When you drive through northern New England on summer weekends, you’re likely to find tag sales in town after town, where homeowners gather at daybreak to set up tables on lawns and driveways, filled with — how can I describe this politely — “junk” to tempt tourists and locals alike into spending their hard-earned cash.
On more than one occasion, I’ve wanted to pull over, despite my wife’s protests, so I could rummage through piles of “stuff” in the hope of uncovering a treasure or three. Of course, the reality is much different from the fantasy because I usually leave empty-handed or clutching something grotesque like the Rolling Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” lunch box with Twinkies residue from 1966, which my wife vows will never be allowed in our house, so I end up storing it in the shed or the trunk of my car until it’s safe to sneak it into my closet. Weather permitting, I could have a tag sale out of my trunk because there’s so much contraband hidden there.
As my mother, in her inimitable wisdom, often observed, “Why would you spend your money on someone else’s junk?” To which I’d respond, “Because I want it to be my junk.”
Junk collecting, I’m convinced, is a classic American consumer addiction, and I must have inherited the gene. I can’t resist stopping at antique shops to browse and buy things I have absolutely no need of.
My mother, who described “antiques” as “someone else’s old junk,” always referred to my father in less-than-affectionate terms as a “junk collector.” Wherever he is now, I’m sure he’d agree. I, however, think of him in nobler terms: He was the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart of tag sales, flea markets and estate sales.
He was a man who understood the value, even if it was sentimental, of old tools, scrap wood, vintage door knobs, rusty hinges, clamps, and pieces of twine — and when he died, we had to get rid of it all. We couldn’t give it away, and we couldn’t sell it, because sometimes we didn’t even know what it was or what it did.
He spent a lifetime collecting things, which he unfortunately couldn’t take with him. That would have saved us a lot of work because we had the unenviable task of disposing of everything he accumulated. In the end, we filled three dumpsters.
If he spent his money on rare coins, it would have more profitable. But his junk of preference was generally things like toggle bolts, locksmith tools, stamp machines, World War II memorabilia, pipe tobacco tins and … socks, which he bought in bulk at the flea market. You see, he didn’t have socks during the Great Depression and had to line his shoes with newspaper, so he vowed he’d never be sockless again.
Most of us eventually reach the age — although he never did — when you pause and look around at everything you’ve accumulated and wonder, “How did I get so much stuff? I know people in their later years who are still acquiring, and every time I visit them I wonder, “What’s going to happen to all these possessions when they croak?”
Nobody wants to be left with the responsibility of getting rid of someone else’s junk, whether it’s cheap junk or priceless junk. One of my co-workers has been struggling for months to sell her late father-in-law’s valuable art collection. It’s a lot of work and a lot of headaches, and the task keeps her up at night.
I confess that I’ve reached the stage when I regret wasting so much money on things I once thought were valuable, such as first editions, vintage cribbage boards and bric-a-brac that someone is either going to save, toss or sell for a fraction of what it originally cost. All that cash could have been spent more wisely on … wine, women and song or barroom brawls.
When I look at my library, which contains far too many books to ever read in this life, my cribbage boards (who plays cribbage anymore?), my antique landscape photos, and my fountain pens, I ask myself, “What was I thinking?”
I hope my kids keep some of the stuff — like the life-sized statue of St. Jude, patron saint of hopeless cases. But I have my doubts. That will probably be the first thing to go — after the life-sized statue of St. Anne, made in Italy. My only hope is to indoctrinate my grandkids about the virtues of junk collecting and then leave them the fishing poles, the saints, and the pens. As an introductory lesson, I’ll teach them to play cribbage and catch trout … and maybe stop at the flea market along the way.
Contact Joe Pisani at firstname.lastname@example.org.