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.

23 thoughts on “Ghouls”

  1. Anita says:

    Wow. Never ceases to amaze me how you can draw me into a post long before I realize where it is leading. Been way too long. As always, nice job.

  2. LilBit6_2 says:

    Good post. I enjoyed the poignancy of this one. And yes, you should have a will. Everyone should, if they’re over the age of 18. A properly written, witnessed & executable one. One of these days I’ll do mine. 🙂 Keep up the good writing!!

  3. James says:

    Good to be reading your writing again. Where’s the line between “kickback” and “tip,” anyway?

  4. Kentucky Packrat says:

    My grandfather was a junk man. I didn’t really understand it when I was young. I just looked forward to the Friday nights when I could stay with him, and explore the four-story flour mill that had the most amazing and wonderful treasures.

    Now that I’m older, I finally figured out why he did it. (Other than the obvious first cause: his daughter decided to sell antique furniture, and he had to bail her out. Again.) This college-educated, retired man had grown up riding the Mill wagon all across the county, meeting and knowing everyone (poor or rich, white or black). The junk store gave him an excuse to wander all over the county, renewing old acquaintances and making new ones. He knew everyone, and everyone loved him. (There were many a funeral in the county where he was the only rich man or the only white person in attendance.) I can still go to X County, and say I’m “Rxxx Bxxx’s grandson”, and anyone over 50 has a story about him.

    It wasn’t about “picking the bones” for him: he went to find the people and the occasional treasures he loved to collect (Barr dollars, ink wells, etc.). Having the auctioneers pay him to take junk back to the shop that someone else would then buy from him was just an added bonus.

  5. cloudia says:

    cue the spooky organ music . . .

    Warm Aloha from Waikiki
    Comfort Spiral


  6. Jess says:

    Happy scavenging . . . um, recycling.

    Sort of.

  7. Mary says:

    Excellent as always. I love an auction. Never have attended an estate sale. I love vintage jewelry. Guess I am missing out. Anyway, I would never get there on time to get anything good.

  8. Scout's Honor/Heather Murphy-Raines says:

    Great imagery! And once again I am reminded that need to get a will. 🙂

  9. Jimmy Rogers says:

    That was a nice piece, enjoyed your little side-exploration as your gf rooted around the actual salable things.

    Oh and I think you meant claustrophobia, right? Not agora?

  10. Kane says:

    I think of all the things we leave behind when we go; letters, cards, a necklace, a photo.

    Things one cannot hold on to. Beautiful writing sir.


  11. guru says:

    Agoraphobia literally means “fear of the market place.” If you’ve read my posts about competing parking spots or heard me bitch about Costco, then you’d understand what I mean. All those people jockeying for good stuff at estate sales brings it out. I don’t really have agoraphobia mind you, and if I do it’s a mild case. I don’t freak at sports events or concerts – just when I’m buying the tickets1

  12. El zopilote says:

    When my stepmother’s Alzheimer’s was making it
    impossible for her to live in her apartment
    at 3rd Avenue and 68th St in NYC, I had to
    go there, sell her stuff and bring her to
    Idaho to live with my wife and I. I had several
    estate sale agents bid on her stuff and they
    ranged from the ridiculous to the very ridiculous. Being in a hurry to get the dirty
    deed done, I took the highest offer and,
    knowing that my stepmom and I got screwed,
    got out of town and made her a home with us.

    The moral of the story is that when you are
    contemplating an estate sale for someone who
    has died or is not competent, have his/her
    estate valued by an appraiser who has no
    interest in the estate, otherwise you are
    at the mercy of agents who would sell their
    own grandmothers if there was a few bucks
    to be made on the deal.

  13. Kim says:

    I attended only one estate in my life. My grand uncle’s. He died after a long illness but we weren’t told until it was over. He had a great niece who had gotten to him at the beginning of the illness, changed the will so that most of the original heirs would lose what they were due. We had asked for two items: a beautiful wrought iron baker’s rack and one of the five sets of formal china he had. The niece sold off the baker’s rack and most of the really good antiques he had (probably before the old man had gasped his last). There was an estate sale that I stumbled upon during a drive by. I came back and bought most of the china set we had been promised. It was heart breaking to see people pawing through my grand aunt’s clothes that he still had 10 years after her death, shove aside the framed pictures of my grand aunt back when she was modeling for the big city department stores and of my grand uncle in his youth. It was sad to see that much of the furniture he had collected carefully in his years before and after he married my aunt was being treated cavalierly by people who were wearing designer clothes but nickel and diming 60 year old carved tables and chairs. I went in, got the china, paid and left with tears in my eyes. Your story reminded me of the fact that to some people this is no different than the Filene’s Basement wedding gown sale.

  14. Andy says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Even more depressing than the stuff that gets sold is some of the stuff that doesn’t get sold, assuming there’s no family left who cares. I haven’t been to any estate sales in a long time, but I’ve driven past a few houses with stuff piled outside, followed by the house going up for sale. Papers, notes, photo albums, knickknacks… things that have no value at auction but meant a lot to someone piled on the curb for the garbage man. I know there is a lot of stuff I’d be devastated to lose, but wouldn’t mean much to anyone else.

