come out of the closet and admit to owning over 300 shirts.  I worry that I will spill things on my shirt…things that will not come out. (You would think I lived on grape juice.)  Or I will have another laundry mishap (see HLP May, 1999).  Consequently, when I am at a garage sale, I feel the need for backup, so I browse the men’s shirts.  I am a very common size, and too often there are shirts just calling me.  I have tried raising the bar and buying only all cotton, linen, or silk, freshly dry cleaned shirts selling for $1.00 a piece or less.  Still they find me.  Something comes over me, and I cannot walk away.

It will be handy to have dress shirts if I ever get a job again.  The dark silk ones are for my next (first) ultra swanky cocktail party.  These shirts are not to be confused with my “clubbing wardrobe” where Bianca or Simone may accidentally spill a drink on my clearly expensive outfit and I can laugh it off.  I have fancy golf shirts (I don’t play) and yacht party attire which I would undoubtedly ruin as I get seasick in the harbor.  If I am invited to a luau or a surprise party for Don Ho I have about 25 Hawaiian shirts to choose from. Don’t even get me started on my Scottish wool lumberjack shirts for ski trips and hikes in the great north woods with my chums that look like they star in beer commercials.

I have shirts for almost all occasions.  Shirts I plan not only to wear, but to wear out in my lifetime!  This will take a while because I currently keep them safely ensconced in my closet.  I tend to wear the same weather- and peanut butter-beaten T-shirts every day because I spend most of my waking hours with dogs who are notoriously forgiving of my attire.

I cannot wait for the occasion so special that I put on my silk shirt, pack the unread book I have been hoarding, throw some new CDs on my car stereo and head up the coast for a rockin’ weekend.  In the meantime I’ll be at a garage sale building up inventory or else at the dog park.

 

Tom H. Cook is an ex-HLP loiterer.  He will miss the editorship and friendship of Jane Johnson who is returning to England.

 

 

 

Retirement Pursuits

Well-meaning folks who barely know me seem to think I would be happiest playing golf every waking moment of my retirement.  Many seem disappointed almost to the point of belligerence—and that’s without me launching into a PC rant about the geo-ecological water and land resource usurpation that the game requires.  I could claim that moral high ground, but the real reason is more mundane.  It is too clichéd a solution for what to do now that I retired for the third and probably final time this past February.

I have good friends who golf, and a few that may even have the patience to play with me, but aside from their company there is little that draws me to becoming a links man.  And just a look at me tells all but the most obtuse observer that I am no Mark Trail.  I would rather watch an entire golf match on a grainy black and white 7” television while standing up than to hunt or fish.  Most of my inquisitors are well-intended and simply curious as to how loitering, reading, and wandering around with my dogs can provide me with sufficient stimulation to sustain life.

I was not on a quest for fulfillment, and long ago gave up the notion of an examined life, but I have stumbled onto two things I enjoy.  One is my version of gardening or, more specifically, plant rescue.  Since Monday is Trash Day, Sunday is Trash Eve, and a good opportunity to adopt plants, pots, hoses and brooms, as well as umbrellas, lawn furniture, fountains, and so forth.  I do not have a green thumb or know the plant name of anything that is not a rose, but I enjoy picking up discarded plants and nursing them back to health.  JoAnne often accompanies me on this Sunday sleuthing.  Our back yard, while not yet old people scary jungle eccentric, does show promise.  We take much of the furniture and other goods of value to the local Salvation Army, forestalling its date with the landfill.  I am now on a first name basis with some of the intake workers, and while none have ventured to ask where all of this stuff is coming from, the consensus seems to be that I am a conscience-stricken cat burglar with very bad taste.

The other role that I am growing into is neighborhood anchor.  In 1977 JoAnne and I moved to the East Calhoun neighborhood of south Minneapolis from Naples, Florida.  Knowing no one, we were clearly in need of good neighbors.  The two families right out our back door were wonderful to us.  They were each Austin, Minnesota natives and only a bit older than we were, but wiser, and more established professionally than JoAnne and me.  Jay and Joy Dean had two young angelic children, Mike and Margo, and Linda and Lance LaVine had the equally sweet Nicky and Natasha.

