Flea market ambivalence

Dan Rodricks

August 19, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

We're going to have a table at a flea market. Maybe even two. This wasn't my idea. I like to visit flea markets and yard sales, but I have never played host to or contributed to one. It's a line I have not crossed.

Why? Italian superstition.

My mother, the former Rose Popolo, says it's bad luck to sell stuff you don't want. She says you should give it away.

I have another reason: I like to believe I'm not old enough to let go of my stuff.

I figure you need to be at least 40 to let go of scratchy rock albums from the '60s, old bell-bottoms, Tahiti carvings and Night Fever disco shoes with big heels and bulbous toes. Me, I cling. I don't let go. I gotta keep my stuff. I'm like the character Psycho in the Bill Murray film, "Stripes," who warned other enlistees in his barracks to "Keep away from my stuff, or I'll kill ya."

I'm not quite as extreme. So, we're taking part in a flea market in early October. It's a charity event to be held at Friends School. I said I'd rent a couple of tables. This means I have to fill the tables with stuff.

Whose stuff? My stuff.

It won't be easy. It's one thing to be a flea market scavenger, picking through someone else's old garments and boots, fingering their dusty carafes, sticking my hands in their old jewelry boxes.

It's quite another thing to be the person who sits on the other side of the table while strangers come by, coldly fondle your fondue kit and ask embarrassing questions like: "How much?"

Who knows how much? How do you put a price on things of such marginally sentimental value? I went to the flea market at Memorial Stadium recently, held up a small dog-eared collection of W. C. Fields quotations and asked the woman offering it for sale that very question.

"How much?"

"Three," she said.

"Three dollars?"

"Yup," she yawned.

"That's how much it cost in 1971."

I dropped it back in the pile. Obviously, she did not want to part with her stuff.

I understand the attitude. I'm convinced there are a lot of people who pack up stuff for flea markets and yard sales, hoping the whole time that half of it never sells. This is what I expect will happen to me.

I have been assembling a box of items for the flea market all summer, mining through old boxes and shelves for things I no longer need, things I never used. And, as the pile has built, I find myself going back and taking inventory, making sure I haven't declared useless something I really want to keep.

The yogurt maker my sister-in-law gave us at a wedding shower -- we never used it. It's still in the carton, stapled shut. I could let it go. But I worry about the day, perhaps in early retirement, when I have a sudden urge to make my own yogurt -- to live healthier, more organically. I know it sounds far-fetched for a guy who eats McNuggets. But hey, it could happen.

Same thing goes with all those Mason jars. There was a time in my life when I grew tomatoes. Zillions of tomatoes. Tomatoes out my nose. Tomatoes I intended to can. I had envisioned high shelves filled with a few hundred glistening jars of tomatoes -- and fresh spaghetti sauce all winter. But I wimped out. I canned tomatoes one steamy August weekend in Baltimore in 1981, and almost expired. I haven't used a Mason jar for anything but pennies and nails since.

So I guess my entire collection goes to market, and I know the decision will come back to haunt me. One day, years from now, there's going to be a scare and the Department of Agriculture is going to pull every last can of plum tomatoes off the shelves. Then where will I be?

Up Cacciatore Creek without a sauce.

I came across a wooden serving tray, a souvenir from Barbados, etched with flamingos. Never been used. I could put it on the flea market pile. But what happens, months, perhaps years from now, when I go to serve cheese and crackers to guests at one of those dainty wine-tasting parties, and I reach for a tray and find that it's no longer there? Where am I then?

I have a blender. Actually, I have half a blender. I have the bottom, the part with the buttons and the motor. The top smashed during a rowdy bachelor party in -- I'm guessing now -- 1979. I always meant to get a replacement, but never did. I could offer it for sale, but not without the regret that, with a little effort hunting up a new glass top, I could have had a nice blender. I could have been Daiquiri King at pool parties. That's why the thing has been on a shelf in my basement for 13 years: I'm waiting on the part.

Plastic Parsons tables, bread baskets woven by friendly Guatemalans, cheap iron butterfly trivets, chipped shell-art figurines, my collection of olive oil cans (I thought they'd make wonderful planters) and the red ratchet set that's missing about eight pieces -- all that goes. Maybe.

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