I Know Why The Caged Bird Goes to Yard Sales

Posted by Jenny in Guest Stars, Junk In My Trunk, Sale Tales | 7 Comments

It’s been ages since we’ve had a guest star come along! With Meghan out of town, my Portland pal Bonnie Ditlevsen came along for the ride. I warned her that October didn’t promise a whole lot in the way of sales, but she was still excited to have the Yard Sale Bloodbath experience, and kindly offered to write up the day’s report! Take it away, Bonnie …

The fall rainy season finally hit the Pacific Northwest, ending our unbelievable streak of heat-infused summer drought. Seattle somehow seemed like its old self as we got into Jenny’s car to check out some sales, both regular and estate.

First off, there was a fundraiser yard sale benefitting a preschool. Note the Seattle-savvy tarps and canopies!

Canopy covered sale

As we imagined, there were all kinds of ex-baby and toddler items, pint-sized wooden furnishings, and this bevvy of books in a tub indicating what happens to many women when they breed: The Expectant Father and the ever-scary What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Children’s Vaccinations followed by Danielle Steel, Mary Higgins Clark and Patricia Cornwell books (all now passé due to the fervor over Fifty Shades of Grey, I’m certain). These were sharing plastic-tub space with old Baby Einstein DVDs, Mom and Baby Fitness, and The Art of Aromatherapy. And alongside those, a couple of titles that gave me pause: Heart Full of Lies and If I’d Killed Him When I Met Him…. Slit my wrists now!

Mom books

Kudos to the kids selling drinks and crispy rice bars.

Snack area

I was eyeing a nice retro-ey set of wooden alphabet and vocabulary picture blocks for $5, and said to Jenny, “You know, for five bucks, it’s okay with me that there are a couple missing. “I count 26 blocks, Bonnie,” she said. “I’m sure you’ve got the alphabet covered.” “Oh,” I said. Hmm. So…why do they leave a couple out? Would the seven-month-old baby I was buying these for ever notice, or care?

I picked up on a mysterious European baritone accent under the blue canopy. After 12 years spent in four different regions of Europe, I like to think I’m rather good at pinpointing any European dialect accurately within 100 miles, but this guy? He had me really stumped. Just then, Jenny whispered: “It’s Furniture Guy!” Oh, how this made my Yard Sale Bloodbath day. To get to meet one of the characters from the blog, right off the bat like that? It was electrifying. “He’s some kind of European!” I whispered with excitement. Jenny said, “I never really noticed an accent. He’s just annoying.” “So he’s Annoying Furniture Guy?” I asked. “No,” Jenny clarified. “We just call him ‘Furniture Guy.’ You’re thinking of ‘Annoying Jewelry Guy.’”

I was impressed with Jenny’s reserve. I don’t get out much, nor am I the big shopper. So after getting the wooden baby blocks, I coveted a $2 stainless steel OXO utensil holder with rubberized base and several pricey metal spatulas of varying forms. A decent enough deal, I thought.

We then drove to Broadview, a gorgeous hill of ’50s- and ’60s-era homes north of Ballard. I admired the sweeping views of Puget Sound and all the successful and well-tended landscaping of the homes. Yet I was puzzled by strange signs that read, “Arterial Ends Here.” We have no such signs in Portland. I asked Jenny, “Does that mean it turns into a vein?”

Our estate sale looked busy; there was even a line. Jenny pointed out that under normal circumstances, she wouldn’t waste precious morning yard sale minutes waiting in a line, and so we decided to check out a nearby sale. But Jenny warned me once we saw its sign: “Balloons are one of the telltale signs that a yard sale might suck.”
Balloons are present

Ruh-roh! There were the balloons, all chipper and flowing in the breeze. I spotted some ugly, Boomer-style golf clubs right at the front of their carport.

Carport sale

A woman was selling mostly kitchen items and clothes. She needed to slice her prices by about 80%, but who was I to tell her that? She lives in a house in Broadview, and I don’t. Rich people don’t stay rich by giving things away for free. But one item caught my eye, and wasn’t horribly overpriced: this lovely red enamel griddle with panini-making lid for $5.

Cast iron panini maker

I wanted it. I wanted it bad. But I also wanted one textured-fabric black skirt, too, and this delusional woman had priced it at $10. Crappy purses Jenny looked through were $15, $20, or more. Her overpricing actually started pissing me off about buying anything at all from her, even the panini griddle. I started making some dumb small talk about The Surprise Chef on PBS, how he would use two heated cast iron pans, one on top of the other, to smoosh marinated chicken pieces into grilled, crispy perfection. The woman didn’t give a shit. We left, me babbling about the panini pan, Jenny swearing that the lady would have every single item still in her possession the next day.

As we approached the estate sale, we noticed men scurrying to and from their cars, like leaf cutter ants, loading ’50s- and ’60s-era merchandise. They shot furtive glances at one another and at us, like anxious squirrels in autumn. The house had enormo windows upstairs and on the basement level, all overlooking gorgeous Puget Sound. We had to stand there in a really long line that simply did not move. It got ridiculous with the big, fat windows we peered into showing that there weren’t all that many people inside. What did they think we all would do? Shoplift? Still, it was while peering in those megawindows that I noticed the insanely overpriced stickers all over everything. Items had not one, but three, four, even five stickers covering them: $55 for some lousy end table. $175 for a weird retro lamp — that I coveted, but still. $28 for some dumb bronze statuette.

