Apropos of the coming Mardi Gras, this weekend was a parade of estate sales, fun sales and sad sales, sales that stank to high heaven, those of low income and high treasure and those of great wealth and insipid taste. From Thursday to Sunday, thirteen sales total, with ESC’s recurring guest star Mike Haeg on Friday, and special guest star Holly Petersen on Saturday. Despite hitting the magic thirteen, I still missed three more. Never, never in my many years of wandering the estate sale circuit have I seen so many sales in a given weekend.

This calls to mind lyrics from the official theme to Estate Sale Confidential, the White Stripes’ “Rag and Bone”, especially the part where Bone (Jack White) politely leaves a home that has rejected him, and begins his journey across what we should consider Detroit.

If you don’t want it, we’ll take it, if you don’t want to give it to us, we’ll keep walking by. We’re not tired, but we got plenty o’ homes we ain’t been to yet, on the Westside, Southwestside, Middle East, rich house, dog house, outhouse, old folks house, house for unwed mothers, halfway homes, catacombs, Twilight Zones…

Funny, but the journey through these homes makes you realize how each of them is like a little Twilight Zone episode. That show could be chilling, it could be thought-provoking, it could be puffed up with liberal self-righteousness, it could be sweet and homey, or just downright funny.

My first sale was on Thursday, and it was easily the most impressive, and mind-boggling of the whole weekend. This was a totally beat up, red two-story in the Lyndale neighborhood, 32nd and Pillsbury. At first glance you’d think the yard was choked with dead, brown weeds. A bit true, but closer inspection revealed that the occupant, a lovely lovely woman named Cynthia, who died in 2010 of brain cancer, had made her lawn into a tangle of wildflowers. Some of the merchandise for sale was littered throughout the back yard, and men were poking around back there through the dead flowers, in front of a dilapidated garage, and it had the unsettling effect of looking like cops trying to find a body.

Equally unsettling was the smell. My first thought when I stepped inside was, my God, did they discover the body here? And just days ago? There was a penetrating odor that hit you like a wet fist, a sour smell that followed you everywhere. This is an estate sale, folks, and so when an aroma you can’t place hits you, your thoughts tend to wander to the morbid. Well, it turns out that my arrival, at 11:00, was near enough to the lunch hour for the good folks who ran the sale, who were cooking a steaming cauldron of cabbage soup. Each person–and I mean every damn employee–was happily slurping up this soup, in every room of the house. Now, I do enjoy cabbage soup, and once I figured it out, well, it became cabbage soup and not the desiccated body of some helpless woman. But boys and girls, if you’re cooking for your date, don’t make cabbage soup.

Cynthia seemed like an amazing woman. She was a model who fought for the rights of models in town, creating a modeling union as it were, and was an artist and friend to artists here in town. Here home was terribly run down–the floorboards were as rough as if horses had trod them, the paint flaking everywhere, and she didn’t appear to have a stove or fridge (there was an old, unworking Vulcan stove for sale.) Looking over a place like this (and with that fucking cabbage smell) you wouldn’t think the stuff would be any good–it should all reek of mildew, right?

But no–everything smelled fine, the books were worn from a great deal of love and use, there were art prints, old dolls, strange paintings and drawings (including that fascinating mermaid piece at the top of the article.) Winding your way through the maze of her house, filled with books and art supplies, it seemed to me to be a place where a fascinating woman worked and expressed herself, and I’d be willing to bet had others here to work and play and crash all the time.

What weird and wonderful stuff she had! The girl enjoyed classic comic books, for I found a copy of a 1969 Krazy Kat album, out of which fell the utterly charming portrait of the girl you see above (not Cynthia.) She also owned a weird little paperback history of the comics, All in Color for a Dime. Cynthia obviously laughed, as evidenced by the Marx Brothers books I glommed, and she must’ve had kids visiting, since there were some neat children’s books, including William Steig’s mouse dentist epic Doctor De Soto. There was art all over the place, beautiful black and white photographs, and even Marlon Brando watched over her roost.

But what was most inspiring to me, and most touching, was the chalkboard in Cynthia’s office. I assume it was her office–there were tons of artists’ supplies, a drawing desk, and it was flooded with brilliant light that looked out on her backyard. There, written on the chalkboard, who knows when, was what amounted to an obituary of sorts. None of the obituaries I found reprinted this, so I will do it here [sic]. Where there are ellipses the text was wiped away.

I have:

Stood in Chartres Cathedral, walked through the Cote d’Or, listened to the Mozart mass while driving into the mountains at 3 a.m., seen the Perseid meteor shower on the Wyoming plain, slept nestled with my dog on a winter night, wore silk against my bare skin, looked out over Pisa from its tower, walked across the Pont Neuf at 1:00 a.m, body surfed, stood in a Redwood forest, eaten magnificent Chocolate, seen all of Rembrandt’s etchings, finished a NY Times Sunday crossword puzzle, owned a fine fountain pen, eaten bread + brie in Venice, seen the Northern lights flashing in the North Dakota… teacher rejoiced in the strength… read good books, had a best friend… marbled… smelled fresh…

This humbles me beyond words. Perhaps more than any other sale I have encountered in my years, I wish I had known this person.

Thank goodness for the cathartic emptiness of the next sale, at a hyper-clean Edina townhome. I’m not even sure the individual died, since half their place was off-limits to the public, and it was filled with chairs and household items. Guess what? You could buy that person’s case of golf trophies. No kidding.

