Many garage sales are the result of happy, or at least energetic, changes: someone in the household got a wonderful new job in another town or state; someone’s retiring and selling old things they don’t use any more; a couple’s married or moved in together and they don’t need two coffeemakers, two blenders, and that old couch one of them’s been schlepping around since college. Or it’s simply time to move old stuff along and make space for the new, or just make space.
But there are also the estate sales, eviction sales, divorce sales, the “roommates who skipped town without paying the rent and left their junk for us to clean up” sales. And the one I shopped this morning, feeling simultaneously delighted by the bargains and incredibly guilty about scavenging the detritus of others’ misfortune.
Except when friends have moved into new apartments or out of town, I’ve never known so much about a sale before entering the home. But in our city of fewer than 30,000 people, it often seems as if only two degrees separate each of us. These folks lived about a block from my apartment, but I didn’t know them – I make it to so few neighborhood events lately, I could be living anywhere. Our city council member posted on the neighborhood email list yesterday that it was her sister’s family holding the sale; my supervisor’s supervisor at work has been friends with the city council member for years, so she probably knows the sister, too.
I can’t say I’ve been to too many sales at which the customers asked so many questions of the sellers, either. I’m sure everyone was curious about why the entire top-quality contents of the rental house was being sold, for very little money, right down to the bandages in the bathroom cupboards and the clothes hangers in the closets – not to mention the glass-cooktop stove, expensive wool rugs and king-size Tempur-Pedic mattress the family was selling for 10% of the price they’d paid only three months ago.
The friends helping the family with the tag sale kept their counsel, but the husband and father was forthcoming. The house was a couple hundred years old and had some mold – not the sort of black mold that forms after floods, but it didn’t matter: his wife was having allergic reactions that were complicating the problems she already had from Lyme disease, so they were moving to a neighboring state to be near a doctor who specialized in treating Lyme. They’d been told to bring nothing from the house with them to prevent transferring any lingering mold spores, so their kids had boxed up their possessions and put them into storage for the time being, and the parents and a few friends were selling everything down to the hardwood floors.
My allergies aren’t that severe, although I do have huge problems with cigarette smoke and any type of heavy perfume or chemical (some essential oils and herbs are fine). So this neighbor and her family’s misfortune was my lucky day: I don’t have to wash the linens or shirts I bought six times to rid them of the poison stink of dryer sheets or detergent; I don’t have to leave the carry-on suitcase I purchased open on my porch for the next two months for the same reason; I needn’t worry that so-called air fresheners have tainted any paper, wood, or plastic item I bought. For a song.
I ran into my landlady at the sale, and as she climbed the stairs to the house’s second floor, she said she felt mercenary. The husband reassured everyone who asked: “No, you’re really helping us by getting rid of everything for us!” But I knew exactly what my landlady was talking about, and 12 hours later, I’m still wondering if I’ll feel guilty every time I see the penguin keychain a kid had to sacrifice to his mother’s health, or if on a snowy night in January I’ll think of them before I go to sleep, wondering how they’re all doing in the Hudson Valley when I pull their down comforters over my cat and me.