I have been living these last few weeks with a Feng Shui Nazi. Our association garage sale was this Saturday, and my daughter, boarding with me between her stint teaching English in Korea and her upcoming first year at the University of Chicago Divinity School, was adamant that we were going to do the garage sale this year, so we could Get Rid of Stuff and Make Money.
Yes, it costs money to go to the University of Chicago Divinity School. Quite a lot of money, actually, even with scholarships. And living in a townhome whose value has decreased by a third since the mortgage was financed costs money too. So we empty the closets, clean out the basement, scour the shelves. Or mainly, she does. And drags me along, kicking and screaming.
Well… that’s an exaggeration. The level of inertia I have felt in response to her enthusiasm does not admit of kicking and screaming. Moaning and groaning is a more accurate description. And balking, like a mule. If it were up to me I would give All this Crap (I mean, Stuff) to Good Will and let them sort it out. Take the tax deduction. If, of course, I got around to it. Which for the last two years, I have not.
"What are all these bags of clothes on the basement floor?” she asks. “Mom, it LEAKS over here. These are NASTY.” Still, she puts everything through the laundry – which is difficult, because my washer is on the fritz, and does not drain properly. I have to go down and manipulate the broken knob, reset the tripped circuit breaker, try not to blow a fuse myself every time I discover a washer full of Clothes Soup. Maybe we wil make enough at the garage sale to pay for a call to Sears. But I doubt it.
The daughter tags each piece of clothing with a colored dot – green means fifty cents, pink a dollar, yellow two dollars.
“You really think a down jacket with a broken zipper is going to get $2.00?” I ask.
“It’s down,” she says. “People fix zippers.” And yet one of the boxes full of clothes we put tags on is full of my neglected mending. Who are these mysterious women of thrift and industry, I wonder, who comb garage sales in June, buy down jackets with broken zippers, and fix them? I guess I am going to find out.
I have not used my sewing machine since I moved into this house in 2005. And soon I will be moving out. Sooner, probably, rather than later. The trip to Community Action Partnership of Suburban Hennepin County for “Pre-Foreclosure Counseling” has hammered that point in pretty hard.
I try to advertise the sale on Twitter, looking for appropriate hashtags like #garagesales. Most people are instead talking about what they found at garage sales - instead of who is having them and where - and how little they paid for what they bought. I try #garagesale instead, but find this is the hashtag for a Mac software program used to facilitate eBay auctions. Occasionally it is used for something else. “2 many #Mexicans on my street 2day. Must be #garagesale weekend.”
Mexican women come – early in the morning, before work - but they do not buy the down jacket with the broken zipper. One does buy the gold cross I am selling for fifty cents, though - a gift from my ex-husband on our wedding day. Fifty cents cleans it of memories. I have so many crosses I cannot sell them all.
Russian men come, too, picking things up, putting things down. “You have computer hardware? I buy for chips.” Retired couples, shuffling, peering into bins. They love the Matchbox cars for 25 cents each – for when their grandsons visit. “Nothing in the house for boys,” one complains. “Nothing with wheels.”
I never intended to live here as long as I have. The location was convenient to where my kids were still going to school, close enough for the joint custody arrangement to work. We made enough on the sale of the house we had lived in together – the only home we bought in twenty years of marriage, because most of the time we were in clergy housing – to afford two downpayments on two separate townhomes. I have lived in this one for five and a half years – not a long time, by many measures, but the longest period I have lived in one place since I left home myself for graduate school, when I was younger than Maggie is now.
In many ways it is not a perfect home. The basement leaks. The kitchen is an ergonomic nightmare - impossible to work in, and even more difficult to share. The furnace is outside the house, to save space - one of those units you usually find on the roofs of commercial buildings. It get plugged up with ice at least once every Minnesota winter, the house goes down to 54 degrees, and we wait till someone who is not afraid to work on a commercial furnace installed in a residential unit comes to fix it. But it is my home. I painted the walls. I have perennials.
And Stuff. Lots of Stuff.
During the time we owned our split entry home in Eden Prairie, from 1999-2004, its value went from $199,500 to $265,000. From 2005 to 2011, if the assessors are right, the value of my townhome went from $150,000 to $100,000. If they are right. Down the street, a three bedroom which sold for $185,000 in 2005 is on the market now for $61,000. And it doesn’t have a basement.
There is a foreclosure on the left of me, and a foreclosure on the right; the foreclosure across the way was purchased recently by a couple for their daughter to live in. They took advantage of a good deal to get her started out in life. Who could blame them.
My daughter, on the other hand, is making me go into the dark corners of closets, under the basement stairs, and pull things into the light of day. A four poster bed frame, given to me by the woman who rented me the basement of her townhome when their dad and I first separated. “That was such a depressing place, Mom. The walls were so white.” A set of fireplace implements for a fireplace I do not have. A closet organizer we intended to install in Aidan’s room when we lived in Nashville, more than a decade ago, that never got out of the box.
And, popping up everywhere, as if waiting to be found, the inevitable Parish Directory shots. Family pictures of a smiling foursome – father, mother, daughter, son – blissfully ignorant of the fact that they no longer exist.
But a We exists. A different We.
