My girlfriend loves estate sales. Every weekend for the past couple of months, she’s been hunting for bargains in what I call “dead old lady houses,” usually with me in tow. The irony that I’m engaging in a Yuppie activity akin to antiquing is not lost on me.
My girlfriend has indeed found some nice deals, like an Irish lace tablecloth and a china tea service she paid 25 bucks for and could sell on EBay for $300. I wasn’t too crazy about the antique sewing machine that is now taking precious space in our small apartment but, to be fair, she’s also been looking for things to class our place up. Before she moved in, my domicile was a true bachelor pad. Now femininity is relegating my stuff into the second bedroom I use as an office. That’s the way it goes, but the apartment sure looks nicer. Smells nicer too.
But estate sales kind of unnerve me. You are going into a house where the occupant had died and picking though their stuff. “The best sales,” my girlfriend told me, “is when a younger person dies.” A woman in her apartment building, a buyer for a ritzy department store in New York, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of fifty, so all her stuff was in good condition and still fashionable. My girlfriend felt bad for the woman but she still thought the sale was a “score.”
To date, I have purchased six dollars worth of stuff on these excursions – a Swiss Army Knife and an old tape measure – both of which I threw into my girlfriend’s purse. Other than that, I haven’t been interested in much of anything. My primary role on these trips is to act as chauffeur and say, “Don’t buy that.” But I have seen some spectacular houses. One was a large and very old time Italian home in Weehawken with a breathtaking view of Manhattan. Standing in the $2.5 million dollar home’s glass enclosed back porch, I could glimpse the flickering neon signs of Time Square and watched open mouthed as a mammoth cruise ship pulled out of dock and set sail to destinations unknown. The house, however, was furnished like something out of The Godfather, leading me to ask how many Mafioso got whacked in the basement. The lady running the sale was not amused
In that same town we also found a beautiful converted brownstone with a pristine grand piano on the first floor and an elegant salon in the apartment upstairs. The new owners were in the midst of renovations and asked us if we’d like to rent it. Would’ve been nice, but the place didn’t have the three P’s – price, pets and parking. They wanted $2600 a month for place in an area where fistfights break out over parking spaces and you couldn’t even have a cat. No thank you. But I knew some Manhattanite real estate fetishist or refugee from Hoboken would rent it by the end of the day.
Despite getting to see some cool homes, I’m still bothered by the mercenary attitude of many people who flock to these sales. Every person overseeing these events, usually supplied by a professional company, have told me that large lines of people queue up an hour before the doors open, eager to be the first person to swoop in and find some discarded treasure. “They almost knocked me down when I opened the door,” one agent told me. “They usually know what they’re looking for. I had one lady buy all the draperies in the place five minutes after she was inside.” Many of these people are interior decorators or people hustling to buy stuff low and sell it high online. Of course, some are just regular people like me. But when I asked one agent if the interior decorators or professional antiquers gave them little kickbacks to get in early, my question was met with stony silence. I’ll take that for a yes.
The sales are usually quite crowded. One day, in a very small but well maintained home built in 1900, the place was filled with people bumping into each other and I could feel my undiagnosed agoraphobia start ramping up. It’s interesting to note that most of the buyers are usually very quiet and tend not to make eye contact with others; lest they tip off the competition what they’re fondling might be valuable. But the jostling, a few shades short of rude, made me fell like the walls were closing in so I dashed outside. As I caught my breath I thought to myself that these people were ghouls, picking through the material remains of the dead. Yes, I know I’m calling my girlfriend a ghoul, but she’s more like Casper the Friendly Ghost, and a cute one at that.
Not all of the houses we’ve visited, however, have been nice. In fact quite a few of them have been very sad. This Sunday we went to a house where the place reeked of “old person smell” and the entire upstairs looked like it had never been finished. Then I realized it had been finished, but the owner had let it fall into horrid disrepair. To be honest, it looked like a hotel room 20 years after Keith Richards trashed the place in some drug-fueled guitar smashing mania. Even the toilet was broken.
The first floor wasn’t much better. The occupant seemed to have limited his existence to the downstairs bathroom, bedroom and kitchen. I knew a guy had been the last person to live here because even a dying old woman usually keeps her living room in good order. This guy’s place was filled with the detritus of a life breaking down.
As my girlfriend rooted around the kitchen, I picked though the old man’s stuff on the front porch. There was a picture of him in a World War II uniform and a yellowing photo of him and his wife on their wedding day. They looked young and vital, the future in front of them bursting with possibility. I also uncovered some autograph books from his wife’s high school days, pages with limericks, well wishes and hopes for a happy tomorrow written in long faded ink. When she was young, did that woman frozen in the sepia tinted pictures even think about when there would be no tomorrows? What would she think about a guy like me roaming around her home, looking for clues about her life? I also couldn’t help but think, how long ago did this man’s wife die? How long had he been alone? Who knows? Maybe his wife left him and is still alive in a nursing home somewhere, not caring that her old beau was dead. But whatever happened, this man spent his last days living in a junk pile. I did find estimates to fix up his house squirreled away in his desk; but it was obvious he never had the work done. Maybe he didn’t have money. Maybe he didn’t care because the tenderest part of him had gone into that long good night.
My girlfriend didn’t find any “scores” so we left. But as we drove back home I was thinking about my last days. Would I end up like that guy? The way my life is going, I don’t think so – but you never know what cards life will deal you. A guy born today might be rifling though my shit fifty years from now.
“Honey,” I said as we slipped onto the highway, “When I die don’t let people like that into our home. Just give my stuff away to family and friends. The idea of some guy carting off my collection of pocketknives for twenty bucks would make me roll over in my grave.”
“What happens if I go first?” my girlfriend said. Good question.
“Honey,” I replied. “I think it’s finally time for me to get a will.”
Anything to keep the ghouls away.