In college I majored in history, which was hardly a surprise since I always liked the past more than the future or even the present.
One example: When I was a little kid, the railroad station was a great gathering place for locals, and my father often took my brother and me there. He schmoozed with his friends; we just checked the place out, waiting for the high point of our visit, which was when the train pulled in.
I vividly recall when the first diesel locomotive came to the station. It was The Wave of the Future - all bright, shiny steel, streamlined and not belching huge cumulous clouds of black smoke. As soon as I saw it, rather than being thrilled by it, I found myself oddly sad, missing the old black coal train with its smoke, soot and steam.
Another memory, once again from my childhood: When outer space was "in," and Captain Video and Buck Rogers were the rage, all my peers wanted to be astronauts. Me, I wanted a top hat.
I even preferred the company of old people. And when I say old, I mean old: When I was in single digits, my favorite people to visit with were the McKillips, who lived up the street. I don't know how old Mrs. McKillip was, but I do know Mr. McKillip had served in World War I and was in his late 20s at the time.
I liked black and white more than Technicolor, radio more than TV and pocket watches more than wrist watches. And so on and so forth.
Why I'm like this, I've no idea. I only know, given the choice of some fabulous space-age technology made of unpronounceable materials or some old-time clunker, I'll go for the clunker every time.
This is why I became a childhood rummage sale addict, and will stay one into my dotage.
Advice to smart shoppers
I've read a lot of travelogues extolling the delights of the souks and bazaars of exotic lands, and I've even been to some - in Istanbul, in Jerusalem and all over India - but as different as those locales and their wares are, they're no more exciting than the Methodist church rummage sale, the library's white elephants during their book sale, or even a particularly fabulous yard sale. And if you throw the Budget Box, Dorsey Street Exchange and Another's Treasure in the hopper, you've got some world-class thrills a mere walk away.
Part of the appeal of course is getting a bargain (which, if you ever haggle with Mid-Eastern or Indian merchants, you will never get). But it goes far beyond that.
I think it's all about the allure of the unknown - you never know what awaits you, plus the wares run the gamut from vital necessities to total fripperies, with everything else in between.
But say you go to a rummage sale or flea market, comb over all the pickings and still can't find anything. Then what? Then nothing. Hey, you spent some time but no money. And even if you didn't find The Bargain of the Century, just look around you - someone else did, so the least you can do is share in their delight. And don't sweat it - you keep going to garage sales, consignment stores, flea markets, etc., and inevitably you'll be whooping it up with some primo score yourself.
Keeping your eyes and mind open is vital if you want to find a real bargain, but keeping your eyes open and your mind closed is just as vital if you don't want to get burned. And what things should you close your mind to? I stay away from any electrical appliance that's not in the original box, with all the instructions. Teflon-coated pans are also best avoided since they were probably chucked because their coating was shot. Most if not all things mechanical, and all microwaves are verboten. Hand tools are fine; electric ones are dubious.
The top scores
So now you might ask what are some of my favorite bargains? Well, since I've been at it over 50 years, it's a real struggle to narrow the list, but I'll give it a try.
On the necessary side, I've managed to amass a fine collection of Pendleton shirts. Years ago, you couldn't find them because people actually wore them. Now, most people don't wear wool shirts, so the second-hand market gets them by fits and starts. The ones in the best shape are those that someone put in the dryer by accident; not only do they tend to be relatively new, but because they've been shrunk, they've also been felted, so they're thicker and warmer than they originally were. Of course, for me to fit into a dryer-shrunk Pendleton, it had to start as an L or XL.
An intriguing item I got in the library white elephant sale when I was 11 was a little ceramic man in top hat and tails, maybe 2-and-a-half inches high. He was made in Germany, and his finish and detail are beautiful. But best of all, he came with a supply of tiny cigars which you put in his mouth and lit, and then he puffed away, sending a perfect smoke ring out every time. I was intrigued by him and still am.
One of my showpieces? A few years ago I was in Vermont and, walking by a consignment store, saw a plaster bust of Jimmy Durante in its window. Most people would consider it pure schlock, but I thought it was magnificent - it really captured the Old Schnozzokla's puckish personality perfectly. And best of all was the price - 20 bucks. When I handed the storekeeper the double sawbuck, he told me he could've sold it for at least 80 bucks in California. It was a perfect example of us dreck collectors: Although we can't even give away our schlock, we still believe someone, somewhere, is willing to pay a small fortune for it.
At a flea market by the boat launch about 20 years ago, I picked up a nice magic prop for a buck. It really was worth a lot more, but the guy who had the table had no idea what it was. I could've enlightened him, I suppose, but he was so delighted he'd finally found someone dumb enough to take the thing off his hands that I just couldn't spoil his fun.
My latest addition was picked up at our last Block Party, at the skateboard park table. I've always believed we should give our skateboarders a good park, and even though I didn't toss my last paycheck on their table, I wanted to give them something. So I stuffed some filthy lucre in the jar, and when I did I noticed something shiny on the table. It was a tie clip.
I asked the skateboard park's patron saint, Peggy Wiltberger, what it was doing there. She explained it came from one of the other people working for skateboard park - whose father had passed away, who'd given his tie clasps to the skateboard people, to sell for the cause.
I checked it out. It was about a perfect token of 1950s American manhood - an Esther Williams-esque woman in a one-piece bathing suit, arms and legs fully extended, in the middle of dive. It would've made a bishop break into a cold sweat. Of course I got it.
But then what? After all, I haven't worn a tie since my Bar Mitzvah.
Simple: I use it as a money clip. So now every time I have to part my hard-earned shekels, I get some consolation from my little bathing beauty.
So after a half-century of digging through other people's detritus, I must have found something worth a lot of money, right? Wrong.
But I have found a whole lot of fun times and funky stuff - something no one's ever been able to put a price on.