This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA
We did a yard sale last week. I despise the work of doing yard sales. I hate the weeks of gathering together all the unloved, unneeded, no longer useful things of your life into a pile for pricing. That sad, hateful pile is an exceptionally personal indictment of your own complicity in consumer capitalism run amok.
There is a part of you that will want to set fire to that pile of unnecessary stuff, freeing your soul and the souls of all you love from the reach of attachment. Instead, you will price that pile.
You will cut fluorescent folder labels down to the size of price tags and Sharpie each item’s true value onto that tag. The item’s true value has no relationship to what you likely originally paid for that item. The true value has no relationship to how excited you thought you were when you took that item off some store shelf and brought it home to fill space in your already too-crowded house. At this moment, sitting at the base of this gloomy mountain, the item’s true value becomes a tax on the imaginary person who is going to see this same item displayed on your front lawn and believe they too need such an item to fill space in their already too-crowded home.
You will write 25 cents on nearly 300 price tags. Occasionally adding helpful commentary like Works! Never Used! “Works” indicates that you cannot tell from the item itself if it actually serves a purpose. “Never Used” is its own damning confession that you have owned more things than you can actually use.
Once the tax is affixed to the items, you wait for the dread morning to arrive. You pass the time checking weather reports for Saturday morning and posting inventories to Facebook and Craigslist. The night before you realize you haven’t made signs so you do the arts and crafts project of painting signs that can be read through a passing car window at 40 miles per hour. If you are very fortunate, you will have a partner willing to do this part for you.
You will also need to visit your local credit union to withdraw some of the money you haven’t yet spent on stuff. You will ask for this money to be presented in an array of quarters, ones and fives. This money goes into the Special Box which must be protected at all times during the sale. You have never actually read an article about someone getting smashed in the head at a yard sale for a boxful of quarters and ones, but you are certain you have heard from somebody that it has happened.
When the morning arrives, you are not ready. You slept a bit later than you intended and, while it is still dark on your Saturday morning off from work, you won’t have enough time to sip your coffee and get the stuff outside before the presale warriors arrive one hour early to try and buy your best stuff at half its labelled value.
You will rush to get every table you own set up on your front lawn and the items merchandised for maximum appeal. You will try to position the tables as a kind of funnel, drawing guests toward the clothes rack at the back. You place a few large items at the front of the driveway to lure them in. The Rock Band Wii game (Works!) sits proudly roadside, tempting cruisers as they coast past that this sale is work parking for. It is the same principle as an ant trap.
This yard sale isn’t a trap. It has good stuff that you probably need. Or stuff that someone you know probably needs. Or stuff that you know you don’t need but remember once upon a time needing and now that you are here doesn’t it make good sense to buy it just in case you find yourself needing it again?
Even if you are happily married, you will argue with your spouse a bit while setting this all up. You will harbor uncharitable thoughts and feelings about them as they critique your merchandize skills. You will spend too much time trying to sort the tables into categorizes of use: housewares, toys, little kid stuff, outdated technologies. Your spouse will tell you just to get it out and on the tables. They are coming! They are coming!
And you look up to find it is true. They are coming. The hour is here. There is no escape. You are having a yard sale.
And then, a curious thing: you start not to mind so much. You welcome people to your home and invite them into conversation. You ask them if they are hunting anything in particular. Some are. Most are not. You talk to dozens of people you would never have the chance to meet or speak with in any other context and you are doing this in your own front yard.
Somehow, the morning starts to seem less awful. Someone who loves you brings you a breakfast sandwich and more coffee. You are talking to the busy, happy, productive early morning people and your front yard is now a kind of community. You met the sisters who live one town apart and yard sale every Saturday morning as a way to spend time together. You meet the guy who is remodeling his kitchen because he recently bought a house and his wife hates their new kitchen counters. You meet the hapless husband who walks around with his wife on FaceTime, showing her your wares and doing his best to sell her on them. You quickly realize he is desperate to please her, and she is not one to be easily pleased. You give him a deal on the framed, bathroom mirror because you imagine his wife will like it up close in person much more than on the phone’s tiny screen.
You spend twenty minutes talking to a retiree on a bicycle who lives five streets away. He recently moved south from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, where the winters are fierce but the trail riding is unmatched. He is 75 if he is a day and he rides 15 miles everyday. Like you, he bought his house for proximity to the bike trails. He lost three friends in separate horrific bicycling accidents, one of which he describes in great detail. It is a kind of therapy for him, and at the end, you both agree that he should continue riding no matter what tragic fate ultimately lies unseen up the road. You have to do the things you love or you will die before you are dead.
And now you are wondering why you don’t stop to have conversations like this every Saturday morning. How interesting these people, all of them and how lucky you are to get to meet them, if only for a few minutes at a time.
And now, like me, you may begin humming “The People in Your Neighborhood” from Sesame Street. You can be forgiven if you are, but try not to do this aloud. It makes the customers worry.
And now you are no longer having a yard sale. You are just talking to people in a place with your stuff. Occasionally, some take things and give you money. The morning passes quickly.
The coffee maker you bought three weeks ago at Walmart (Works! Used Twice!) sells to the cafeteria worker at the county jail. “Those fellas love their coffee.”
A kid buys the abstract print of a cow’s face. This hung briefly in your kitchen but you took it down because it ruined the pleasure of cooking and eating hamburgers. He will hang it in his bedroom. At yard sales, we do not judge.
You meet the hospital volunteer who tells you that whatever stuffed animals you don’t sell can be donated to the hospital to help with kids. You check your watch and know that you aren’t going to sell many of these creatures at this point and offer to bag them all up for her. She carries a lawn/leaf bag of stuffed animals to their new home.
At the end of the sale, you feel tired and grateful. The sale wasn’t as painful as you had feared and you got rid of a lot of stuff. Don’t bother calculating how much you and your spouse made per hour. You could have worked a part-time job at fast food for one weekend and made more. Some of your unneeded things found new homes. Some will be placed in actual use, at least for a while. You kept all if out of the landfill, for now, and will take the rest to various donation centers.
Not a bad day’s work.
You and your spouse are glad to have all of this over. You tell each other this was the last one, that you will never have another yard sale ever again. And that, if one of you suggests a sale in the future, you should remind each other of this solemn oath.
Now, you have a box full of dollars and there is still weekend ahead. The credit union doesn’t open until Monday so you can’t deposit the cash. You wonder if you will manage to navigate the next two days without blowing through that cash on stuff.
Consumer-based capitalism is an elegant system. There’s really no escape.