Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hard bargain: June 13, 2004

In the nearly 20 years I've known her, my dear friend Betsy has taught me a lot -- from the inverted pyramid style of media writing and the judicious use of direct quotes to the suburban art form known as the yard sale.

This is about the yard sale. You didn't really want to read about the inverted pyramid, anyway.

You never can tell what some people will buy

    Betsy points to the ceramic planter shaped like a conch shell. "That’s definitely the ugliest thing in the yard sale," she says.

    I look around. There’s a lot of ugly stuff in Betsy’s garage. There is a pink-and-blue sketch of a saxophone done in chalk. There is a shirt that looks like a quilt and an electric blanket that looks like cats have been sleeping on it. (They have).

    But Betsy is right. The planter is sort of lumpy and peach-colored, like a mysterious internal organ. I feel vaguely honored to have provided the ugliest thing in the yard sale. My mother donated it, actually. She got it at a yard sale in 1985. A neighbor handed it to her and begged her to take it, no charge.

    Now the internal organ/conch shell planter is in the first yard sale I’ve ever co-hosted. I don’t know anything about yard sales, which is probably why my friend Betsy knew she could rope me into this.     

    "It’s fun," Betsy assures me.

    "OK," I reply, because Betsy is small but fierce, and I don’t want to make her mad.

    The week the ad runs in the newspaper, people cruise Betsy’s dead-end street every day, casing the house. One guy cross-references her address and calls to ask about what she’s selling. I am amazed. I am aghast. Who are these people?

    "It’s an invited siege," I marvel.     

    Betsy nods knowingly. "Just wait," she says. "They’ll be in front of the house at 7 in the morning, waiting for the garage doors to open at 8."

    And, oh wow, I would never have believed it, but she’s right.

    I pull up at 7:20 a.m. Three cars are parked at the curb. People are in them, sipping coffee and listening to radios. They watch as I slip into the house. Betsy’s husband tells me two guys with a trailer were out there 20 minutes ago getting mad at him because he wasn’t selling lawn mowers.

    "They had us mixed up with another yard sale," he says, shrugging. "I guess that one has lawn mowers."

    Betsy and I don our dorky yard sale aprons, which have big pockets for collecting small bills. From inside the garage, I watch half a dozen sets of sneakered feet tromp toward the house as the doors go up at 8 a.m. These, apparently, are the yard sale professionals. They are in and out, buying fast and moving on.

    A couple driving, I swear, a Cadillac Escalade buys a coffee table book from me for $5 and is gone in under a minute.

    A tall, white-haired woman tells us she is 84 years old and then entertains us with stories about her son, who’s a lawyer, "but not one of those crooked ones."

    A distracted-looking shopper arrives with her hyper little dog, which runs all over the street and the yard and then drops a big load of poo in the middle of the garage floor.

    Distracted Shopper makes a few mortified noises at Hyper Dog. We laugh uncomfortably and edge away from the mess. Distracted Shopper cleans it up with paper towels provided by Betsy, buys a skirt for $1 and gets gone.

    A man approaches me, head cocked. "What kind of deal can you make me on that cookie jar?" he asks, pointing to the ceramic penguin in the Coca-Cola hat.

    I shrug. I am thinking I have no idea how this works. I have no dealing skills. Just take it, please.

    The jar is marked $5. "Four dollars?" I squeak. Cookie Jar Man shakes his head. Clearly, I am at the mercy of a dealing veteran.

    "Umm, three?" I venture. Cookie Jar Man smiles. He gives me $3 and puts the penguin under his arm. I’m glad it’s over. I am just not cut out for this kind of stress.     

    Betsy and I settle into folding chairs. Half the morning is gone, along with half our stuff.

    A woman picks my quilt-shirt off a rack, pronounces it cute and gives me $2. Another woman says the saxophone in the pink-and-blue picture is just like the one her son plays, and she carries it away.     

    Then a woman in a crisp, striped shirt picks up the conch shell planter. She and her friend examine it as they walk over to hand me 50 cents.

    "I really like this color," says Striped-Shirt Woman, admiring her find.

    I am irrationally happy that the internal organ/conch shell planter has found someone to love it. I am beginning to see the beauty in yard sales.

    As noon approaches, Betsy and I start packing up the unsold. A woman scampers in for a last look and asks if the hairy electric blanket works. It does. I offer to sell it for $1. She pays me and says she’ll use it to keep her outdoor animals warm this winter.

    "It’s perfect," I tell her. "It’s already covered in cat hair."

    Later, at home, I count my money. I am floored to find I have collected $130 in crumpled bills and change.

    I decide it’s my cosmic reward for spending a Saturday morning finding the conch shell planter a good home.

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