We resisted the impulse to alliteration, but started our own family in part because of the happiness we observed in these helpful, mentoring families.  When our kids came we were often too busy to take full advantage of the guidance and acceptance they offered to us.  I owe my career choice to Jay.  Regardless of how frazzled we would be, Lance had the remedy: “Come on over for a cup of tea.” Many times we declined, begging off due to this imagined crisis or that.  Lance was wiser but knew we had to chase our own windmill.

We now have neighbors with two very young children and high stress jobs.  One is an attorney, the other a corporate recruiter.  I am not smart or worldly, and I have never been a head hunter for a Fortune 500 company, but I have made lots of mistakes, and I have time to listen. He is generally gone and she is running here and there.  Frequently they are too busy, as we were twenty five years ago, but in the spirit of Linda and Lance LaVine, I have extended to them a standing invitation for a cup of tea.

 

Tom H. Cook hopes that you will say hello to the LaVines and Deans for him.  Thank you for the great response to Keith Oldemann.  I am glad to see he has so many fans.  Please add the work of film-maker Robert Greenwald.  He is also able to cut through our national political pea soup in an entertaining manner.  His four documentaries (Out Foxed:  Rupert Murdoch’s War On Journalism, Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers, Uncovered: The War On Iraq, and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices) are sobering and informative.  He validates our greatest fears, but does it in a manner that is pointed without being pedantic.    

Roadium

I believe I accidentally stumbled on an idea for the next reality television show.  Last month I was trying to figure out what Southern California types do with their old and odd, out of  fashion, worn, obsolete, and eccentric stuff.   I awoke one Saturday (at an hour that only Francis Scott Key would find inspiring) to search for things I do not need at prices I cannot turn down.

What I witnessed was whole families in pick-up trucks or aging vans trolling the  neighborhood at great speed.  They represent the countries of the Pacific Rim, India, Africa, Central and South America.  They are recent immigrants trying to survive off the fat of the land.  What is sport in Minneapolis is serious business in L.A.

These clever and resourceful people, sometimes referred to in a less than flattering manner as “coyotes,”  scour garage sales as far away as Malibu, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, and the San Fernando Valley.  I learned that much of what they purchase on Saturday finds its way on Monday to Roadium, an open air market located in a former drive-in movie theater in Torrance, California.  Roadium is a mix of Tijuana, Calcutta, and Bloomingdale’s basement.  Like Rick’s Café in “Casablanca” everyone with something to sell or trade ends up there.

I began thinking,  “What a reality show.”  There is a strong “Survivor” component as well as the entrepreneurial element of “The Apprentice.” If this were on TV, camera crews would accompany “teams” of foragers on Saturday morning, and the action would pick up again on Monday as they attempt to sell their wares.  You would need a heart of stone not to root for each of the families.

The colorful atmosphere at Rodium would be a natural for TV. It feels so Third Worldly, if someone were to approach you and ask to see your passport, your first inclination would be to reach for your pocket.  There is music and chatter everywhere.  The only English you hear is the cry “One dollar, one dollar…”  There are also vendors—some there more long term– who sell wedding dresses, Chinese bras, Hawaiian shirts, dresses designed for Charro, car parts, cosmetics, not yet expired vitamins, dented canned goods, DVDs, exotic birds, and coffins.

The drama is the “Coyotes”  who come only when they are able to raise the $35 or more for a square of asphalt.   Their life is a difficult one.  Not only do they cover many miles and pick through tons of stuff, but they must arrive at Roadium early and bid against others for the choicest spots to set up.  A prime location purchased from the management may change hands a number of times during the informal auction that follows.  Bidding takes place furiously in many languages with the winner sometimes having to pay $200 before they make a sale.  The only rule seems to be that anyone who says a word in English is disqualified and has to go home.

