Two people, a man and a woman, want the same item: a toy western pistol with parts that shift and move, and the price is right, seventy-five cents.
Coming out of a deep sleep at eight o’clock in the morning, I hear my nephew whisper to me, “It’s time. They have started to come.” It is a Sergio Leone movie, I think. All I see are large pores and tense eyes looking down at me. “Three people,” my sister echoes, ‘‘are waiting already.” Harmonica refrain. Long pause. I stand up in my night shift and whisper, “I’m ready. I’m practically down there.”
“Down there” is the ubiquitous two family garage sale, but this one in my sister's house on the base of Mt. Soledad. I stayed up late into the night arranging the bargain items: electric coffee pots, plants, rugs, china, silver, etc., all goodies that motivate people to be at your home at eight in the morning. Some even drive by the address advertised in the paper the day before the announced sale, take your name from the mailbox and call your number the night before, questioning, “Are you the party that’s having the garage sale tomorrow? Any hi fi’s, tape decks, tape recorders, radial tires, weather vanes?” “No,” you find yourself answering, “just what was advertised in the paper.” “Well, I’m not interested in those things,” comes the reply. Bang. Click.
Thinking of those phone calls, I descend the stairs wondering what a way to turn a quarter, when I am jostled out of my musing by the first garage sale inquiry. He is a young man with even larger pores than my sister or nephew and snaps me into attention with a clipped request. “Got any rat’s cages?” I stuff a grape (grabbed hastily from the fruit bowl in my sister’s kitchen) into my mouth for sustenance and counter weakly. “Any what?” “You know,” he answers, in a tone implying that any self-respecting garage sale would have rat’s cages! “I have a boa-constrictor that feeds on rats and I need some cages to keep the rats in.” Clearing my throat I mutter that I have three aquariums at reasonable prices and maybe he can do something with those. Meanwhile, I pray he has not brought along a carload of rats. At five after eight in the morning I can do without the sight of rats or his boa. After a quick Peckinpah image — two three-year-olds in Florence Eisman’s sunsuits dangling rats in front of a venomous snake — I turn to a middle-aged couple examining my brother-in-law’s raincoat.
It is a raincoat bought in London during a two-week stay when the temperature in the lobby oof the hotel and their room remained colder than the temperature-outside. “Actually,” my sister relates, “we used it as a bed spread, huddling under it at night.” It has been scarcely worn. Worn for less than two weeks and hung in a Southern California closet for three years untouched, it hangs on display now with other rejects, a French black lace slip, a flashy evening gown, bought at a sale, seeking an occasion which never came, a banker’s grey cashmere sweater, an old tuxedo, etc. A Bunuel close-up of rejected capitalistic decadence!
“I’ll give you a dolla for the coat.”
My sidewalk saleswoman instinct is quickly aroused and practically swallowing the stem from the grapes in outrage, I intone, “Look, lady, feel the material. Genuine London garbardine. It cost my brother-in-law $125 and he wore it just a few times. I couldn’t let that coat go for less than . . . five dollars! The lining alone is worth more than that.” The bargaining begins. At a department store we would be both happy to pay at least $45 on sale for such a coat, but the rules of the game at a garage sale are different. Here people are not looking for sales. They are looking at second hand merchandise, and for that, they want prices found at flea markets in Turkey or Hong Kong. It is the closest they can come to the European mercato, the bartering bargain centers of the world, and they want those mercato prices. “Back in the depression,” the man says, trying on the raincoat, “you could get this coat for $3.98 and they’d give you a set of dishes to go with it.”
“You can’t get depression prices with such. workmanship,” I say. “Look at the tailoring.” I point to the button holes which seem securely made. “Yeah, but the coat’s got no heavy interlining,” he counters. In disgust, I turn my attention once more to the rat cage man who is looking at an ice bucket for a dollar and I shudder at the possibility of his needs. Finally, he puts the lid down, and leaves as several new people arrive. The raincoat couple, sensing impending competition, offer me the $5.00 asked for the raincoat.
I want to offer them a cup and saucer as a consolation prize, but instead assure them that they have made a shrewd purchase and that the coat will last them for years of good wear. They are suspicious of this good will and get into their late model Cadillac and drive away.
It is now 8:30 and the garage sale has officially begun. Displaying the five dollars in a cookie cup tin (an idea borrowed from someone else’s garage sale) sets the tone for oncoming purchases.