Statue with 4 stickers

This place was betting on all of us yard sale saps to show up on the opening day and pay their doubled, tripled and quadrupled prices out of fear, and the peer pressure of standing in line with no way to buy anything.

View from the porch

So we stood there, wasting our precious lives, watching the human squirrels come and go with their purchases (Latin plural: “purchi”), hearing the occasional disgruntled remark about the cashier’s utter rudeness. Was this going to be the Estate Sale Soup Nazi? One man who exited the heavily guarded door said this as he emerged, head turned back at her: “I was just making sure I wasn’t the guy you were yelling at.” Niiice.

I noticed an abandoned coffee cup wedged into the shrubbery. Many of us felt a bit like that coffee cup. Then I saw a plant that looked just like marijuana, but Jenny assured me it wasn’t.

Not a pot plant

A couple of people in front of us left the line once they saw the inflated numbers on the little red-orange neon price stickers. Yay for moving up, any way we could! I snuck off to peer through those windows again. Red-orange stickers on everything, multiple times each. It certainly looked as if some obsessive type, or perhaps a person with delirium tremens in both hands, had applied those stickers to everything. I felt the strange lure of a yellow plastic toy horse that contrasted so nicely — so Swedishly, really — with the house’s slate blue exterior. The horse just seemed, well, special. My sons are 12 and 9, too old for such an item. But I wanted it.

Yellow horse in the window

Jenny was getting increasingly bored and annoyed. “Why do they only let one person in? It’s empty in there!” But on the front door, there was an aggressively masking-taped, explicit set of rules & regs. (Cash only! You haul larger items! No wire hangers!!!)

Warnings and rules

There was also a list of numbered signups that went all the way to #63 and included the names of people who’d come by early … some in the wee hours of the morning like 3:15 AM!

3:15 AM

A couple of men in front of us, whose native language and origins I couldn’t discern (Armenia? Georgia? Afghanistan? Azerbaijan?) began joking around with us. They’d heard me whine about somebody buying my yellow horse out from under me. One of them jokingly told me he’d buy it, then sell it back to me at a higher price.

It had been more than an hour, and we began wisecracking about the Art Deco hand-shaped doorknocker and the woman behind the door who guarded the estate sale like a junkyard dog.

Hand door knocker

A lady behind us picked up on our merry banter. When one squirrel-like dealer exited, then entered, then exited again, hauling his purchases, she wondered out loud if he was a dealer, or if maybe he worked at Microsoft. She got bold on his fifth trip, and asked him both questions. “No,” he insisted, to both. “Maybe he just has good taste,” I said, which he heard, and actually turned around appreciatively to smile at me about. Is this the way to flirt in Seattle? Compliment some dude on his good taste in buying overpriced, Boomer-era crap? Maybe.

Finally, we were allowed in. Whew! Right away, we realized why we hadn’t seen people through those massive front windows: the house itself was labyrinthine, and a cornucopia of fascinating old merchandise of all kinds awaited us. Vintage clothes. Portraits. Furniture. Shelf items. Books. Collectibles. These people had traveled the world, and must have been some sort of ethnic Scandinavians, too, judging from all the music and story books in Icelandic. I picked up a couple of Norwegian and Icelandic little flags for a buck apiece, and grabbed a mug with a 3-D raptor’s head poking out over the handle for my crazy sons.

We were mesmerized by this bizarre 3-D puppy portrait (it’s hard to see, but the heads were puffed out in a trippy manner):

3-D puppy picture

And this naked doll with multiple price tags stuck to her, right next to a cash register. It looked like some anti-human trafficking ad sponsored by the ladies of Hole.

Creepy doll display

Jenny couldn’t take her eyes off of a vintage Creepy Crawlers set with metal molding plates, but didn’t want to spend $35 on it. I spotted this gorgeous old Danish doll — just like one from my girlhood. Did I want it for $32? Um, nope.

Danish doll

I went down to the basement to the spot by the window where my beloved yellow plastic horse had beckoned me for well over an hour. Gasp! It was … gone. My heart sank. Then I realized that maybe, just maybe, the friendly and joking Armenian/Georgian/Afghan/Azerbaijani guy ahead of us had gone and grabbed it just to make a practical joke. I hoped so. But where was he? More and more people now were allowed in, and I got lost in the labyrinth. We made it to a room in the basement full of old music stands, sheet music, and miscellaneous books and papers.

Win a Brand New Fall Suit

We also spotted this frightening portrait (I wish I’d noticed how much they were asking!)

Odd portrait

And around the corner … surprise! There was my guy, yellow horse and all. “I saved it just for you,” the man beamed, and I laughed a full belly laugh and thanked him for his very good deed.

Jenny was delighted by this exchange, but pointed out, “Bonnie … what do you want with a $16 yellow plastic horse?”

