I'm not afraid of secondhand shopping. It's how I remained clothed during college ($2 men's flannels at the thrift store in Le Mans) and how I furnished my first apartment ($10 mission-style nightstand at Goodwill) and how I found the extremely cool urn that now graces my patio. Sarah and I once had a good-natured, decade-long battle over a yellow bag sold at a yard sale in Sioux Center.
Not to mention the books... probably a thousand of them, conservatively.
But I can also say no to secondhand; I can paw through someone's collection of records and walk away. I can praise a card table full of overpriced handmade jewelry ("lapidary art," I was informed) and make a graceful exit without producing a twenty.
This is more difficult for me, though, when I'm at an estate sale. At this point it's not just clutter from someone's garage or outgrown clothes -- it's basically a person's entire life on display. It's what's left behind; it's a wake for the pots and pans and Christmas decorations and figurines and empty picture frames that accompanied this life.
I'm strangely drawn to these displays, moving reverently between coffee pots and lamp shades, trying to imagine something of the people who lived here, who used these objects. I can't meet the proprieters eye-to-eye, because I know who they are: children, grandchildren, volunteers from church, employees from the company handling the sale. I can't help but think of what's next -- the house put on the market, or passed on to a descendant who will paint over the pastel walls and rip out the pink carpet. Anything that doesn't sell will be transported by a non-profit or tossed in a dumpster. In my own life, I'm not very sentimental. When I'm inhabiting, even for a few moments, someone else's, it's a different story.
This is why I own a rickety six-foot metal cabinet with rusty splotches. This explains the mailbox I mean to paint one day and use as a planter. It explains the houndstooth handbag I bought last week for $2.
"That's a very cool bag," commented the woman behind me in line, leaning over for a closer look.
I almost gave it up to her; I'd dithered between the suitcase and a small porcelain owl, neither of which I needed. But she was right: it was a cool bag, big enough to handle a change of clothes and a jumble of toiletries, a paperback or two. And then I did what comes all too naturally to me: I brought it home and set it to the side and promptly forgot all about it.
Tonight, putting together the clothes I'll need for a marathon teaching/class picture/graduation ceremony/dance day tomorrow, I realized the bag was exactly the right size for this purpose, and out it came once again.
At the bottom of the bag, I'd initially spotted some wadded up tissue, the sort of thing you might find in a new purse. Or that's what I thought. Emptying the bag for the first time, I pulled out not a ball of tissue, but a handful of disintegrating white panty hose, the hose of a newly dead stranger.
I gasped and flung the offending hose into the garbage can, shaking off its touch like I would the ghostly strands of a spider web.
And cured myself - for a week or two - of secondhand shopping.
Paula Treick DeBoard