Friday, August 04, 2006

Treasures and memories

I discovered estate sales when we lived in San Francisco a few years ago. I'd be driving though the Sunset District and see a sign, and since parking was fairly easy, I'd pop in. It was a way to explore the houses in San Francisco. The row houses are just so different from the houses I'm used to in the Chicago area, and I'd love to have an excuse to go into one and poke around. I'd usually buy an old book or two, perhaps look at some of the tea cups wistfully. Mostly, it was a glimpse into someone's life.

When we returned to the Chicago area, I couldn't find the sales quite as easily. My husband and I stumbled on a good one and I bought a couple paintings for the hallway, but most of the time we were disappointed. The estate sales were often glorified garage sales in our suburban area of newer subdivisions. Someone had already gone through the exercise of purging before they moved into the house probably just a few years previously. We needed houses in older neighborhoods where people could accumulate for decades. When I stumbled on, I finally started finding the sales I like. Fortunately, many are real close to my office.

I don't usually buy much, but I might. Mostly, it's an exploration into a neighborhood and an unknown person's life. Sometimes it leaves me a little bit sad.

Take the sale I went to today over my lunch break. A labyrinthine ranch house in an older neighborhood. The man obviously owned at least one, possibly more Burger King franchises. Tons (and I mean tons) of toy promotions all over the place. Boxes of Pocahontas, Toy Story, Scooby Doo stuff still in wrapping. Disney tie-ins galore. Then there were the Christmas decorations, the train models, the basement bar with the old empty liquor bottles, the military clothes in the closet, old saxophones and accordions, the vintage lace wedding dress, the boxes and boxes of romance novels - Nora Roberts, Jude Deveraux, series Harlequin - the plaque that said "I love you Nana and Papa", the tell-your-family-history fill-in-the-blank book (unwritten in, of course), the prayer books and religious paraphernalia, the dog crate in the garage and the book with the chewed-up corner (I've got one of those at home already). A lifetime of dreams and aspirations, precious collections, cherished objects.

As I explored, I created a history for these people, and I wondered about the dozens of people exploring the house with me. What were they seeing? Why were they buying what they were buying? A house to furnish? Collectibles to resell on eBay? A toy for a nephew?

I walked out of there with one $2 Star Wars Return of the Jedi glass. In shades of orange and brown, the glass depicts a scene: "In the Tatooine desert, Han Solo takes aim with his laser pistol while Luke Skywalker brandishes his Jedi lightsaber above the Sarlacc Pit. In the background, Jabba the Hutt's giant sail barge bursts into flames." I'd found it in a box in a corner of the basement.

"The missing piece of a collection?" the check-out lady asked. "No. It's got Han Solo on it," I replied, like that explained everything. How could I say that I was a writer and this character I've created has a fascination with Han Solo? I was buying it for my office - a precious possession for a person who didn't exist except in my head and on the pages of an unsold manuscript.

As I was walking down the tree-lined street back to my car, my treasure cradled in my hand, an older gentleman asked, "Did you leave anything?" I smiled. "Oh, there's plenty there. Trust me."

I wonder what treasures he walked out with. And I wonder how they are ever going to clear out that house.

There's a sale next weekend that looks especially intriguing to me, but it's pretty far away - all the way in Lakeview in Chicago. "This 2 flat has been in the family for 4 generations. Come and dig through the packed basement on a rare treasure hunt! Nothing was ever thrown away!"

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