Tag Archives: junk

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.





Mantle Clock

Question:  “What possession would you save in the event of a disaster?”

In the late 1990s I remember a resurgence of people wanting to get to know each other better.  Either through parlor games or questions like this one, the art of conversation made a brief comeback.  Now we are cynical, terrified, politically polarized hand-wringers, with satellite cable, high definition television and nothing to say to each other.  Still I would like to answer the question.

I first met JoAnne at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1970.  We seemed to hit it off immediately.   I liked that expensive outings did not seem to be a priority with her, and that a long walk from her dorm to the arboretum seemed to constitute a Saturday night date.  It was on one of these forays early in our relationship that we found ourselves looking at a charred campus building.  I do not remember the name of the fraternity, but there clearly had been a fire and now there was a large dumpster filled with the contents of the house.  Many items were smoke-damaged or broken, but on the top of the heap was a mantle clock, made of wood, that appeared to have survived the fire and been purged in the clean-up.

We spoke in general terms about what would possess someone to throw away an attractive and apparently intact clock.  The discussion was completely hypothetical because a person on their fifth or sixth date was not going to dirty themselves and go fishing in the giant receptacle.  It is a matter of conjecture and family folklore how the subject was finally broached and I ended up in the dumpster.  I was not only forgiven but seen as resourceful when the clock, after cleaning, proved to be in working order.

We have kept our Revere Telechron Westminster Chime clock for thirty-six years.  It was made in the U.S.A.  On the bottom is a plaque that reads “Class of 55”.  It has moved from Michigan to Florida to Minnesota to California.  It has been on prominent display everywhere we have lived, and has always worked perfectly.

I thought having a camera in a much-loved clock would be an interesting premise for a film.  I remember looking at the clock before I went off to my first real job. A clock captures anticipation: waiting for a phone call, a favorite show, or a child to come home.  Every time we view the unblinking clock we are older. 

That is everything I know about our clock on the mantle. When the Big One hits (and of course out here it is all about earthquakes), if JoAnne and the pets are safe, I’m going for the clock.


Tom H. Cook is a wayward local writer who is missing out on the improvements to Lake of the Isles, the new Guthrie, Block E, the decline of Calhoun Square, the Twins post pennant fever, and the current heat wave.  He is reasonably content watching the Pacific Ocean and counting the days until we have a new president.. 

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.

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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.