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A woman, outfitted from head to toe in T-shirt, jeans, sneakers, fanny pack, floppy denim hat, and sunglasses stands on a manicured front lawn in Miami Shores. Balancing unsteadily on the balls of her feet, she cranes her neck and tries to steal a peek into the house -- a pretty yellow Fifties ranch -- through the picture window. She looks as if she might have stepped out of one of John Cheever's tales of suburban dysfunction. "I don't think anyone's in there," she worries aloud. But she's not concerned about the safety of the home's residents. She just wants in. And she's not alone.
Behind her, also standing on the lawn, or sitting in cars and vans out front, is an eclectic assortment of people: young and middle-age white couples, a group of Haitian women speaking Kreyol, an elderly Hispanic woman, a biracial lesbian couple, a black mother with her five-year-old son. The child wears a pair of oversize pink sunglasses, the kind they used to sell in corner drugstores all over the Beach. To pass the time, he plays with them, flipping them up and down over his eyes.
What could have dragged so many people out of bed so early on a Saturday morning? A ritual that unfolds every weekend in neighborhoods across Miami-Dade County and, for that matter, across the nation. We're here for a garage sale.
These sales may not be a local phenomenon but they take on special significance in a community that remains largely divided along cultural, racial, and political lines. Indeed one would be hard-pressed to name another event -- especially post-Elian -- where so many different segments of the local population are brought into casual contact.
Weekend home-repair warriors, looking for power tools or just keeping an eye out for a good set of wrenches, mingle with gay couples in search of furniture or something for that corner of the Florida room. Antique dealers, desperate to score some good Deco (or maybe just a nice little lamp they can resell for quick money) encounter retirees desperate to get out of the house.
Many of these people also might frequent the Hialeah-Opa-locka Flea Market or the Lincoln Road Antique and Collectibles Market, but few would visit both. Hialeah-Opa-locka is a swap-meet paradise, featuring everything from rusty lawnmowers to brand-new knockoff Levi's. Lincoln Road, on the other hand, mostly features antiques and collectibles and caters to dealers, collectors, and foreign and domestic tourists. Only at garage sales are the Hialeah-Opa-locka and Lincoln Road crowds thrown together.
Garage sales are more than just a way to meet your immediate neighbors. They constitute a form of suburban subversion, a thriving underground economy, and an unappreciated source of cultural exchange. It may very well be these aspects that make the act of going through other people's junk so damn attractive.
Garage sales are a relatively new invention, a byproduct of Fifties abundance. Essentially they're something our parents and grandparents dreamed up for getting rid of things they didn't want or could replace with something better.
The occasion for the earliest garage sales often would be a family's move from one house to another. The purchase of a new and, in many cases, larger home -- babies were booming -- provided an incentive to go out and buy more, newer stuff. Rather than lug the old stuff to the new house, families held sales. (This was long before recycling became fashionable.)
It was only after the recession of the late Sixties that garage sales came to be seen as a way for people to make a little extra cash off stuff they didn't want. And it wasn't until the early Seventies that the term entered everyday use and started appearing in magazines, newspapers, and, not coincidentally, municipal codes.
I began attending these sales around the time they were becoming popular, when I was about age eight or nine. My older brother was an antique dealer living in upstate New York. I'd visit him in the summers, and he would drag me around to garage sales, as well as to tag and estate sales. The last two are rarefied versions of the first, featuring pricier stuff.
Tag sales require a sniper's eye and a boxer's reflexes, as they involve making your way through a house and being the first to snatch the identifying ticket, or tag, off a given piece of merchandise. Estate sales, like tag sales, are professionally run, usually by an antique dealer, and just as competitive, but not nearly as exciting. At an estate sale, you just have to be the first to inquire about a piece. If you know your business, you can do that from across the room.
Most of the fun for me -- a kid growing up in a working-class home in Miami -- was walking through these different houses: large Victorians in little towns along the Hudson River, farmhouses in the Pennsylvania countryside, and cozy Connecticut cottages. These places had creaky stairs, wood-burning stoves, basements, and attics. And they were filled with things that suggested brave new worlds, and old ones, too: Victrolas, Flash Gordon comic books, Tiffany lamps, Civil War guns.