The next activity is “What’s in the van?”  A vendor who acquires a good spot may suddenly need more inventory.  An instant auction ensues with goods acquired on Saturday changing hands again before it even hits the asphalt.  This is pure capitalism with a splash of “The Antiques Road Show” thrown in.  At the end of the day Donald Trump would come out and congratulate the winner and offer him an easier job, like running one of his companies.  I believe I would call it “Survival In The Marketplace” since television is more comfortable with spin-offs.

Roadium is fascinating.  It is similar to Hester Street and the Lower East Side of eighty years ago: recent immigrants who are shut out of the traditional venues of commerce, without a stake or connections, working long hours to gain a foothold into the middleclass.  Sound familiar?

 

Tom H. Cook has one child graduating from college, and another getting married, yet he writes about stuff.  His wife warns him that his regular “Trash Eve” forays are destined to lead him to his next career.

Local Sales

In Minnesota the telephone poles are just beginning to bloom with iridescent signs exhorting one and all to come to Logan, Chowen, or Humboldt Avenue from 8-4.  After a winter spent looking at the same old stuff, it is time for spring cleaning and a purge of things that no one in his right mind would want.  There is a natural rhythm and cycle to the gathering and casting away of stones and fondue pots.  I believe The Old Testament and the Byrds each addressed the seasonal need to sow and reap.  Yes, aside from many friends and neighbors, I miss Minneapolis garage sales most of all.

Since moving to southern California almost two years ago I have been trying to figure out what the locals do with their unwanted possessions.  After attending what residents call garage sales in the South Bay, I am still stumped.  A typical sale will consist of very used and worn clothing scattered in the driveway.  At high class sales the same beat-up clothes are strewn on a sheet on the driveway.  There are three or five plastic patio chairs stacked together because at least one of them will be missing a leg.   Aside from Reader’s Digest and copies of Barry Goldwater’s  “None Dare Call It Treason” there is no literature.  The plastic cups and dishes have teeth marks in them, and the boxes of ribald cocktail napkins are too new to be kitsch.  There are jigsaw puzzles that, how do I say this tactfully, were previously owned by a local hospital. The cookware looks as if it were discarded by Rommel, and the automobile transmission (1986 Chevy) which graces the steps is beyond my comprehension.  There are videogames in strange cartridges, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass albums, and sets of sheets that appear to have been slept on by visiting Hell’s Angels.  The rest of the stuff is junk.

I am part anthropologist, and part busybody.  The last thing I need is more stuff, but I am obsessed with what these Californians who have 1,600 square foot homes and no basements and no attics do with their “leftovers.”  With the seasons pretty much the same, there is less impetus to do spring cleaning, but I cannot believe these folks are so highly evolved they do not acquire more than they need.  I still have not solved the mystery, but I picked up a significant clue recently.

Local sales are not good, but a small part of the reason is they are picked over early in the morning.  Minnesota has its “sharpies” and people who buy to resell, but they would be eaten alive and their Volvos turned over out here.  The term of not quite endearment is “coyote.” Coyotes will hit a sale and abscond with the dorm size refrigerator, the mostly working television, and the cut glass pitcher, while civilians are looking for a legal parking place.

Next month:  I track the coyotes to their lair and find some pretty good stuff

California Governor Schwarzenegger is behind the still tepid movement to allow foreign born naturalized citizens to run for  president.  Arnold is not content with Sacramento and is eying the presidency in 2008. I would suggest a rider to his amendment which would prohibit a son from becoming president if his father once held the office.  The current George Bush stated that Saddam Hussein “tried to kill my daddy.”  This post 9/11 remark has stuck with me.  This, along with the information Richard Clarke has added, makes it appear that over 500 American lives have been lost in Iraq in part because of a feud involving Bush the Elder.

 

Tom H. Cook still has a Minnesota AAA card and is at heart a Midwesterner.  

Sale-ing Sale-ing

It’s spring and the telephone poles are in bloom with hastily-stapled iridescent lure, tempting even the most ascetic of us to come this Saturday, 10-4, to 22nd and Emerson and peruse and possess the riches of “40 years’ accumulation.”  It is garage sale season.  Breathes there a man or woman with soul so dead, or full, that they can pass up a promising porch sale?

