Saturday-Morning Rites for the Garage Sale Society

Patrick Mott is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition. This column is one in an occasional series of first-person accounts of leisure activities in and around Orange County.

It was the improbable find of the day, and only a couple of steps away from the iridescent velvet painting of the fierce bandito with the ugly cigar. Sure, the grotesque man in the sombrero was the first thing in the driveway to catch your eye, but once you got over the breathtaking awfulness of it and let your eyes stray to some of the other stuff, you could hardly miss it. There, in the psychology/medicine section of the book box, near the curb, was a paperback copy of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' landmark work about how to croak gracefully, "On Death and Dying."

Not only that, it contained a bookmark: a faded Air Cal ticket stub for a 1983 flight from Orange County to San Jose. It took only a quick flip of the imagination to see some poor soul, bolt upright in a window seat, adrenalin gushing and teeth chattering, alternately glancing out at the world 27,000 feet below and back to Kubler-Ross' straightforward discussion of blipping away into the void. I had to have that book.

A cheerful Cindy Martinez, manipulating the fanny pack at her waist like a change-maker, said it would cost me a quarter. So, because I'm awful at haggling and because I didn't have anything smaller, I forked one over and the book was mine. I walked away feeling positively patriotic, knowing I had just participated in one of America's great grass-roots acts of pure capitalism.

My first garage sale of the day.

It was Saturday morning and all across America an army of citizen horse traders was setting up shop in driveways and front yards. And, following their trails, came yet another army of rummagers, rag-pickers, pokers, prodders, chin-strokers and bargain-hunters.

Garage sale society is a kind of parallel universe: You don't know it's there unless you're looking for it, but if you're looking for it it seems to be around every corner. How, in my usual weekend ramblings, could I have missed all those signs? They seemed to be stapled to every telephone pole, wired to every chain-link fence, taped to every surface that would accommodate them, a Hansel-and-Gretel trail of construction paper, computer printouts and eye-catching calligraphy ("GOOD STUFF!") that led you from the big arterial streets deep into the labyrinths of housing tracts.

It helps to think of garage sales as suburban bazaars, as unpredictable as any merchants' stalls in Casablanca or Tangier. Not two blocks from the Martinez home, a generously tattooed Paddy Throp presided over his own garage sale, marked by multicolored balloons flying from the adjacent street sign. Here, one might buy a Dion & the Belmonts CD still in the shrink wrap, or a series of dog-training videos, priced at a mere $5.

"We bought those videos at someone else's garage sale a year ago," said Throp, "and our dogs remain untrained, so . . ."

For many, that's the garage sale credo in a nutshell. Two women I encountered that same morning explained that it was quite possible to finance a family vacation by making the rounds of garage sales (early; the real pros start around 6 a.m.), buying up the most desirable stuff and reselling it at a profit at a garage sale of one's own.

And we were worried about the communist menace for more than four decades? Were we nuts? How is it possible for a nation to embrace communism and still go completely ape for garage sales? I began to think we were handling this Russian economic aid business all wrong. Instead of sending a bunch of suits from Wharton to explain the intricacies of trickle-down and supply-side economics to a bunch of hungry guys at the tractor factory, why not send over a few dozen garage sale freaks? They'd have the country in the black and playing Monopoly within four days.

Back on the sale trail, Rob and Linda Profant were holding forth in the alley behind their apartment, hawking everything from a stained-glass window from their mountain cabin to a device they called a "door scope"--a large yet opaque door peep hole that can be used standing several feet away.

Around the corner, Rebecca Brown was reveling in her first-ever garage sale. An instinctive saleswoman, she was enticing buyers by offering bags of M & Ms for 20 cents and Gummi Bears for 40 cents. She was having a fine time, and couldn't wait to stretch out in the new extra space she was going to have in her home, the result of clearing out a true cornucopia of items.

All over the yard they lay, in neat groupings: boxes of encyclopedias, old stereo gear, stuffed animals, a screen door, T-ball equipment, hub caps, even a book explaining how to make hand shadows on the wall.

And it was only 10 a.m.

The remainder of the day found me covering quite a bit of ground in Orange County, and on nearly every corner near a residential neighborhood I saw the signs, sometimes four or five to a post. You could almost feel the dickering and haggling that was animating those neighborhoods (because you never pay the marked price at a garage sale, unless you want to quibble about the aforementioned quarter). An entire civilization of little Cal Worthingtons, standing on their heads, eating bugs to get you to take home their shopworn La-Z-Boys.

I went home and started in on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Surprisingly, I didn't get depressed at all. Heck, I had cadged a modern psychological classic for 25 cents. Who knows? Maybe next week, the Durants' complete "Story of Civilization" series for a buck.

Nah. Make it 75 cents.

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