Sometimes I think that the chief source of economic activity in this area is not the military, not agriculture, not seafood, not even softball, which underpins the vast summer trade in beer and pizza, but yard sales.

Can a civilization sustain itself on the ceaseless ebb and flow of worn-out toys, wobbling ironing boards and scuffed eight-track tape cartridges? Can society prosper from the constant movement of ashtrays and pantsuits between one family's attic and another's basement?

Suffice to say that a sunny weekend just wouldn't seem right without a tableful of cast-off paraphernalia at every turn.

In early March, I began to scan the classifieds in the local paper, watching for signs of the yard-sale season: March 18, 13 ads; March 23, 15 ads. It was May that brought the great blossoming. There were 44 ads on May 6. Two-family, three-family, four-family yard sales. Sales in trailer parks, sales near the water, sales that started at 8 a.m. Sales with refreshments. Sales, rain or shine.

They offered a promising assortment of wares: chain saws, tires, file cabinets, tools, baby items, microscope. Then there was "prom dress, size 8" and "dryer (needs work)."

I made the rounds that Saturday. Sure enough, along every street, in every neighborhood someone had graced the landscape with fragments of domestic life. There were fish tanks parked in driveways, sweat shirts draped over lawn chairs, an army of gnawed-on plastic soldiers chaotically heaped in coffee cans. In one sloping yard I saw an electric stove beneath a tree, looking as though it belonged there.

What could it all mean?

Perhaps the yard sale is a ritual, a cathartic rite for a people sated on possessions, self-exposure in a culture that cherishes privacy.

It could even be symbolic enactment of death through the ritual sacrifice of personal belongings. The things we consign to the sale table--things once new and beloved, now bruised and neglected--remind us of our mortality.

I think yard sales appeal to our fascination with junk, with the transformation brought on by time and use. Consider how consumer products flow through our lives:

In advertisements, things look somehow perfect. A trip to the store brings a slight letdown; nothing looks as good in real life as it does in our imagination. But stores also kindle an elation, brimming as they are with an immense number of things, and all of them new, gleaming with fresh prices. It's no wonder that kids go crazy in stores. We all do.

There is no pleasure for the shopper quite as sweet as the delight of a purchase--and no pleasure quite as ephemeral. The feeling of newness, which does not stem from the new thing itself, stirs us, then dissolves. Children's toys offer the best example: The novelty of a new plaything can wear off in hours.

There are, of course, things that age well. But so many seem to lose their allure. It's not that we sour on them. They simply leave us indifferent. They fail to excite pleasure. And this failure, over time, begins to offend us--just as the worn spot in the carpet offends us. Think again of used toys. Isn't there something slightly degrading about a one-eyed robot that nobody plays with anymore?

Eventually we realize that these things cluttering our homes and our lives are candidates for a yard sale. The realization brings another change. When the items cease being burdens and instead become channels of liberation, we discover a new kind of affection for them. Memories awaken. The old things no longer offend; rather, they sadden.

In a yard sale, we don't simply dump things. We make a gesture and invite gestures in return. Where the shopping mall operator cleverly sets out merchandise for maximum seduction, the yard sale is arranged haphazardly, inspiring gregariousness and common curiosity. People come to find things they need, true; but what appeals to them most is what happens to catch their eye. None of us, it seems, can resist the chance to wander among goods that have belonged to others.

The experience somehow suits us and soothes us. At the mall, we're driven by tense desire. At the yard sale, we browse, relaxed as a cow.

It was relaxation, finally, that made my Saturday so enjoyable. Yard sales relax barriers, relax roles. The quiet lawn has a different effect than shelves, counters, walls. The goods among which we move can't really be called merchandise, for the sellers aren't merchants. Social forms disappear: gone the polite struggle pitting sales clerk against customer; gone the anxious game of acquisition.

We bargain, yes--but not for commodities. Commodities belong to commerce, the world of the cunning, where they serve as weapons. Here, in the front yard, our relation to things and people is different. The items on display are not weapons but windows--occasions to meet and banter. On Saturday, I bought only a roll of tape and two hand puppets, but I learned a lot about growing fruit trees--the result of a chance conversation.

The transactions that take place at a yard sale embrace more than money. In the act of selling and buying, we share. Briefly, we cease being consumers. We become neighbors.