Why are garage sales so alluring?  An obvious answer is, “It is a good way to pick up stuff cheap.”  That is about a C- response, lacking depth and insight.  It would be like concluding that watching Jerry Lewis on television over Labor Day weekend for 36 straight hours scares millions of children into returning to school each fall.

Let’s transcend the obvious and explore…WHY PEOPLE GO TO GARAGE SALES

  1. Economic – All right, maybe you had a point with that stuff-for-cheap argument.  The Book, the one that Oprah, Phil, and Steve and Sharon agreed would change your life a few years ago is now in paperback with most of the cover on and, aside from being warmly inscribed to Janet from Aunt Betty, appears to be in mint condition.  No longer $18.95, it is yours for a quarter, or they will throw it in if you buy the blender. With an air of eager nonchalance you fish for a quarter and soon you are the holder of the truth.  An innocent walk has led you to an impressive addition to your bookcase.
  2. Social – A beautiful actress, an extra at the Guthrie, an enchanting woman fifteen years my junior, was moving to Paris to join her lover.  We talked of Europe and the arts, the role of the intellectual, the tepidness of life in America…  I bought her toaster.
  3. Political – Garage sales are Everyman/Everywoman   Without sounding like Tom Joad (or Henry Fonda) in The Grapes of Wrath, sales are open and democratic.  They are American, capitalistic, consumptive, the product of planned obsolescence.  They are the essence of a marked economy with true supply and demand, without artificial tariffs and regulations.  It is buyer beware, free enterprise, no taxes or inflation.  When I went to my first sale 20 years ago, all the Readers Digests you could carry was a buck, and it still is.

    For the politically correct, sales are ecological.  Every widget you rescue from your neighbor is one less that needs to be manufactured or thrown into a landfill.  Sales help us live off of the excess produced by multinational corporations that plunder scarce resources of third world countries.  These imperialist superpowers who risk war to create markets are powerless to stop us from buying a used smoke detector.

  4. The Challenge – It is Saturday morning on a beautiful summer day.  You are Norman Schwartzkopf plotting strategy.  Is it worth going to 46th and Pleasant for a sale that starts at 8, or will that leave you hopelessly out of position to get to an 8:30 on Queen?  What if the sale on Xerxes opens earlier that the ad states?  What if the professional sharpies clean out all of the good stuff while you are stuck in a basement on Bryant?

    It is your morning, in this amorphous grey world of limited options and lesser of evils.  You get to make real decisions.  Will it be the second day of a promising sale or the first day of a sale that feels like a dud?  You control your own destiny.  How well do you do is quantifiable, and instantly measurable.

  5. Overchoice – There is so much out there in stores, I don’t even know what I want.  There are 47 shades of green towels.  They all look better on the fancy displays than they ever do in my bathroom.  If I find one at that stylish house on 17th and Knox, I know that someone with good taste selected it.  Case closed.
  6. Not Sold in Stores – Like on late-night television, there are things that just are not available retail.  Big clunky wood speakers, Blind Lemon Jefferson albums.  The world is moving too fast.  My dreamed-of childhood possessions didn’t wait for me.  I saved my money, grew up, and now all the great stuff I imagined owning is compact, digital, high-resolution imitation veneer.
  7. The unique and possibly valuable – You won’t find a signed Hemingway at Target.  You probably won’t on Colfax, either, but you never know.  What is up the alley or in the garage?  People moving, divorcing, retiring, or just spring cleaning do strange things.

My favorite sales those held by well-stocked materialistic individuals who fall in love late in life.  Beyond the joy they have found in each other, it is heartwarming to watch them realize that they don’t need two fondue pots.  They are blending their lives, and I am something like the clergyman that they exchange vows to.  Their relationship is publicly tested and forced to the next level of commitment as the sell me the other popcorn popper.

* * * * *
Right up there with the joy of acquiring is having my own sale and purging my home of all that once glittered.  Frankly, I don’t understand what people see in junk.

 

Tom H. Cook is an odd man.  Call him before you discard any old Frank Sinatra albums or ties with the likeness of Wendell Wilkie on them.