Money has been exchanged; bargains can be found here. They’re yours for the picking. The garage is suddenly filled with at least seven people and I remark aloud to one girl that considering how many garage sales there were advertised in the paper I didn’t count on so many people coming so early. “Oh,” she replies, “this is the second one I’ve been to already. The fancier the address, the better the stuff, and the better the bargains.” It is an average middle-class neighborhood, but she seems to know her garage sales, so I ask here, “And do you go to many?”
“Oh, yes,” she answers. “I devote every Saturday morning from eight to noon picking up bargains. Today I intend to go to twenty of them. I’m looking for camping gear.” Since I don’t have camping gear, she settles for a $2.25 paperback book reduced to ten cents and makes her way to her scooter. “It’s a pleasant way to spend a morning,” she says as I walk her out, and she waves good-bye.
Inside, a slight altercation is taking place. Two people, a man and a woman, want the same item: it is a toy western pistol with parts that shift and move, and the price is right, seventy-five cents. The chrome glistens! The woman, who holds the gun, says, “I don’t have any money with me, but I can write you a check for seventy-five cents.” The man jingles three quarters under my nose. Ready cash. For a few seconds instant paranoia overtakes me, and I think. Aha, this woman is trying to rip me off for seventy-five cents. Then my nephew arrives with provisions from the kitchen — hot coffee, eggs and toast which I start to eat standing up and my inanition cum paranoia recedes and I answer, “I’ll hold the gun for you, lady; come back later with the seventy-five cents.” The man is furious so I give him a good deal on an Oster blender that he is holding, made slightly imperfect by my impatient brother-in-law. A small part has to be replaced and I let him have a ten-speed blender for $3.50. That seems reasonable, and mollified by this bargain, he adjusts to the loss of the gun and leaves satisfied. I feel like Andy Hardy. “Judge, did I do right?”
“You did, my boy, and in the great American way!” Violins. It is only 9 a.m.
For the rest of the week-end, I am able to discern types. There is, for example, the professional garage sale critic. At ten o’clock, with loads of items to choose from, he looks over the merchandise and sniffs, “Well, I must have come too late, all the good stuff seems to have been sold.” What did you want, I think, an aviary for a phoenix?
Then there are the antique dealers who ride up in their station wagons and Mercedes and enter talking to each other like two prison psychiatrists ignoring the waiting prisoner as if he were not there.
I sit in the corner of the garage and listen. “Nothing,” one says to the other after a cursory glance, “and the Shores and Muirlands had little today, too.” One turns to me condescendingly and asks,
“Do you have any antique clocks or guns upstairs?” When I shake my head and answer, “No,” they look at each other as if to imply, well, what can you expect?
One fingers a china figurine and mutters, “Japan,” and they leave. I reposition my dollar toaster and wait for the next buyer.
Some people having just come to San Diego on a visit, drop in on an occasional garage sale for something.to do while vacationing, and others come for literally something to do. When the pace was slow, I talked to men and women who were recently divorced; though ostensibly re-doing their new apartments, they had time on their hands and no place to go.
A garage sale is a focus, a happening to fill in the time. Then there were the retired men who went each weekend in search for something interesting that “they could work on.” One man told me he had just bought a 1940 console radio and he intended to refinish the cabinet and resell it. At my sale he bought a set of old silverware, twenty-five pieces, not so much for the silver, but for the wooden case. “My wife refinishes pieces and we can resell it after we make it look real good. Now if I were to bring home a real bargain, she’d be real pleased.” I put on my self-sacrificing Ida Lupino face and sell the silver and case for $6.00.
During the day, I also got the “shouters.” They stayed in their cars and yelled their needs at you. “Got any garden tools? Patio furniture? Water beds?”
“No,” I shouted back, “but I’ve got a great little toaster for a dollar.” The toaster never sold, but the cashmere sweater did — for $3.50. And the woman did come back for the gun. The rest of the stuff — the coffee pots, books (good ones which no one wanted even for a dime) got packed up again to be sold hopefully at a friend’s house in another future sale.
I suppose the professional garage sale seekers get bored with the same items. No matter. I cleaned up, vaguely satisfied with the weekend sales. Some items my family and I had been tired of looking at or had never used, did sell. And even at a great loss they made room for, most likely, another purchase. The great consumer merry-go-round. I took down the “Garage Sale” signs and, pocketing my share of the proceeds, started driving home. Ten blocks away another sale was in progress, people milling around, shouters yelling from cars. “Any garden tools!? Water beds!?” The orgiastic present. Final long shot for Bunuel.