In the past 20 years few weekends have passed without me standing in a driveway casting a judgmental eye over half-used nail polish, a squirrel-shaped napkin holder or a coffee pot tattooed with a decade's worth of Maxwell House. Garage sale-ing is great. You can tell yourself you "got out in the fresh air on a beautiful day like this," when all you did was stand in some stranger's yard reading "Rich Man, Poor Man" for a few minutes before deciding it wasn't worth a quarter. Best of all, you get to pick up a portable CD player and handle it like the judge handles the Bichon Frise at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show: You basically get to open its mouth, fiddle with its gums and look up its privates before putting it down and saying, "Nah."
The garage sale is really an inexplicable phenomenon in middle-class America, where presumably we are all too well off to be picking through each others' garbage every Saturday, hoping to find that perfect half-burnt Christmas candle.
Signs of life
People like reality TV because it lets them peek into the psyche of their fellow slobs, presumably unscripted, candid and natural; it's like a spy cam without the dirtiness of spying. A garage sale is sort of the prop room of reality TV -- you get to noodle around in someone else's stuff, but not in a sneaky, low-life way. You're a sanctioned nosey-rosey. Without even speaking to them, you can get a nice Miss Marple portrait of your neighbor by looking at what they're trying to unload.
If they're finally over their country-music phase, it shows in the content of their CD section. A wok, a breadmaker and a juicer on the table means they're experimental cooks. If they have a box full of motivational tapes by people like Anthony Robbins, Richard Simmons and the "Venus and Mars" author, they're a seeker, in a constant quest for greater truths, which of course means they don't have any now and may be easily led; remember them if you have cult literature to hand out. If they're selling off a lot of infant wear, a car seat, tiny shoes, etc., they're very tired and distracted, and you might be able to convince them the stereo had a $3 price tag on it. Whatever the circumstance, it's fascinating to see what other people have and whether you want any of it.
It's quite another view from the other side of the table.
To make a long story short, I got roped into being part of a multiperson garage sale a few weeks ago. I was prepared for all the other garage-sale hassles people complain about: the set up, the change, the haggling. What I wasn't prepared for was the people.
Owning up to it
When I arrived, at an hour when only worms should be awake, the first thing I set eyes on was a woman hustling away with some of my personal items in her possession, including linens, which are on the same intimacy level as underwear. If you're a possessive person like me, it's not easy to see an interloper walk off with something you've slept with. It sparked a feeling of ill will that hung over the rest of the day like smoke in a bar.
I've dumped hundreds of items off at Goodwill, and it was a quick, clean kill every time. But sitting there watching people dicker and puzzle over every little Happy Meal toy or picture-frame hanger was like watching ants slowly working away at a carcass. It went on forever and couldn't have been more uncomfortable. The 12 cents I stood to make suddenly didn't matter as much as stopping these strangers from fingering my stuff, which I now thought better of parting with. It's like watching someone you had at least 10 reasons to dump go out with another person: Suddenly you like them again.
I was back on the trail myself by the next day, though I'd learned something that is pretty good advice whether you're considering having a garage sale or having kids: Just because you love them doesn't mean you need one. Be happy visiting other peoples'. Having your own is different. Way different. Think long and hard before you accept the responsibility, because once you commit yourself, you're stuck. At least until 3 o'clock.