“Oh,” I said, “nothing, really. I have no use for it. It just looked so special sitting in the window of the blue house while we were bored shitless in line.”

“So … why buy it?”

“Because of the guy.” I didn’t want him to see me abandon the thing, not after all that merry banter.

Reason won out, though. Sixteen bucks for a dopey yellow plastic horse? I figured I’d spend the money more wisely buying us some pho for lunch.
Overhearing our decision to ditch the horse, a nice lady before us in line for the register whispered about the Estate Sale Soup Nazi, “She’ll make you put it back where you got it, you know.” Jenny, by this point, was OVER this sale, no matter how fascinating some of the items wound up being. “I’m not fucking putting it back,” she said to me as an aside. She set the horse high up atop a filing cabinet, where it stared out at Puget Sound.

And it wasn’t too out of place there. There was a myriad of oddball vintage toys spread out on a table near the register.

Cute li'l guys

Toys on table

I couldn’t wait to hear and see the Estate Sale Soup Nazi lady in all her rude glory. I figured I’d stir the pot a little by asking if, as an Oregon resident, I could please be exempted from Washington sales taxes. This meant forty cents in my case, but it’s the principle. “Sales tax exemption doesn’t apply to estate sales,” Rude Lady told me in a cold voice. “At least I asked,” I smiled at her. Jenny got a little Ratfink charm and a couple of vintage monster art cards for her husband. They were all unpriced, and she was fearing the worst, but pleasantly surprised to only be charged a dollar for the bunch.

Our next adventure took us to the enclave of Magnolia, to yet another estate sale. We loved our first glimpse of the lavish lifestyle this formerly-alive-and-well couple must have enjoyed. Trips galore to Russia, Holland, and Egypt! Collector plates and spoons from all states and presidents! Hummel figurines! (Even a Hummel nun’s head!)

Nun head

I loved how you could take such places as Saint Basil’s Cathedral and the Notre Dame de Paris home with you in your carryon, for posterity.


These little figurines were a reminder of who truly built America. Not my generation, that’s for damn sure, though we enjoy blogging about it!

The men and women who built America

There were just so many collector’s items and souvenirs from everywhere that I started thinking about it. Would I someday wind up like that? In assisted living, surrounded by a few items of collectible crap while, back at the house my kids were liquidating out from under me, some snippy yard sale bitches were having a righteous laugh at my expense? Should I become a Buddhist, maybe? Follow the four-fold then eight-fold path, and aspire to not own so much shit? Sigh. I pondered this while looking at more and more and more realms of stuff.

Space souvenirs

Creepy horse

International Records

Big-eyed Christmas tree

Jenny got all crazy-claustrophobic in one bedroom, seeing this Wall of Shelf Objects and Stuffed Animals from Hell. Yikes!

Terrifying stuffed animal room

I almost thought she might need to buy some of this ancient liquor and pour herself a shot of Caffe Lolita or Pineapple Liqueur.

Used booze (tropical blend)

In another room, we found this stack of a frighteningly-named item: Wee-Wee Pads. Complete with possible picture of the puppy who wee-wee’d on them.


And that wasn’t the only dog … this guy was taped up to the wall of the downstairs bathroom.

Bathroom bulldog

I got all giddy when Jenny pointed out a Pepsi bottle with Cyrillic writing! Later that night (at 826 Seattle, in a performance with Verbalists) I would be reading from my 1989 memoir story of traveling from Munich to Moscow via Berlin. I was THERE around the time these estate sale’s elderly folks must have been! They might have bought and actually drunk from the $1 bottle, in Russia. Or not — I know that when I was in Russia, I’d have given my right arm to drink something other than nasty rye bread kvass or sickly-sweet port. Pepsi, no matter the funky writing on the label, would have been a welcome sight.

Then we encountered a chatty, friendly old guy who was walking around the estate sale carrying a huge bird cage housing his sulfur-crested little parrot!

Man with caged pet bird

At first I thought he had bought the cage or bird there, but pretty quickly we figured out he lived down the street and was using his pet bird as a conversation starter. “I like to take him out around the neighborhood,” the guy said, holding up the cage to us. “He likes meeting new people.” It was sweet, and somehow I felt he’d beaten me to the punch. After all, I’m the Portlander, not him. I was supposed to put a bird on it, right? Seattleites, always outdoing Portland. At least now I know why the caged bird goes estate sale-ing!

And the best thing? The estate sale cashier at this second place answered my sales-tax-for-Oregonians question honestly. “Just show me your license and I’ll jot down your address, and that way, you save ten cents off the $1 Pepsi bottle,” she said, friendly and helpful as all get-out. I didn’t make her bother, but was happy to have confirmation that the woman from the first sale was not only rude, but a baldfaced liar to boot.

Jenny and I had a $13 day overall. A day of fun and laughs, with a bit of rudeness and frustration for good measure, and a whole lot of cool old stuff no one really needs, but a surprising number of people will stand in line to paw through.

Junk In My Trunk 10-13-12

A hearty salute to Bonnie for riding along to sales, resisting the siren songs of the yellow plastic horse and the red panini pan, and making it out with her wits intact. And for saving ME from having to recap this questionable, yet entertaining day!

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