One man’s trash is another man’s ... trash


Washington Post columnist John Kelly's ill-fated yard sale on Sept. 22, 2012 in Silver Spring, Md. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)
John Kelly
Columnist September 30, 2012

I did not proceed with my plans for a yard sale just because My Lovely Wife said I couldn’t have one. I am not that petty.

No, I went forward with the yard sale because I am greedy. I want money. I’ve had it with charities converting my castoffs into cash for their various programs. Help the veterans or the physically impaired with someone else’s money, I decided. I’m tired of all the phone calls from Purple Heart and the Multiple Sclerosis Society asking whether I have any unneeded clothes or household items.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Of course I have unneeded clothes or household items. I am a middle-class American. Furthermore, I am a middle-class American with a wife and two daughters. Our life is a constant cycle of buying, using, then depositing into the thrift shop stream. It is the circle of consumption.

Sometimes we reverse the flow and buy from thrift shops, although somehow we’re never able to close the loop by then selling those items to retail stores.

The tax deductions are nice, but what I wanted was cash. So about six months ago, I started saying no when the charities called. No, I said. Sorry. I don’t have clothes or household items.

The items started piling up. Bags in the basement. Boxes near the furnace. Surely thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of what I had started calling “merchandise.”

“Is this giveaway?” My Lovely Wife would call after tripping over something in the basement.

“No,” I would answer. “It’s merchandise. I’m having a yard sale.”

“You know I’m not helping you, right?” she would say. “Yard sales are more trouble than they’re worth.”

She had never gotten over our previous yard sale, all the organization it required, the gathering of stuff, the pricing, the arranging, the ad-placing, the sign-making, then the sale itself: the stream of ravenous bargain hunters who haggled over everything. I sold a men’s bespoke wool suit for a quarter — a quarter! — to a woman who haggled me into a pulp.

“I don’t need your help,” I said. “Gwyn will help me.”

But our daughter Gwyn conveniently arranged to escape back to college before I’d gotten my act together. Autumn was coming. The yard sale window was closing. If I didn’t act soon, I’d be stuck with my merchandise all winter.

Then a neighbor announced she was having a yard sale. Others in the neighborhood could join in. We’d be a destination. She’d place an ad on Craigslist and in The Post. I committed.

The night before the sale, I got a call at home from “Larry.”

“I see you’re having a yard sale,” Larry said. “Do you have any artwork, oil paintings, watercolors, prints or etchings?”

“Um, no,” I said, wondering how he’d gotten my number.

“Do you have any tools?”

“No.”

“Do you have any computers, desktops or laptops?”

“No,” I said. “But I do have some unopened printer ink cartridges.”

“Unopened printer ink cartridges,” Larry repeated, unimpressed. Then: “Do you have any jewelry, costume jewelry, gold or sterling silver jewelry?”

I mentioned that there might be some.

“Costume jewelry or sterling jewelry?”

“Costume,” I said. “Maybe.”

“Costume jewelry from the 1960s?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Does your wife know? Is she there? When will she be home? Can you call her at work?”

Finally I said, “You know Larry, let’s just say there won’t be any costume jewelry.”

“This will only take a few minutes,” Larry said, annoyed.

I hung up. Then it struck me: Larry wanted to take advantage of me. He was hoping that when he asked if I had any oil paintings, I’d say, “Just a weird portrait of a lady with a sideways face signed P-I-C-A something.” He was hoping when he asked about jewelry I would say, “Is Tiffany costume jewelry?”

Well, Larry, your little tricks won’t work with me.

Alas, I’d fallen behind in my preparation. As Saturday dawned, it was clear I wasn’t ready. I begged my wife to help me. And she agreed, either because she loves me or because she wanted me close at hand when she said, “I told you so.”

Looking back on it now, I think I may have been overly confident in the public’s desire for old Pablo Cruise records, muddy croquet mallets and my daughters’ “fashion tees.” Nothing was worse than seeing drivers slow briefly, then hit the gas, dismissing my yard sale without even getting out of their vehicles.

Didn’t they see the printer ink cartridges?

In the end, I made $132. My garage is full of what I suppose I can no longer refer to as “merchandise.” Overstocks, I guess you’d call them.

I’m hoping Purple Heart calls soon.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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