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.