    Thanks for the nice bit of writing. I’d recently heard a song called “Scattered to the wind” by Donna Hughes that is in this vein too.

  15. valene says:

    Very nice post, I enjoyed it. But I think you meant “claustrophobia” instead of “agoraphobia”.

  16. Jimmy Rogers says:

    Ok, I bow to the pseudo-pun. I too enjoy taking a more literal view as to expand my vocabulary!

  17. joe says:

    My wife’s aunt died, and the family were supposed to get into the sale first to pick out what they wanted. We got there an hour early to find the house full of agents already loaded. We had to fight to get back some old photos, grabbed by a woman because the frames were nice. Yup, friends of the agent get in first.

  18. Terentia says:

    I went to my first estate sale 2 weeks ago. My aunt had died at the ripe old age of 89. It was sad watching people go thru her belongings. Worse were the comments about the house. (she was a semi-hoarder-hundreds of bed sheets and towels, rooms full of ceramic knick knacks). I’m glad I went though. I managed to pick up my grandparents’ dining room set and the rocker my grandfather spent his last years sitting in. We all get old. Or die young. Those are the choices and we can’t change it. What we can do, is be the kind of people who leave behind memories and relationships. Then having our material goods picked over by strangers won’t matter so much.

  19. Bob Dobbs says:

    I don’t like estate sales, either. It is sad to see the props of a person’s life, the place they shaped to their liking and the possessions that were valuable to them, carried away.

    But when a person dies, their possessions stop being theirs and become just — stuff once again. Stuff has no allegiance, it’s good to remember that. If they died among loved ones, it’s a good ending. That’s all that matters. But when you go to a sale, you have no way of knowing that.

    The professionals who haunt the sale are indeed a forward, ruthless bunch. But — think about peasants in a hard land, and how they have to scrabble to live. Most of the people I run across who do this sort of thing are not well off; they make their living off the detritus of others. How good can that be? Or secure? You should see who comes to a storage auction; mostly, people who are barely getting by.

  20. Peaches says:

    Guru means agoraphobia – I have the same problem; being in a crowd of people makes me very uncomfortable.

    I do go to estate sales and the “GHOUL” aspect made me think about them… I look for some specific things (pen nibs for one for calligraphy, interesting cookbooks) that interest me.

    I also like to hope that by buying things that interest me I am moving forward interests that the person who lived in the home shared with me.

    Working on my mother’s items has been interesting; several sets of inherited books from the 1880s to 1920s, a 1907 Steinway parlor grand (still need that appraised!), mahogany furniture, lots of cut glass. I wonder if anyone who buys them will consider their history…

    I have plans for my cookbooks and needlepoint books (add to local library collection for others to enjoy) and my calligraphy books (find a calligraphy group with a library so those can also be shared).

    Just sharing thoughts…

  21. Angela DiBiase says:

    I feel the exact same way~ while I love garage sales and thrift stores, I often feel sad when I am at an estate sale where you can tell that every last thing the person owned is now being fondled by strangers. At one I attended, they even had their pajamas and nail clippers out for sale. I instructed my grown children to please give everything away and to please not do that.

  22. jj says:

    I come from a good sized family and have reached the point where there are not too many people left in my parents generation. What to do with the house; what to do with the “stuff.” Some of the stuff has monetary value beyond scrap, some of it has sentimental value, some of it simply needs to be gotten rid of, sooner rather than later. My second wife’s parents were borderline hoarders. I had to dispose of 3 handguns, a welding rig, a metal lathe, a cement mixer, and assorted other stuff. Oh, and we also had an underground fuel tank and a paint shed full of paints and thinners that dated back to the 50s and 60s (can you say hazmat site?).

    My mother has tried to find a home with one of us (children, children-in-law, grandchildren) for her stuff, especially the sentimental stuff like the piece that my dad built for her mom back in the 50s (I remember him making it). But I know that when the time comes, we will not take all of it, and some of it will be left to be picked over by strangers. Maybe there will be treasure among the trash and we will get something for it. The alternative is hauling it down to the dump. Much rather someone picked up a set of dishes for $5 than have those item cluttering up a landfill somewhere.

  23. Ronna says:

    My husband and I recently went to an estate sale at the home of a nice old man who lived nearby. We would often walk our dog past his house as he watered the lawn, and puttered about. He would usually comment on how cute our dog is, and we would compliment his lovely home.

    My husband is a big fan of yard, estate sales, and such. I am not. But he wanted to go, it was nearby, and I was interested in seeing the interior design. It has always been one of my favotites houses on the block. So, we went.

    I was immediately struck by the depressing progression of people silently “shopping” amongst the prized possessions of this once happy family. His late wife obviously fancied collecting beautiful dishes, crystal, and elaborate servering plates. I couldn’t help but imagine the joyess family meals they onced shared there. Eyes lowered, I followed the crowd through the quaint kitchen, down the hallway, and finally to the master bedroom.

    Inside I saw photos, Jewelry, and knickknacks – permanent shadows of happy memories. And I saw strangers rifling through racks of suits and shoes a proud, young man once wore.

    As the tears welled up in my eyes, I backed out of that room, and out of the house.

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