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Buy! Buy! Says the sign in the shop window.

Why? Why? Says the junk in the yard.

-- Paul McCartney

Is it cold out? At 9:00 a.m. the sun wasn't exactly beating down on us, but it shouldn't have been cold enough to see our breath. Transfixed, I watched closely every word emerge from the guy's mouth like smoke signals, only these were puffs of mist and spittle. He was back again, scratching his scruffy beard, to relate more tales of legendary deals he'd found at flea markets. Stephanie humored him and nodded solemnly when he handed her an abandoned silver bracelet, and again later when he presented a keychain he'd found discarded in the street. I kept a safe distance between myself and what I was certain were germ-infested word clouds.

During my short stint at San Diego State, cultural anthropology was the only course in which I earned an easy A. I attribute the success to my interest in observing people. As a self-proclaimed expert in such matters, I can confidently state the venue that draws the widest variety of interesting subjects is the yard sale.

The yard sale satisfies two human desires: to know what your neighbor has and to consume. Add to this the possibility of finding a treasure while digging through someone's trash. Such a find combines the thrill of lottery-style gambling with the reward of one's encyclopedic knowledge of an arcane subject, say, Norwegian candy dishes produced between the Crimean and first World Wars. I've thought about hosting yard sales before, but in the end, I could never bring myself to organize, label, and (most importantly) let go of anything. I harbor a rodentlike need to stow away every item I've ever considered mine.

My parents have the same problem, which is why my sister, when cleaning out Mom's garage, had to throw half of Mom's crap away surreptitiously. My mother has yet to notice what's missing. But when we'd ask, "Can I throw this out?" too early, she'd come up with a million reasons why she had to keep it, each reason making less sense than the one before. My friend Stephanie has never had this problem.

To get away from noisy neighbors and late-night drunks outside her bedroom window, Stephanie found herself a new home. The only downside to her new digs is that it's half the size of her current place. She decided to follow in the footsteps of Buddha and take the minimalist approach by ridding herself of material items.

Furniture, clothing, kitchenware, and knickknacks had to go. Luckily for the patrons of her temporary shop, Stephanie is a woman with good taste. Upon my arrival, I thought she was taking the "less is more" thing too seriously, and I ordered her to remove a few items from display. "You wear that all the time!" I'd say, reminding her how fabulous she looked in it. Rather than watch her give clothes away, I struggled to find ways for her to keep them: "I'll give you a drawer at my place!" I offered, thus salvaging a few items.

There was no shade on our side of the street, so Steph grabbed me her big red sun hat and a comfy folding camp chair. People ambled from Sixth Avenue, where two other yard sales were in progress. We'd begin to chat and someone would walk by, asking the price of an old phone or the set of five crystal glasses, then walk away empty-handed. The cycle continued, save for several notable interruptions.

A few minutes had passed since anyone had wandered by. Then a fire truck nearly the length of Stephanie's small block slowed down in front of us. Two women sat in the front. They looked our way and then brought the monstrous red thing to a rumbling halt before us. As they eyed our setup, I asked Stephanie if we might be breaking a fire code. I tried to act nonchalant. When a back window in the cab of the truck slid open, I imagined a nozzle might appear to wash me, Steph, and her wares into the street. But instead a young man with a buzz cut popped his head out and asked, "How much for that bed frame?"

"Fifty bucks!" Stephanie called out. The guy nodded, disappeared, and then reappeared to say "Thanks" before they drove away. We laughed at the novelty of a team of firefighters trawling yard sales to shop for a bed frame. To us, the mystery was why the potential buyer didn't haggle but just considered Steph's answer and motioned for the driver to carry on. Who doesn't know that everything at a yard sale is negotiable?

Speaking of firemen, one thing I love about Hillcrest is the gay boys. My friend Evan calls me a "fruit fly," the updated (and less offensive) version of "fag hag." Stephanie had flung a few bright-colored boas on a rack, and they were gone in minutes. One adorable boy sashayed across the street straight to the purple boa. "This would be great for Burning Man," he said. I almost said, "Actually, it's not, because renegade feathers are tough to clean up, and you know the law -- leave no trace," but I refrained.

Boa boy assumed I knew what Burning Man is, and he was right. I've been to the weeklong surrealistic party in the desert, and as the

burningman.com website reads, "Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind." Picture the other side of Alice's looking glass, where anything is possible, including giant chandeliers that fell from heaven, temples made of discarded wood bits or cardboard, and a colorful, techno-hippie city.

After boa boy left, two older, vivacious women stopped by to check out the goods. One woman sorted through every garment and commented on how cute it was (her taste is apparently as great as Steph's), but she

didn't buy anything because nothing fit. "Tell me about it!" I lamented. "What's the use of having a best friend if you can't swap clothes?" Stephanie, slender in all ways, suggested it was our tits that precluded us from squeezing into her tiny tops. The women, laughing, walked away, and one called over her shoulder, "I'll be back after I lose some weight!"

Still laughing, Stephanie and I greeted a few more lookie-loos. Digging through the boxes off to the side, one man asked the price of many items but took nothing. We watched as he pondered the meat grinder long enough to make us uncomfortable, then watched as he ran his finger along the rims of the glassware. We were still mesmerized when he left and we stared after him, his back getting smaller as he disappeared up the street.

It's amazing how much you can find out about someone in a few minutes. Perhaps it's because I'm one of those approachable types, strangers feel compelled to offer unsolicited personal information. Maybe they sense how much I want to know, which makes these strangers feel comfortable telling all. It had been a while since I'd demonstrated my skill, so it surprised Steph when once again I revealed my gift.

A cute blonde woman had begun to select clothes. She was talkative, friendly, and excited about her finds. In half an hour, she selected an entire wardrobe for herself from Stephanie's stuff. In the few minutes that Stephanie stepped away to answer someone else's question about the crystal, I learned that our clothes buyer was into BDSM (Bondage/Discipline/Sado- Masochism). I also learned that she was a lesbian looking for a new female "top," or person to dominate her. I love Hillcrest.

"When did she tell you that?" Stephanie whispered when I shared my newfound knowledge. "How did it come up? I only turned around for a minute!"

"Yes, I know," I said. "I'm just that good."

By day's end Stephanie had rid herself of more than I'd amassed in a year. Organizing, setting up, and letting go, she's just that good.

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