Friday was a serendipitous day for Mr. Haeg and I, since work conspired to keep him from joining me on the circuit… at first. Since he bailed, I decided to spend the morning wrestling with this fucking novel that will no doubt drive me to suicide or multiple murder… uh, I mean, I decided to write that morning at my favorite cafe, Bob’s 33 on Lyndale. Well, not a half an hour into my awful, soul destroying work, when who should appear but Mayor Mike, who counts Bob’s as a favorite haunt as well. From Mt. Holly and St. Louis Park we converged in the same odd place. Rod Serling could have been smoking and watching over us the whole time.

Our first stop was a swank condo that faced Lake Calhoun, the home of a former NSP magnate and his wife. I don’t think they had children, but they did have many, many portraits of themselves hanging throughout the house. There was lots of stuff, but nothing Mike and I wanted. Since they printed the name of the dude in the paper, I’ll reprint his name here in the form of a joke from the Mayor. Holding a brass name plate that read “A. S. King”, Mike said, “Say, how much are you asking for this?” Nyuk, nyuk. Later he added, “I bet his brother Joe gets a lot of grief.” But they did let me keep, free of charge, a little perpetual calendar bookmark that goes from the 18th century to 2059.

From there we headed south, to the Tangletown neighborhood, and the beautiful home of the man who loved William Wegman. Not like romantically (though maybe that’s there, too), but the dude had tons of framed Wegman posters that made me cringe (I hate that guy’s stuff.) A really clean, pleasant place, in a dark wood two-story home with dark green walls and pristine wood trim. Lots of nice books, including a pile of design magazines that the Mayor plundered. I walked away with some great books, too, and a pair of metal tie racks to hang the excessive amount of vintage ties I’ve been collecting.

From there it was another home in Tangletown, on Emerson, this one a smaller, postwar bungalow, without much shit, except for a sweet copy of Bill Mauldin’s Back Home (I have a copy that smells like death, so I’ll bury that one and keep this copy.) If you want to read about the conditions that led to the postwar malaise that in turn led to film noir, you need to read Back Home, an amazing book.

But I digress: we came away with little from that sale, though Mike did find, for the new blackboard wall in Mt. Holly, a “Senator Noiseless Chalkboard Eraser.” I assume that means it’s a Senator brand, but Mike chimed “He’s my favorite politician.” Supposedly it was dustless, but the clouds that were produced just by picking it up belied that claim.

We hit lunch at the weird little Shantytown Burger joint in Bloomington (great), and then nabbed another silly sale in Edina, and then one in the Sheridan neighborhood in NE Minneapolis. We got there with ten minutes to go, and man, this place truly did smell like death. The poor folks who ran the sale certainly wanted us gone, if only to leave that dismal place, a small two-story sandwiched between a run down apartment complex and a dead-end alley. Seriously, this place creeped me out–the smell, which again was penetrating but not of life-affirming cabbage soup, made the both of take gasps of air upon exiting. The basement looked as if it was a good place for a murder.

This article’s getting a bit long in the tooth, so I’ll say that Saturday saw Holly, Janice and I wander from strange sad homes in Minneapolis, including a Powderhorn home that was filled to the rafters with children’s items, including a creepy bowl of clowns. This poor woman, newly remarried, died suddenly in her late 50s, without the reason mentioned in her terse obit. But she seemed to grab every cheap toy she could for her kids, and these looked, sadly, like recycled Salvation Army stuff at times (there was cleaner stuff as well.) Holly scored with a toy Space Shuttle Columbia.

And so we hit five sales: another tiny little bungalow just down the way from the weird toy house, of a former postman who had a pile of cheap N scale model trains, a warehouse sale in Hopkins that yielded a really strange, thatched hardcover of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (illustrated in a WPA-style by Lewis C. Daniel, and not really worth more than the three dollars I paid for it, though it’s cool as hell), and we all got a chuckle out of the riding crop for ten bucks (which we all passed on.) Holly said, “It’s gettin’ pretty Norwegian over here”, and it was true–lots of books and Scandinavian bric-a-brac. From there it was a couple of clean sales, one of which had a charming little boy who was working and running about trying to see if anyone needed any help, needed him to write you up. Lastly we drove to Wayzata to a sale that was clearly not an estate sale, but some dipshit collector trying to unload his giant pile of Chinaware, including, oddly enough, this ugly moon landing plate for six dollars.

In the end, Janice ended up with some school supplies (calculators for a buck are always a good buy), a doll, tons of books including the Talisman Italian Cook Book, and Gramps, a sad, sad, book of photographs about a young man taking care of his dying grandpa (that Dad used to own and lost), some neat postcards, and other emphemera. Nothing incredible, really, just some fun stuff to add to the pile.

But the prize this weekend, as you can well imagine, was Cynthia’s chalkboard. Like one of the beautiful dreamers who wander through the Twilight Zone universe, I think she was someone who, despite her tragic circumstances, left a circle of friends and family with a wealth of stories. And though I did not buy her chalkboard and take it home with me, I get the feeling I’ll carry it with me for a very long time…

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  1. Curt says:

    I think that the woman riding the fish is kinda hot . . .

  2. Curt says:

    Peter, if you have never seen Jack White’s guitar movie, It Might Get Loud, check it out immediately.

  3. kiki says:

    So this tour of estate sales is why you couldn’t bring Sammy to dialysis. Good for you! Your reference to Maulden & film noir’s birth reminded me of something. Did you see Ides of March movie w/ George Clooney? We saw it on Red Box Monday & I was convinced 1/2 way thru it was going to turn to noir w/ the young teenage intern bringing down the self-righteous liberal candidate & his goody-two-shoes aide. But instead it went mainstream derivitive Hollywood & I lost all interest. I did return it to Cub w/ 30 seconds to spare before being charged extra fees. We also watched Moneyball & liked it alot.

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