The economy of the unwanted

It’s tag sale time in Connecticut. No sooner do the leaves turn color than every telephone pole in the neighborhood is covered in arrows and Sharpied signage. That nip in the air seems to kick start what my dad once referred to as, “The commerce of crap.”

The subtle message a tag sale sends to your neighbors is: “I don’t need any of this stuff, but you’ll probably pay me for the privilege of rifling through my trash.” If someone were to say that to our faces, we’d probably punch ’em. Instead, we get up early so we can look through their offerings before the “good stuff” is gone.

To be honest, I can’t get enough of them. Stumbling upon someone’s Mad Magazine collection or a cast iron waffle maker gives me a high that compulsive gamblers must feel when they hit the jackpot. It’s also a rare glimpse into the private lives of our neighbors, and thus a welcome chance to be judgmental. “Sure, their kids are on the honor roll and their lawn looks like it belongs on a golf course, but just look at that horrible lamp! And where did they hang that painting, the bathroom?”

Despite my dad’s misgivings, my mom put on several tag sales as we grew up. As she wandered through our offerings, she’d mutter, “Someone who knows what they’re doing is going to scoop up this marble bust.” She didn’t know it wasn’t marble, but the guy who bought it only paid four bucks for it anyway. Thus operates the fragile economy of the unwanted.

The lifecycle of the things we owned went from store, to home, to younger siblings, to tag sale, to Goodwill, and finally to the parking lot of Goodwill at midnight.

“Someone’s going to want this couch,” my dad would explain as we unloaded the monstrosity next to a donation truck.

“Shouldn’t we drop it off during store hours?” I’d ask, noticing that the store would open again in eight hours (when the sun was shining).

“Nonsense — that’s why they have the donation truck.” I was just old enough to know better than to point out the couch was much bigger than the donation slot. Instead, we’d unload the rest of the items that didn’t go in the tag sale: lampshades, wooden skis, a plaster cast of Pope Pius X. All I could think of was, “The Poor have very bad taste.”

It was worse when the tag sales occurred while we were away at college. In the middle of a phone conversation about my classes, my mom would casually note that she’d sold my baseball card collection. “Sold your records, too — I got you almost $40!” I probably could have paid for college with those baseball cards, but she threw them in for free when someone bought the suitcase they were kept in.

It was one of the hazards of coming from a large family: Occasionally, stuff just got “cleaned out.” One day after stumbling over a bicycle, my dad would declare it was time to clean out the garage. If he happened to go in the attic, he would demand we cull any unnecessary items and organize what remained. We even cleaned the woods, removing unsightly branches or dead foliage. Our possessions were like soldiers in a losing war — if you left any behind when you left for camp or college, they were sure to be captured and sold. Sometimes I didn’t realize this until I saw the kid down the street wearing my Bruce Springsteen T-shirt as he raced by on my bicycle.

The unspoken deadline for the removal of all personal belongings was the day each of us graduated college. We were welcome back home if we needed a place to stay, but our residency status was downgraded to “beloved tenant.” At the first sign we’d filled out a change-of-address form at the Post Office, anything we hadn’t boxed up and taken with us was fair game. I got my brother’s beer can collection this way.

As a result, I have mixed feelings as the tag sale signs bloom like cardboard lilies on every street corner. As much as I want to snap up that original GI Joe with the Kung Fu Grip you’re selling for $5, I can’t help but look for the sad face of the kid who’ll be desperately looking for it next Saturday morning. Then I figure, “He’ll find a new one at Goodwill,” and buy it anyway.

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