A West African woman parks her car, walks casually around the card tables, glances at Maggie’s cocktail dress, the one her dad dropped $100 on for her senior prom. She examines a vase, roots through the cars, comes back to the dress, touches it, pulls the skirt forward, spreads it out. “It would look nice on my daughter,” she says. Her accent is heavy. “How much?”
Maggie tells her ten dollars.
“Three,” the woman says.
“It’s a special dress,” says Maggie, “I cannot take three. Eight.” Maggie spent a semester in Ghana, and I notice her own accent has slipped, subtly, into the West African lilt.
“I do not even know if it will fit my daughter,” the woman says. “Five.” They haggle another ten minutes or so. Eventually Maggie accepts five.
After the money is exchanged, Maggie asks the question, in the same form it was asked of her, first in Africa, then Korea, then India: “What country?”
“Ghana,” says the woman.
“Oh, yes?” she says. “I went to university there. In Accra.”
The woman breaks into a big smile, full of crooked teeth. “The University of Legon?”
“Yes-yes.” They begin comparing professors, laughing. Maggie gets out two words of bad Twi. The woman lives two streets down, in the same complex. They exchange addresses, hug before she leaves. Both are careful not to wrinkle the dress.
There are other garage sales in the neighborhood, but the only one we can see from ours is directly up the street. Two young boys, one on a bicycle, the other on a scooter board, circle around on their driveway, occasionally come down to visit ours. By this time my son has arrived, biking from his Seward apartment. He helps us get the microfridge out of the basement, the one I thought would be more sensible to buy instead of rent while Maggie was at school, that was instead a nightmare to move, year after year. There are reasons to rent, I find.
The boys’ names are Fernando and Oscar. Oscar, the elder, challenges his brother over and over to a race between their driveway and ours. Fernando never gets the fact that a bike with big wheels will beat a scooter with small wheels no matter how nimble and fast he feels on it. He buys Maggie’s wooden kung fu practice sword, which draws forth a demonstration with the paraphrenalia not being sold: Maggie with her metal sword, drawing it out of its black enamel sheath (yes, it literally sings); Aidan with the bamboo pole, blocking each parry. The boys look on in wonder. I do, too.
On the first day the books sell poorly, and we pack them up, six boxes full, and take them to Half Price Books, where we get about three dollars a box. The next day an old guy wanders over with a list in his hand. He had wanted the John Grisham, but could not remember which ones he had already read. “Sometimes I’m three quarters of the way through, you know, and I realize – hey. I know how this one ends.” I agree that this is annoying. “Oh well.” He wishes us Sunday luck, and leaves.
The clothes do not sell on the whole, which I rather expected. It is surprising, however, what does sell, and how many times people ask if we have a full length mirror. I am already making notes for next time. A woman my age buys Maggie’s old Hot Topic blazer, black lace, with hooks and eyes and a lace-up back. “It’s from my Goth days,” she tells the woman, who has no clue what this means. “What do you think?” she asks the boyfriend. She cannot button it in front, but he nods. “Nice,” he says. I cross out the note about having the mirror.
After three p.m. on Sunday, a pair of spinster ladies – there is no other adequate description – from the apartments across the street spend 45 minutes pawing through boxes of clothes. They buy socks that were ten cents a pair and are now five cents a pair. One of the women, however, is convinced that they were five cents a pair and are now two and a half cents a pair. Maggie does not argue. They leave with $1.45 worth of clothing, are almost to 11th Ave. before Maggie sees that one of the women has left her sweater on a chair. She chases her down.
There are a lot of last minute purchases. A man whose brakes literally screech to a halt when he sees my weight bench. “I have been looking for one of these!” he cries. He buys it for three dollars, then insists on buying his girlfriend a purse for five. “I like it, but I don’t neeeed it,” she says, a little scowl on her face. “Oh baby, buy it. You deserve it.” She rolls her eyes.
And then we hit the jackpot. A woman and a young boy pull up. They buy Maggie’s upholstered chair - for their “man cave,” she says – stuff it into the back, and then come back – halleluia – for the microfridge. It perches precariously in the trunk. “I’m just going down to Wagon Wheel,” she says. “I used to live in Minnetonka, but I just took custody of two more boys, and a two bedroom wouldn’t cut it.” They must have a home with a basement, I thought. Just like ours. Probably bought it for $61,000. Probably needed to.
We don’t sell everything, by any means. Maggie is a little disappointed at what’s left. But we clear a couple hundred. I decide I will try it again – in the fall, or pairing up later in the summer with a friend, who is also getting ready to move. I pack the clothes for Good Will, and the rest in clearly labelled banker boxes.
Everyone should have a garage sale once a year, I decide. Especially those who must be dragged into it kicking and screaming. It is important to know how hard it is to get rid of Stuff. And how easy it is to Connect.
At the end of the day, after soaking my stiff joints in the tub – we moved a lot of Stuff this weekend – and checking my social media, I realize what day it is. Pentecost Sunday. It is a measure of how my life is changed that I learn this from my recovering Catholic friend Ann. On Facebook.
I have gotten to know more neighbors in the two days of this sale than I have in the five years I have lived here. I may leave in disgrace with the bank, like a third of them already have. But Fernando will have a wooden sword, a Ghanaian girl will go to the prom in Lord and Taylor, and a woman caring for four boys from eight to twenty will have a well-furnished man-cave.
For my daughter, world traveler and divinity student, has brought it on home. Come, Holy Spirit, Come.